As in years past, Karen Dorris (not her real name) looks forward to all the festivities of the Christmas holiday season. But she has changed her thinking in how she approaches her food choices and eating habits. She says her focus this past holiday season was on being with family and friends, and not on food. That is a new perspective for her.

As in years past, Karen Dorris (not her real name) looks forward to all the festivities of the Christmas holiday season. But she has changed her thinking in how she approaches her food choices and eating habits. She says her focus this past holiday season was on being with family and friends, and not on food. That is a new perspective for her. Karen is a recovering food addict and leader of an Overeaters Anonymous group (OA) in Eureka, Missouri.
“When I would go to a party,  all I could think of was the food. I would obsess about it,”she said. “I was obsessed about what they were going to have;can I eat without people noticing?;if I go back for seconds, is anybody going to see that? Food and how much I could get of it was the whole focus. It was awful.”
However, after entering OA, that self-loathing slowly began to wear off. Karen realized that she wasn't alone in her struggle with compulsive eating.
Overeaters Anonymous is a 12-step program which follows the model of Alcoholics Anonymous. Members meet regularly and follow a program which works to get to the heart of the addictive problem and put the addict on a path to recovery.
“In OA, you admit your life is out of control and you surrender to a higher power,” Karen said. “I had God in my life before, but working the steps of OA put shoes on my faith.”
Sue Mitchell (not her real name) tells a similar story. She has been in an OA group for 26 years.
“Before OA, I was spending my whole day thinking about eating. I was obsessed with when I was going to eat next and what I was going to eat next.”
She said it got to a point that it was interfering with her work as she was constantly running to the break room to see if there was anything she could get.
“After lunch in my building's cafeteria, I knew desserts would stay out until 2 p.m., so I made sure too get one before they packed up, and at 4 p.m., I was back downstairs at the vending machine.”
Sue added that she was a “yo-yo dieter” during this time in her life.
“I would go on these diets that I would find in a magazine and lose 15 pounds, and then I thought I could go back to my normal eating. I would start eating my favorite foods again, and I would gain more weight than when I started.”

Here in Phelps County, obesity reflects the percentage of the same percentage as the state—33 percent. Missouri has the 10th highest obesity rate in the nation according to “The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America,” and the trend is ugly. In 1990, Missouri’s obesity population stood at 11.3 percent, rising to 21.4 percent in 2000 and finally, today’s 32.4 percent.

One-in-three of our citizens has a problem with obesity. It’s a prevalent problem that has been increasing nation-wide according to Jodi Waltman, retired health administrator for Phelps/Maries Counties and now with Your Community Health Center, in Rolla.

Waltman says the factors that lead to obesity are complex depending on where you want to focus.
“There is a lot of concern about how we subsidize the food industry,” she says, starting with a big picture cause. “The grain and sugar industries get subsidies, but produce providers (fruits and vegetables) do not. Healthy foods are the most expensive, even when they’re canned. The cheapest foods, if you’re shopping on a limited income, are the foods that are the most processed. These generally have higher sugar, salt and often, higher fat content.”

It’s not just about the food itself, she notes, but the chaos of information given to the consumer trying to improve their diet. Waltman says, the media picks a small food-health related story simply for the headlines. Who doesn’t want to know about more studies that show the benefits of red wine or chocolate? Where are the headlines about broccoli and Brussel sprouts?
“If you only look at the small studies, you will get different viewpoints and different recommendations,” she says.
“It’s easy for the public to discount healthcare information when they keep hearing these conflicting messages. Everyone knows what a healthy diet is—whole grains, fruits and vegetables and limiting meat, dairy and fat intake.”
The problem is we don’t follow what we know to be good for us due to a myriad of reasons. Waltman points to a long-standing trend within our culture—eating out—particularly at fast-food restaurants. “In my grandmother’s day, that was a special treat. It’s been estimated that 30 to 60 percent of the food we eat is purchased already prepared,” she explains. “Few people are cooking at home anymore. Re-heating food is not cooking. There’s no control of the sugar, fat or the salt that goes into that food.”
She says many studies show we develop cravings for those. “And just because I may have bought low calorie cookies, it doesn’t mean I can eat the whole box [in one sitting]. You’ve got to look at portions.”

