FOR YEARS, Heidi Waldrop's life revolved around Hostess fruit pies and Haagen-Dazs, often consumed - along with whole pizzas and bags of donuts - in one sitting.

But when you weigh 330 pounds and you feel embarrassed about how much you binge, you sometimes have to develop certain evasive strategies.Waldrop's techniques included her adroit McDonald's Maneuver: As she approached the front of a fast food line, without skipping a beat, she would mutter something like, "Let's see, what did Sharon and Victoria say they wanted? Hmmm." Then she'd pause, as if she were trying to remember what the fictitious Sharon and Victoria had asked her to order. Oh yes. "I'll have a small Diet Sprite and an order of french fries. For the others, a small Diet Coke, a chocolate milkshake, a Big Mac and two orders of fries."

After downing these items, alone in her car, she would drive to a grocery store to stock up on more. Pepperidge Farm cookies, Doritos, Dr Pepper - she could finish these off before she reached her destination.

"I couldn't go very long without a fix," she explains.

For more than 20 years, Waldrop has been a compulsive overeater. Food hasn't been nourishment or something convivial to share with friends, but a substance, something to be abused and, according to Waldrop, something to be addicted to.

"Fat people are told to just get some discipline," she notes, but when the pounds compound for a compulsive overeater, it isn't that easy.

Waldrop, a former BYU student, is author of "Showing Up For Life: A Recovering Overeater's Triumph Over Compulsion." She is now "in recovery" in the same kind of 12-step program used for addictions such as drugs and alcohol. She was in Salt Lake last week as part of a cross-country tour to spread her message: that compulsive overeating "is really about abusing food to push down feelings."

Early in her childhood, says Waldrop, she learned that certain feelings, like anger, sadness and frustration, weren't acceptable in her home. So when she started to feel bad - when her needs were lost among the competing needs of six siblings - instead of actually feeling bad, she would eat.

"A Big Mac is always a Big Mac," she explains. You can't always rely on people, and you can't always rely on life to do what you'd like it to do, but a Big Mac, or a pizza or a Twinkie or a Sara Lee cake, is dependable.

And if you eat enough of them, pretty soon you'll feel so numb you won't feel any pain at all, she says.

By the time Waldrop was 15 she weighed 250 pounds. By the time she was 29 she weighed 330. Today, after four years on a 12-step program of recovery, she is down to 170.

"I'll always be a food addict," she says. "If I'm depressed, I'll always want a piece of cake. The difference is that, before, I didn't even feel the sadness or the fear or the anger, I just went for the cake." Now, she says, she "sits with" her emotions instead of trying to escape them.

Mike Gifford of West Jordan knows all about escape. Abused sexually by a babysitter when he was 5, and raised in what he terms a dysfunctional family, he turned to both food and sex as a way of avoiding emotions he thought he shouldn't have.

Sometimes, he says, "I just open the fridge and stand there. I'm looking for something but I'm not really hungry. I'm looking for something to deal with what I'm feeling, and sometimes I don't even know what I'm feeling."

Although not all experts on eating disorders classify compulsive overeating as an addiction, they do recognize the threat it poses. It's not as immediately dangerous as anorexia and bulimia, notes Dr. Jane Blackwell, director of the Eating Disorders Unit at Wasatch Canyons Hospital. "But the long-term consequences on the body are serious."

Like anorexics and bulimics, says Mike Gifford, compulsive overeaters don't feel good about themselves. "They think: `If you knew me like I knew me, you'd hate me like I hate me.' "

Gifford says he uses his obesity to keep people at a distance, trying to keep them from seeing how "ugly" he is inside. "But the paradox is that I'm creating on the outside what I'm trying to hide on the inside."

Gifford, who weighs 285, is in recovery for his sexual addiction but has not yet tackled his overeating. "But I'm willing to be willing," he says.

"I know this is a slow form of suicide. I just hope I can learn to love myself before I destroy myself."

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Parents can foster healthy attitudes in kids about food

There's hardly a parent alive who hasn't rewarded a child's good behavior with a cookie, but this and other behaviors can send wrong messages about food, says Dr. Jane Blackwell, director of the Eating Disorder Unit at Wasatch Canyons Hospital.

In observance of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Oct. 22 through 28, Blackwell and Wasatch Canyons dietitian Kathy Oakeson offer these suggestions to parents as ways to help avoid such abuses as anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating:

- Be careful how you criticize your own body. Kids pick up on this overemphasis on looks.

- Set a good example: eat wisely, talk about food as fuel, exercise an appropriate amount.

- If you must diet yourself, pick a sensible diet. Don't starve yourself and then binge.

- Avoid rewarding children with food.

- If your child is involved in dance, gymnastics or sports, don't emphasize thinness. These activities are about having fun and feeling good.

- Don't keep hidden stashes of sweets; avoid the message that sweets are "forbidden fruit" and should be eaten secretively.

- Above all, allow children to express their feelings; foster their self-esteem.

Activities planned for Eating Disorders Awareness Week include free lectures (at Brigham Young University on Tuesday, Oct. 23, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; at Wasatch Canyons Hospital on Wednesday, Oct. 24, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.; at Weber State College on Wednesday, Oct. 24, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.; at the University of Utah on Friday, Oct. 26, from noon to 1:30 p.m.)

Oct. 26 is "Fearless Friday," a day, says Blackwell, to "eat without fear." The idea, she says, is to become aware how much food is an issue in our culture, and how an overemphasis on dieting can lead to eating disorders.