For well over the past two decades, I have had the privilege of being professionally involved with people who suffer from many types of eating disorders - compulsive overeating, bulimia, binge eating disorders, as well as some forms of anorexia. Very often I’m asked whether joining OA and “working the steps” holds the same promise for someone suffering with compulsive overeating, bulimia or a related eating disorder as it does for people who have benefited from similar groups such as AA [Alcoholics Anonymous].

My response has consistently been a resounding “yes.” With the exception of some forms of anorexia where the compulsion to overeat is not part of the picture, people with varying “flavors” of eating disorders all have in common a sense of “powerlessness” central to all addictions. A lesson from our alcoholic cousins in AA notes “it’s not so much how often someone drinks or how much but what happens to them when they pick up a drink”. Likewise, for a “food addict”, it’s not a matter of how often or how much, or for that matter how overweight or underweight they may be, but the unmanageable life resulting from an addictive relationship with food.

One of the most prevalent “misconceptions” about OA is that the goal of recovery, and hence the only symptom of addictive diseases related to eating, is solely about changing your size. To be sure, most members experience a significant change in their weight as a result of ending their addictive relationship with food. However, not all compulsive over eaters are overweight and many people who “purge” after binge eating or alternate between restrictive diets and overeating do not suffer with the symptom of obesity.

In my experience, the poorest way to define an eating disorder is to base the diagnosis upon what someone weighs. Add to this the tendency for many to measure recovery only in terms of weight change [e.g. loss] rather than the improved quality of life resulting from working a recovery program, and you begin to understand the difference between a “diet club” and a life-way often referred to as recovery. Indeed, as a professional working in the field of eating disorders, OA offers more than a support group for people who want to “look better” – it offers an opportunity for members to achieve monumental changes in their lives that would not otherwise be possible by traditional means of treatment alone.

What separates OA from being just another “diet” or “weight loss” group is rooted in the 12-steps. Inherent in these principles are the primary elements needed to recover from an addiction. Indeed, OA, like it’s cousin, AA, seeks to remedy the three cornerstones of addiction – the physical, emotional, and spiritual damages resultant from addictive disease.

In sum, Overeaters Anonymous offers an opportunity for people of all sizes and shapes to meet on the common ground of searching for a way out of the abyss of food addiction. As the director of a treatment center for eating disorders, having our patients participate in OA meetings and encouraging them to continue with meetings when they return home, is the difference between helping them find a brief reprieve from their disease and offering them a long term solution.

There are many professionals and treatment programs that do good work. They offer people an opportunity to regain their footing in order to begin their recovery journey. However, like professionals who have worked with alcoholics and addicts, those of us familiar with eating disorders know that OA and the steps offer something that no single professional or treatment program can provide – long term recovery from a “seemingly hopeless condition.” (*)

(*) quoted from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous

Marty Lerner, Ph.D. is Executive & Clinical Director of Milestones in Recovery. For more information, visit

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Lerner is the executive director of the Milestones in Recovery Eating Disorders Program located in Cooper City, Florida. Dr. Lerner is a licensed and board certified clinical psychologist who has specialized in the treatment of eating disorders since 1980. He is the author of several publications related to eating disorders appearing in the professional literature as well as numerous magazines and newspapers. A member of the professional community here in South Florida since finishing his training, Dr. Lerner makes his home in Davie with his wife Michele and daughters Janelle and Danielle.