Another favorite misconception that is tied to the way we justify our choices is the “trade-off” rule. It states that if we run a mile during the day, we have earned a fried chicken-mashed potato with gravy dinner.

“The majority of weight-gain is tied to what we eat,” states Waltman emphatically. “It takes a phenomenal amount of exercise to make up for a bacon cheeseburger.”

Once regarded as sustenance, eating has become a reward system to satiate our cravings quickly—one that can blind us, time and again, to the deleterious effects of a poor diet. This can be linked to a population that has too little or too much.
In the case of too little, particularly with a region like Phelps County that has a household median income of $35,000, scarcity controls the decision making process of humans according to Waltman.
“It doesn’t make any difference if the scarce item is money, time or food, we will often make quick decisions that are not in our best interest,” she says. You don’t have to be poor—it’s just our human nature.”

Eating at least three times a day or more is an opportunity to make good or bad decisions on a daily basis. The outcome of the choice between a turkey sandwich sans mayonaise versus the cheeseburger deluxe with fries is triggered by how we feel at any particular time of day.
“Our culture views food as “comfort”—a balm to our soul,” Waltman says. She adds that it is learned behavior, from childhood associations, such as mom fixing chicken soup when we were in bed with the flu. “Whether we are ill, depressed or stressed, we gravitate towards comfort foods, and they are not normally low fat.”

She has nothing but empathy for people struggling with weight challenges. “A lot of heavy people work very hard to lose weight. The problem is, once you have gotten into obesity, your body fights you. We’ve only had a few decades of plenty where we weren’t staving off starvation. Our metabolic system and brains are wired to stave off famine. Once we gain a certain weight, our body will actually change our metabolic rate to how we burn fat, lowering our metabolism to keep us at that weight.”

Waltman says it is difficult to re-adjust once a person becomes obese. “The body keeps striving for a certain weight, to re-set what has become the new “normal.””
 She would be the first to advocate a healthy diet and exercise for weight maintenance as we age, but has opened the door for medical research that is striving to produce a medication that will have a beneficial impact on re-setting an obese person’s metabolism.

“The best advice to lose a small to moderate amount of weight is to do it slowly,” she explains. “A goal is to lose one to two pounds a week. Moderately reduce your intake and moderately increase our exercise. Also, get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. You get a better metabolical rate with adequate sleep.”

What about Sue Mitchell from the OA group and those like her that are still struggling to maintain a healthy weight that fits their body makeup?

For 16 years now, Sue has maintained a 60-pound weight loss thanks to OA.
Sue said that the food that would trigger her to compulsively eat were baked goods.
“At Christmas time, I can remember I would bake and bake for days for family and friends, of course. In reality, though, I was the only one eating it all up.”
With another holiday season come and gone, both OA advocates, Sue and Karen have no fears of falling into old habits. They have a plan.
“I do not plan my meals around a party,” said Karen. “I eat before I go unless it's a dinner party. But even then I know my limits. I know that I can't have even a sliver of pie because I will want it all.”
Sue added that she eats the same food at roughly the same time each day, and she eats healthy foods now.
“I eat what my body needs, not what I want,” she related. “I feel so much better on so many levels.”
Karen noted that the difference between a normal eater and a compulsive eater is the emotional and spiritual attachment that an overeater associates  with their favorite food. She explained that sugary treats  and sweets seem to be the predominate problem foods. However, that isn't always the case.
 “ I would eat a family- size bag of microwave popcorn alone every night,” she said.
“Some would say, “How could popcorn be that bad?”, and they are right. But for me, a big bag of popcorn was my way of dealing with life. I was eating to avoid my feelings. This was more than just a self-control issue. I couldn't stop.”
In Rolla, an OA group meets on Monday and Thursday nights at 6:30 p.m. at Christ Episcopal Church. Karen would encourage anyone who thinks they might have an eating problem to attend an OA meeting.
“I always share my story and tell people that if resonates with them, come to a meeting. They are free. If hearing the stories of other members seem similar to yours, come back and start working the 12-step program. We are here to help.”
For more information of Overeaters Anonymous visit www.oa.org