My name's Jane, and I'm a COMPULSIVE OVEREATER; Inside the secret world of Overeaters Anonymous.
IN a basement meeting room in London, a group of people are waging a secret battle.
They range from their early 20s to their mid-60s and have different back grounds and jobs and come in all shapes and sizes. But they all have one thing in common: an obsession with food.
Each week more and more people arrive, desperate to overcome their demons and lead a healthier life.
But this is no diet club. Hidden away under Chelsea and Westminster Hospital is Europe's largest meeting of Overeaters Anonymous.
Its members have seen their lives and families torn apart by their eating habits. Some suffer from rheumatoid arthritis as a result of their obesity. Many are underweight because of bulimia. Others confess that years of abuse has left their digestive system ravaged. Many have tried therapy or have been to rehab.
This group is their last hope.
ADDICTION With the NHS groaning under the pressure of the obesity crisis, the organisation offers a different approach. Overeaters Anonymous works on the basis that overeating is an addiction. But rather than drink or drugs, the substance of choice is food.
A 27-yeaold woman addresses the room with the words, "Hi, I'm Jane and I'm a compulsive overeater." She has had bulimia since she was 15.
"Like alcoholism, compulsive eating is an illness that's on you all the time. And like any addiction it's very secretive," she says. "I will eat my din ner with my boyfriend and daughter and then sneak food upstairs to eat on my own. As a teenager I would eat and then go out and buy replacements so my parents wouldn't know.
"I've eaten my daughter's Easter eggs and biscuits and then had to tell her I don't know where they've gone."
People around her nod in recognition.
Another woman in her 40s describes sneaking off to the movies to binge.
"The cinema used to be my crack house," she says. "All that sugar and a dark room to consume it in... it was perfect."
There are 6,700 OA meetings world wide with a total of 54,000 members. The Chelsea meeting was established 20 years ago and attendance regularly tops 80. Public access to meetings is rare but the Sunday Mirror was given special permission to attend.
Anonymity is a founding principle and we have agreed not to identify anyone fully. According to the organisa tion, 95 per cent of members are com pulsive eaters. Sixteen per cent are also bulimic and nine per cent are anorexic.
In the UK there are more than 100 meetings each week. Attendance is free and no medical referral is required. Members follow the same 12-step plan as Alcoholics Anon ymous.
'I've Easter biscuits about Eating disorders are usually treated with a combination of medica tion and therapy. But health organisations are starting to explore the idea of treating overeating as an addiction. In October 2012 the eating disorder organisation Beat got a PS300,000 grant from the Department of Health to set up a national network of sup port groups for binge eaters and people who compulsively overeat. So far, OA is run entirely from the dona tions of its members.
Banker Luca has suffered from bulimia since he was 20. It took eight years of failed therapy and stints in the Priory clinic before anyone told him about OA.
"I went every Sunday for six months and then one day I woke up and realised that all these other people were getting better but I was dying," he says.
eaten my daughter's Eggs and then lied it to her' JANE, 27 "I'm 5ft8in and weighed 32kg (5st) at the time. So I said to myself that for just one day I would copy what they were doing. That meant eating three meals a day with nothing in between and taking it one day at a time. And it worked." He has now been "absti nent" for 11 years.
There is little sympathy for people who overeat. People think if you're fat it means you're greedy. But it's clear that greed is not high on their list of concerns. A woman in her 40s fights back tears as she talks about her suicidal thoughts. "I actually wrote suicide notes," she says. "I knew what I was going to do, I'd researched it. The only thing that stopped me was trying to write a suicide note to my nine-year-old son."
PRESSURE She had been "clean" for several years, but the pressure of caring for her elderly father knocked her off the wagon. She bought a load of junk food and sneaked off to devour it.
But the release she sought did not mate rialise.
She contem plated buying more, but decided to call her sponsor instead. 'An eat-Chinese disaster... don't to stop PAUL, "I seriously believe she has saved my life," she tells the group.
Sufferers often feel their problem is not taken seri ously.
Paul, 38, agrees. "I went through a long period of my life thinking I was just a bit fat and a bit greedy and a bit lazy... that's just how I was," he tells me. "And most people in my life agreed with that."
Paul is proof that compulsive over eating can affect anyone. With a suc cessful business in London's Mayfair and a new fiancee he is not the sort of guy you'd expect to find here.
"For me it's Chinese food or Indian," he says. "An eat-all-yocan buffet is a perfect storm of disaster because I simply can't stop. I will eat until I physically can't eat any more. It's just endless eating until you physically can't get another morsel into your body."
The feeling of powerlessness in the face of food is something all OA members have in common.
For overeaters it doesn't happen just once in a while... it happens every time they eat.
you-can buffet is a I simply when eating' 38 Jane says: "A good description of com pulsive overeating is that on Christmas Day everyone overeats and feels stuffed. The next day, they don't do it again. If you're a compulsive eater, you do. Every day." She says going to regular OA meetings is vital. "You need other people to relate to so you realise you're not alone."
DO YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH FOOD? Do you eat when you're not hungry? Do you go on binges, sometimes eating until you're stuffed or even feel sick? Do you eat sensibly in front of others and then make up for it when alone? Do you have feelings of guilt, shame or embarrassment about your weight or the way you eat? When your emotions are intense do you reach for food? Do you chew gum or feel the need to have something in your mouth all the time such as mints, foods, sweets or drinks? Have you ever used laxatives, vomiting, diuretics, excessive exercise, diet pills, shots or other medical interventions (including surgery) to try to control your weight? Have you ever eaten food that is burned, spoiled or out of the bin? Are there certain foods you can't stop eating after having the first bite? Do you spend too much time thinking about food, arguing with yourself about whether or what to eat, planning your next diet or exercise cure, or counting calories? ?If you tick three or more boxes and think you need help, find out more at www.oagb.org or contact Beat on 0845 634 1414 or visit www.b-eat.co.uk 41% of Overeaters Anonymous members say their issues with food began before they were 10 years old 26% of the UK population is now classified as obese 6%of people in the UK describe themselves as compulsive eaters 16% of UK children under the age of 16 are classified as obese
'An eat-all-you-can Chinese buffet is a disaster... I simply don't know when to stop eating' PAUL, 38'I've eaten my daughter's Easter eggs and biscuits then lied about it to her' JANE, 27
Francesca (centre) attends a meeting of Overeaters Anonymous