The holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving festivities poses a test of will for millions in the United States who struggle with compulsive eating disorders.
Pat — whose last name isn't being used in this story — helps facilitate meetings for Overeaters Anonymous Inc. in Traverse City and counts herself among the 4 million people the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services classifies as binge eaters, one of several compulsive eating disorders.
"Certain foods, once I start I can't stop," said Pat, who has gone to Overeaters Anonymous meetings for more than 16 years. "Once I realized that certain foods were like alcohol for me, I had to stay away from them."
That's why the 30 family members who gather at her home to celebrate Thanksgiving today won't find any brimming bowls of regular potato chips, one of the trigger foods that stimulates her eating woes.
Overeaters Anonymous works on a 12-step program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, and like AA insists on anonymity for those who participate and attend their meetings.
The keys are accepting a problem and accepting the fact of not having to confront it alone; and accepting the idea of a higher power, Pat said.
For Pat, that higher power is God, but others don't believe in God, though they can still find a higher power.
"It's just realizing I can't do it alone," she said.
Dana, who considers herself a food "grazer," said compulsive overeating is a disease comparable to alcoholism.
"I grew up in an alcoholic home and I use food like my father used alcohol," Dana said. "In a way it seems more acceptable than other addictions, but it's more hidden."
Both women said the overeaters group helped them overcome problems of overindulgence during the holidays. The key has been to find strategies that work for them and plan their response in advance.
But they know many others struggle: those who have admitted their problem and those who haven't done so.
"A lot of people really see the intensity of their compulsion or their obsession over the holidays, because it's raw and right in front of them," Dana said.
A lot of compulsive eating is tied to emotions that are plentiful during the holiday season, from stress to love, said Laurel Najarian, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator at Munson Medical Center.
"The holidays are really hard for people," Najarian said. "There is food everywhere. It's tied so much to the holidays, the love and the family, it makes it really difficult for people."
Najarian suggests those who believe they have a food compulsion look into weight control programs at Munson or consider a support group such as OA.
To find out more about OA and its meetings, go to www.oa.org.