By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Oct 05, 2010 at 4:37 PM

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This year, Overeaters Anonymous (OA) celebrates 50 years of helping people overcome food issues. The organization started in California in 1960, and today, services approximately 54,000 people in 75 countries. In Milwaukee, OA has 40 meetings every week and has about 500 members.

"We’re proud of how far OA has come in the last 50 years and the thousands of people who have found recovery and fulfillment because of it," said Naomi Lippel, OA’s managing director. "We look forward to increasing public awareness and providing hope and resources to those who continue to suffer from this disease."

The organization is open to anyone who struggles with compulsive eating. Symptoms associated with an unhealthy relationship with food include obsession with size or body weight, eating binges or "grazing," diet obsession, starvation, excessive use of laxatives, inducing vomiting after eating (bulemia), overuse of diet pills, inability to stop eating certain foods after taking first bite, food fantasies, constant preoccupation with food or using food as a reward or comfort.

"We believe that compulsive eating is a progressive illness, one that, like alcoholism and some other illnesses, can be arrested," reads the Web site.

Overeater’s Anonymous uses a 12-step program that was adapted from the program used by Alcoholic’s Anonymous (AA). Although God is referenced in a few of the steps, the group claims  it is not a religious society and that it accepts members of any faiths including agnostics and atheists. It is, however, a spiritual program that’s based on individual interpretation of a higher power.

The organization also has "12 traditions" to help members succeed. These traditions include unity of the group, a love for God, the desire to stop eating compulsively and anonymity.

Meetings usually open with the serenity prayer and the format is a little different at every meeting. However, all meetings have the same goal: to help individuals recover from food compulsion physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Sometimes, a guest speaker shares his or her experience battling and overcoming food addiction and group members talk openly about their personal issues. Members are entitled to a sponsor that they can contact via phone or e-mail when in need of support.

Karen Theil lives in Illinois now, but attended OA in Milwaukee in the late ‘80s. She says the program helped her shed almost 100 pounds.

"I was not much of a 'joiner,' but I was desperate," says Theil. "I hated my body. My husband didn’t care about my size and yet I destroyed our marriage because I was so unhappy with myself. OA was therapy for me. It helped sort out some issues that needed to get sorted out so I could get over my food issues."

Theil says she has a "sad childhood" and her mother used food as a comfort device. Once she got a handle on the connection, Theil was able to slowly untangle her emotions from her eating. The process, she says, took four years.

"When my dad would let us down, my mom would take us out for ice cream or burgers," says Theil. "I actually remember eating in the back seat while my mother cried in the front seat."

It is free to attend OA meetings, and there is not a formal membership. Donations are always accepted and at some meetings there’s a "passing of the hat." The only requirement for OA membership is the desire to stop eating compulsively.

"Remember, there is no shame in admitting you have a problem; the most important thing is to do something about it," reads the Web site.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.