Following the success and popularity of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), many other “anonymous” groups have formed to help people suffering from a wide variety of addictions. Founded in 1960 by Rozanne S., Overeaters Anonymous (OA) has helped people cope with disorders such as compulsive eating, binge eating, bulimia, and anorexia ever since.1 Overeaters Anonymous is based on the same 12-step modality as AA, but the tenets and focus have been modified for issues surrounding an unhealthy relationship with food.
Overeaters Anonymous acts as an important resource for people recovering from a variety of eating disorders and is based on a 12-step program framework in which attendees gradually progress from Step 1 to Step 12 as they advance through recovery. The group provides a safe place for people who suffer from compulsive overeating—or any eating disorder—to voice their thoughts, opinions, and experiences without judgement and to receive support from people who understand their struggles.
Overeaters Anonymous is open to teenagers and adults, men and women, and there are no dues or fees required to join or attend Overeaters Anonymous meetings.2,3 It is not a weight loss group and there are no weigh-ins, meal plans, or exercise programs related to the program, nor is it affiliated with any political parties, religious groups, or public or private organizations.3,4 Anyone who has difficulty controlling their eating habits is welcome at Overeaters Anonymous.
Can Group Meetings Help?
While behavioral health and mental health tend to overlap, and many organizations substitute one term for the other, distinct differences do exist between the two. Many people with behavioral health issues have co-occurring mental health disorders or underlying traumas and emotional issues that contribute to their maladaptive behaviors. Read More
What to Expect at Your First Meeting
A typical Overeaters Anonymous meeting is composed of men and women who share a common problem: compulsive overeating or an unhealthy relationship with food that manifests as an eating disorder. Groups usually consist of 3 to 30 people, but the average group size is 9 members.4 Some members have attended meetings for years, while other members are new to the program. The program is welcoming of new members and encourages people who are just beginning their journey to recovery to try attending an Overeaters Anonymous meeting without fear of commitment or judgement.
Like most 12-step programs, Overeaters Anonymous meetings begin with a recitation of the Serenity Prayer.4 Every group is different, so some meetings ask all attendees to join in the prayer, while others have a group facilitator alone recite the prayer to the room. However, Overeaters Anonymous support groups are not religious groups, and members of all religions are welcome to attend meetings. The prayer is followed by the reading of Our Invitation to You, a text that describes the problem of compulsive overeating and the 12-step solution.4
Next, group members speak about their experiences, how the past week was for them, or how their dysfunctional eating habits have affected their lives.4 Every meeting is different, however. Sometimes, Overeaters Anonymous meetings will feature a guest speaker—someone who has gone through a period of compulsive or disordered eating and found a way to conquer the condition and lead a healthy, happy life.4 Other times, there is a main topic of discussion in which group members are asked to share their thoughts, opinions, and experiences.4
It’s important to remember that Overeaters Anonymous is, in fact, an anonymous group, and your identity will always be kept confidential.
If you are new to an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, you will be given a chance to introduce yourself to the room, if you choose to do so.4 It is important to remember that Overeaters Anonymous is, in fact, an anonymous group, and your identity and the things you share with the group will always be kept confidential.4 Most people at Overeaters Anonymous meetings choose to share only their first name in order to feel more comfortable speaking about their personal struggle with the disorder of compulsive eating.
If you decide to continue in the Overeaters Anonymous program, you may request that one of the more seasoned members of Overeaters Anonymous become your sponsor. A sponsor explains the fundamentals of the recovery program and shares their experience with the program with you, and is available to provide personal support whenever you need it. Having a sponsor is like having a mentor, so it is important that you have good communication and feel comfortable explaining your goals, struggles, and triggers to them. It is completely normal if it takes attending several meetings before you meet someone who you would feel comfortable with being your sponsor.
In some meetings, a list is passed around for group members to write down their names and phone numbers, which enables members to support one another in between meetings. For instance, you may want to reach out to another group member for help when an urge to overeat hits. You are not required to add your name or number to the list, though; it is entirely optional.
Length and Frequency of Meetings
Most Overeaters Anonymous meetings last between 60 and 90 minutes. Some support groups meet multiple times per week, while others meet once per week. If you would like to attend meetings more often than a single group provides, you may attend more than one OA meeting. Most big cities have multiple group meetings held at several different locations.
You may attend any number of groups that you like because the priority is your wellbeing. Attend meetings as often as you feel necessary to get the support and guidance you need to stay healthy.
