Unlike last year when he ate "platefuls and platefuls" of Thanksgiving dinner, Truman, a 300-pound man, carried a tiny bowl of pomegranate seeds to the seasonal celebration to supplement his single helping of turkey this year. They were to be his sugarless cranberry sauce in disguise, and a reminder that he is a dangerously compulsive eater.
"Thanksgiving for me was rough, rougher than I thought it would be," said the 40-year-old Prince George's County man who is a college English teacher. "It's always been a gigantic pigout for me."
In past years, he said, he could not stop eating potatoes and pie, even after nibbling at the preparations during the day until he was stuffed full.
Like thousands of other compulsive eaters, Truman reached out to Overeaters Anonymous this Thanksgiving for the moral support to get past the turkey stuffing, mashed potatoes and candied sweet potatoes that precede the pumpkin, apple and mincemeat pies, that then precede the leftovers.
And more importantly, he reached out to get past the uncontrollable feeling that food had replaced spirit as the most important holiday ingredient.
Thanksgiving through Christmas is the toughest period of the year for compulsive overeaters, say members of the group, which has grown from 10 to 107 meetings a week in the greater Washington area since 1975 and has more than 100,000 members nationwide. Styled after Alcoholics Anonymous, the group provides support for members, who use only their first names. The local meetings vary from three to 50 members.
Karen, 30, is an OA member from the District who said she found the holidays difficult and joined the group shortly after Christmas two years ago. "All the other significance of the season was getting lost," she said. "What I was going to eat, who was going to fix what, that's what became important."
"I had finally reached rock bottom right after the holiday," she said. The problem is that when the holidays were over "everyone else stopped eating so much but I couldn't. I was eating constantly, was severely depressed . . . . I felt out of control, felt insane."
To cope with the holidays, OA is sponsoring a retreat this weekend in Germantown at which 50 members will discuss such topics as fear, meditation, "abstinence around normal eaters," and body image.
"It does gear people up for the holidays," said Claire, organizer of the retreat, who weighed 300 pounds when she started in the program 5 1/2 years ago and has since lost 110 pounds. "And it gets people away from the leftovers."
While most members believe foods such as sugar and refined flour should be banned from a diet because they set off imbalances that inhibit the body from telling itself when to stop eating, others are able to cope with them in moderation. "Some of them just blow up and I feel so sorry for them," said Ella, a 78-year-old woman who weighs 115 pounds, is 4-feet-10 and has been in OA for seven years.
Learning to be moderate was why many compulsive overeaters adapted Thanksgiving dinner to the fortitude of their willpower. Some members went out to dinner to avoid the allure of the day-long preparation. Others left the stuffing out of the bird and the potatoes in the bag. Truman avoided the hors d'oeuvres, "especially the tiny quiches," and brought boiled apples and apricots for a sugarless substitute for dessert.
Although food seems such a harmless substance, said Sonja Lange, program manager at the Eating Disorders Unit at Washington Hospital Center, compulsive overeaters can endanger their lives with their habit.
Binge eating -- grossly overeating in short time periods -- becomes an addiction with compulsive overeaters, she said. "Bingeing is usually an excuse for some people, like alcohol and drugs."
"I had a year-long binge," said Truman. "I would sit down at a table full of food . . . . I call it the 'compulsive clean plate syndrome.' I would not only clean my plate, but clean the table. Leave me with it long enough and I'll eat it . . . . We're talking about as much as was there."