For most of her life, food was the cornerstone of Ann's existence. The youngest of the five children of a prosperous African Methodist Episcopal bishop in Detroit, she recalls that he and her mother were usually busy, but "if nothing else, we could always eat together."

And eat they did. The meals were sumptuous, the food abundant and her parents felt a sense of pride in being able to provide for their children.

"They grew up poor and black and they were determined to make it better for us," she says. "With them, it was a point of honor to have enough food on the table. The meals were balanced, but we were always allowed to have a treat, and most of the treats were things I now call junk.'"

Even as a child, Ann always ate more than anyone else, trying desperately to satisfy a hunger that she now says "was for much, much more than food." Long before she reached her highest weight -- 238 pounds on a 5-foot-5 frame -- she realized that she is what doctors and psychologists now call a compulsive overeater.

Like thousands in the District and surrounding communities, and millions across the country, Ann just could not stop eating. Some liken the disease to alcoholism, and a group that uses the same principles as Alcoholics Anonymous -- Overeaters Anonymous -- has been successful in helping many compulsive overeaters recover.

Experts vary on the reasons for compulsive overeating, but one local psychologist, himself a compulsive overeater who asked to remain anonymous, said, "It's a way of dealing with anxiety which usually begins very early in life. A person who is unable to deal effectively with others, or who is prevented from relating effectively during childhood, may routinely consume excessive amounts of food instead."

After years of dieting, pills, frustration and tears, Ann heard about OA five years ago and has since lost -- and kept off -- 100 pounds. She says that although she will never be model-thin, she is content with her appearance and now wants to help others, especially blacks, through OA.

"We don't have the level of participation in the black community that I would like to see," Ann says, suggesting several reasons for this.

"To begin with, many black people don't know about OA, or if they do, they think we're just another white diet club, which isn't the case.

"Then I think a lot of blacks may have the fear that I did when I first attended an OA meeting -- that there won't be another black person there and that there won't be anyone else there who is as fat as they are."

Dr. Lysle S. Follette, medical director of family health services at Hadley Memorial Hospital in Southwest, says for many blacks who overeat and suffer from obesity, the problem is cultural.

"As blacks, the foods that we get a lot of -- that we choose a lot of -- contribute to our health problems. The main components of soul food -- fats, starches, refined sugars and a lot of them -- are at the root of the problem," said Follette.

Changing these patterns -- giving up the gooey desserts, the fried chicken and ham hocks -- is no simple mater, Follette admits.

"Many blacks don't like anything but meat and potatoes," he said, "and generally, we aren't taught to add other things to the diet. The vegetables blacks eat are few and far between, and when we eat them, they are usually overcooked and highly seasoned. But people have a hard time with suggestions to severely modify their eating habits . . . It's not enough just to know what's good for you, you have to believe what you know."

He adds that overweight is not the only way in which a heavy, nutritionally unsound diet manifests itself. Many other black health problems -- including stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease and gall bladder problems -- are related to improper nutrition.

But the problems of obesity and compulsive overeating extend far beyond the black community to almost every group of people.

Roberto is a Catholic priest, and a compulsive overeater. One of the worst moments in his life came when a fellow priest opened the door of a large walk-in closet and found him eating his way through a chocolate doughnut binge. Hiding and eating was part of his daily routine.

"But I felt so ashamed," he recalls. "It was as if I was the only fat person in the world. If you said a cross word to me, if I was angry or depressed, if the Redskins won, I'd just start stuffing food into my mouth. And after the first bite, I was powerless."

At one point, he became so disgusted with his weight that he tried a crash diet -- and fainted one morning during mass.

At 6-feet-2 and with a large bone structure, Roberto can carry more weight than most people. But the 343 pounds he dragged to his first OA meeting were more than even he could bear.

"I never ate breakfast and usually only a light lunch. I just couldn't bring myself to eat when other people were around," says Paul of his pre-OA days. "But I'd go home at night and eat a pound of hamburger while I thought about what to make for dinner. Then around 9 or 10 at night, I'd eat two 1-pound steaks, a batch of fried potatoes and a big salad. Around midnight, I'd bake a cake and eat the whole thing before I went to bed."

He later figured out that this pattern, which lasted for more than a year, was worth 10,000 to 15,000 calories a day.

On the nine months since he joined OA, he has slimmed down to 250 pounds and would like to lose 20 to 25 more."I never was one for going to doctors about my problem," he said, "because all they know to tell you is 'push away.' I even had one tell me that I was hopeless and that I was probably going to die. But that doctor, like much of the rest of the world, looked at overeating as sloppiness, not caring about yourself. He just didn't understand."

But there are those who have recognized the compulsive overeater has an illness and taken steps to treat it as such. The Navy, long known for its success at rehabilitating alcoholics, has had what many call a model program since 1974.

According to a spokeswoman, the program was initiated when Navy medical personnel recognized the many similarities in the behavior of the alcoholic and the compulsive overeater.

The rehabilitation program is based on the Overeaters Anonymous program, and their literature, along with information about how to form OA groups, is given to Navy personnel. OA was chosen because of the high AA success rate in the Navy and also because "it gives our people a lifelong, healthful, free program which they can practice anywhere in the world," the spokeswoman said.

In addition to OA, counseling and special diets are available for those who need them.

"We realized that we've simply got to change the way we look at people with the eating problem," she said. "They are not weak-willed, immoral gluttons. They are people with a health problem who are very much in need of our help and understanding."

(Persons wishing to obtain more information about Overeaters Anonymous should call 451-8855.)