Can I Only Go If I Overeat?
No. Overeaters Anonymous is often used as a tool to help people who are suffering from complex disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, so anyone who has experienced compulsive eating may attend. Often, overeating or undereating is a precursor to a more serious behavioral health condition, so it is crucial that you get help when you recognize that there is a problem.
Overeating may be a sign or symptom of an underlying mental health condition. It is important that Overeaters Anonymous members be aware of related conditions so they know what to look for and when to seek help from medical, mental health, or behavioral health professionals. There are 6 eating disorders listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5):5
- Pica: A compulsion to eat non-nutritive or nonfood substances such as soil, paint chips, chalk, laundry detergent, or cornstarch.
- Rumination Disorder: Repeatedly regurgitating food in the absence of any medical condition or other eating disorder.
- Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder: A failure to meet the body’s nutritional demands that is not caused by cultural practices, a lack of food availability, or another eating disorder.
- Anorexia Nervosa: Restriction of food intake resulting in a significantly low body weight and associated with a distorted body image.
- Bulimia Nervosa: A recurring pattern of binge eating and compensating behaviors, such as excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, fasting, or laxative abuse.
- Binge-Eating Disorder: A recurring pattern of eating to the point of discomfort and feeling unable to control or stop eating.
Compulsive overeating is often assumed to occur exclusively in individuals who suffer from bulimia and binge-eating disorder, but people can engage in compulsive overeating without having one of these disorders. If you struggle with a different food-related condition and would like to attend a 12-step group that specializes in the same condition, there are other programs you can join, including:6
The Role of 12-Step Groups in Recovery
While physical wellbeing often seems to be the main focus of the 12-step program, the program also addresses emotional and spiritual wellbeing.4 Research has shown that Overeaters Anonymous helps each person in a different, but significant way. A 2010 study was conducted on three focus groups with 20 members of Overeaters Anonymous.7 The study participants were asked:7
- How does Overeaters Anonymous help people?
- What are the most important aspects of the Overeaters Anonymous program?
- For whom does Overeaters Anonymous work?
- What role does Overeaters Anonymous play in your life?
- What is the most important thing we need to know about your experience with Overeaters Anonymous?
Researchers found that the participants expressed many common themes. For example, the participants largely agreed that people often come to Overeaters Anonymous when they are in one of two situations: either they have tried everything else and are simply desperate for some help in controlling their compulsive eating; or they believed they had an abnormal relationship with food that no other group or source of help could understand.7 Hence, the participants felt that Overeaters Anonymous was a place where they could be around like-minded people who were struggling to overcome the same problem.
The participants also reported several Overeaters Anonymous–specific tools that they found helpful in recovering from compulsive eating.7
Explicit Overeaters Anonymous tools that were touted as being highly beneficial were:7
- The wisdom of the 12 steps and other group members.
- Writing or journaling.
- Reaching out to others when you are struggling.
- Daily readings. Attending meetings.
Other implicit benefits derived from an Overeaters Anonymous setting included:7
- The opportunity to connect with others.
- Feeling a sense of community.
- Having success stories to model oneself after.
- Giving and receiving honest feedback in the group setting.
The study also found that most members felt that the 12-step group program treated more than just the problem that initially brought them to Overeaters Anonymous.7 Many Overeaters Anonymous members felt that while the 12-step program did help them overcome problems with compulsive eating, the program also helped with other life problems.7
Research and participant testimonies have shown that 12-step programs are beneficial tools in helping a person overcome a behavioral health or mental health problem in the early days of treatment and throughout life. Overeaters Anonymous is a resource for people who are just starting to recognize the problem of disordered eating, as well as those who are looking for a good aftercare program that will keep them on the path of abstinence. Overeaters Anonymous is a program that treats the entire person rather than just the presenting condition.
- Overeaters Anonymous. (2014). In Memoriam: Rozanne S., Founder. Overeaters Anonymous: 1929-2014.
- Overeaters Anonymous. (2016). Young Persons.
- Overeaters Anonymous. (2016). Program Basics.
- Overeaters Anonymous. (2016). What to Expect at an OA Meeting.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
- 12-Step.org. (n.d.). 12 Step Groups.
- Russell-Mayhew, S., von Ranson, K. M. & Masson, P. C. (2010). How does Overeaters Anonymous help its members? A qualitative analysis. European Eating Disorders Review, 18(1), 33–42.