"Natasha" is a member of Overeaters Anonymous promoting the international day of experiencing abstinence. Photo: Jay Cronan
She is slim, confident, outgoing - and a member of Overeaters Anonymous in Canberra. Outward appearances count for little though.
Natasha (not her real name) says food has been an obsession since she was a child. She would hide lollies, chips and chocolate, and gorge on them. She waited for others to leave the house so she could eat way beyond feeling full, way past feeling sick. But she was not overweight because she was an active child.
Natasha could think of little else but getting and eating food. It was never one biscuit - it had to be the whole packet.
''It's the act of it. I'm not even hungry. It's just shoving the food in to fill some sort of hole inside, this emptiness inside. Food was a comfort for me,'' she said.
An insecure child with an alcoholic father, Natasha never felt comfortable with her appearance.
Now in her 50s and a health professional, she has been a member of Overeaters Anonymous for 24 years. It follows a similar 12-step program as Alcoholics Anonymous.
The organisation runs four meetings a week in Canberra. The program is described as spiritual because it is about filling a void in people's lives, but it is not religious.
Natasha stays with the group to keep on track but also to encourage others. She says: ''People go because of their relationship with food. Some are underweight, some are normal weight, some are overweight.
''One of the sayings is, 'You come for the vanity, stay for the sanity'. People might worry about their appearance but it's really about wanting to find peace and to not think about food 24 hours a day. And when you don't have that self-hatred, you have better relationships with people.''
Members were compulsive overeaters. Some ate frozen or burnt food or food from off the ground. Others would drive for kilometres in the middle of the night to find and eat food. As strange as one story could be, there was usually someone else with a similar tale to tell.
''Identification is the really powerful thing you get from OA,'' Natasha said.
Christmas is a critical time for overeating and in the lead-up to it members of Overeaters Anonymous worldwide have marked an International Day of Experiencing Abstinence (IDEA) on the third Saturday of November since 1992.
Natasha said if people could get through one day abstaining from overeating, it might encourage them to keep going. She said she was once overweight but had shed about 20 kilograms since joining OA. And she has not touched chocolate in 21 years. ''That was my bottom-line binge food, but I don't feel deprived. I'd much rather have the freedom of that clear head space.''
Natasha celebrated her birthday last week with a slice of gluten-free carrot cake and gave the rest away. ''It's my birthday and I'm going to have cake,'' she said with a laugh.
Canberra Overeaters Anonymous will host an International Day of Experiencing Abstinence event on Saturday at the Baptist Church hall in Currie Street, Kingston, from 3pm to 5pm. Visitors are welcome.