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What is Compulsive Overeating? | Man looking out window
January 5, 2022

What is Compulsive Overeating?

Call 855-875-5812 to get help with an eating disorder.

Compulsive overeating is eating an excessive amount of food but not because of hunger. When someone compulsively overeats, it is often an unhealthy and ineffective way of avoiding or distracting from difficult emotions or situations. Though engaging in compulsive eating behavior may provide some short-term relief, ultimately it often brings physical and emotional distress, as well as feelings of shame, anger, anxiety, or fear related to food. This blog describes compulsive overeating, including its relationship to eating disorders and its common characteristics.

What is Compulsive Overeating?

Compulsive overeating is not an eating disorder diagnosis, but instead a behavior that is present in several eating disorders, including binge eating disorder (BED), bulimia nervosa, and OSFED. Those who are affected by bulimia, for example, may engage in overeating and then purge afterward. Overeating is usually seen in BED if there aren’t any purging behaviors. Bulimia and BED both present with feelings of lack of control around food.

A person who struggles with compulsive overeating may eat an overwhelmingly large amount of food in a short period of time, or they may “graze,” eating throughout the day even when they aren’t hungry. The compulsive eating often happens in secret, as do experiences of secretly fantasizing about food that are not uncommon. Once a person is engaged in compulsive overeating, the initial “high” may settle and the person may notice feelings of self-loathing, disgust, and guilt. Restriction or dieting may follow, setting up a cycle of eating disorder behaviors.

All body types can struggle with compulsive overeating. Many warning signs accompany the disordered eating behavior, such as weight gain, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and personality disorder. The experience could present medical complications, including fatigue, diabetes, hypertension, or heart disease.

Characteristics of Compulsive Overeating

Compulsive overeating is often overwhelming, just like many other disordered eating behaviors. Here are six common experiences of individuals who struggle with compulsive overeating:

1. A preoccupation with food

When a person struggles with compulsive overeating, they often can’t stop thinking about food. The type of food differs from person to person, but it’s often food with a lot of flavor—for example, food that is high in sugar, fat, or carbs. In other instances, it’s simply whatever food is present. The mind is constantly hyper-focused on food and eating.

2. Feeling powerless when eating

There is a feeling of being out of control when it comes to food with compulsive overeating. Some may even experience “blacking out,” or not being fully present when eating. What may have started as a handful of snacks, for example, could turn into the whole bag being eaten without much awareness.

3. The secrecy

When someone who is experiencing compulsive overeating is around others, they typically eat a “normal” amount of food. But when that person is left alone, thoughts and feelings around food reappear. The behavior thrives in secrecy and isolation.

4. Excitement that turns to sadness

Individuals may find that food tastes good and provides a sense of excitement or relief. Soon the feelings of excitement surrounding eating, however, often turn to disgust and distress. There may be intense self-loathing after the food has been consumed. Many affected may also experience negative self-talk, negative self-perception, and, in some cases, bullying due to weight stigma.

5. Physical pain and discomfort

Many times, when a person consumes too much food for the body to handle, they may feel bloated or have stomachaches and other physical pain. Sometimes breathing after consuming a large amount of food causes pain and shortness of breath. The person may feel physically exhausted as well.  

6. Feelings of shame

Overeating compulsively may result in feelings of shame with oneself. Shame can amplify loneliness and self-loathing that often accompanies the behavior.

Binge Eating vs Compulsive Overeating: Unveiling the Nuances

Binge eating and compulsive overeating, although closely related, have distinct characteristics that set them apart. Binge eating is typically characterized by episodes of consuming large quantities of food in a relatively short period, often accompanied by a feeling of loss of control. This form of eating is a central feature of Binge Eating Disorder (BED), a clinically recognized eating disorder, where individuals often experience intense feelings of guilt and distress post-binge.

On the other hand, compulsive overeating is a broader term that encompasses not only binge eating but also other patterns of disordered eating. It often manifests as a continuous pattern of eating large quantities of food throughout the day, not confined to specific episodes. This kind of eating often happens in secret, and individuals may find themselves constantly fantasizing or obsessing about food. The defining characteristic of compulsive overeating is the amount of food consumed and the compulsive, obsessive nature of the eating behavior. It often coexists with feelings of self-loathing, depression, and anxiety, making it a complex issue to address.

Understanding the subtle differences between binge eating and compulsive overeating can guide more targeted and effective treatment strategies, helping individuals navigate their way to recovery with a nuanced approach.

Anxiety and Compulsive Overeating: A Complex Interplay

Anxiety often serves as a potent trigger for compulsive overeating. Individuals grappling with anxiety might find a temporary reprieve in the act of eating, where the focus shifts from their anxious thoughts to the sensory experience of consuming food. However, this coping mechanism can foster a harmful cycle, where the initial anxiety is compounded by the distress and guilt stemming from compulsive overeating.

It’s essential to recognize this complex interplay to develop strategies that address both anxiety and compulsive overeating, fostering a healthier relationship with food and oneself.

Possible Causes of Compulsive Overeating

Compulsive overeating can be influenced by various factors. Understanding these causes and risk factors is crucial in addressing this disorder effectively:

Genetic Factors

  • Genetics play a role in the development of compulsive eating disorders and food addiction.
  • Individuals with a family history of compulsive overeating are at a higher risk of experiencing similar issues.

Environmental Influences

  • Traumatic events or experiences of abuse and neglect can contribute to the development of compulsive overeating habits.
  • Overeating may serve as a coping mechanism to numb emotional pain resulting from such experiences.
  • Environments focused on food, dieting, and weight can also influence the development of compulsive overeating behaviors.

Risk Factors for Compulsive Overeating

Several risk factors can increase the likelihood of developing compulsive overeating habits:

  1. Traumatic Events: Experiencing trauma can trigger compulsive overeating as a coping mechanism.
  2. Abuse and Neglect: Individuals who have been victims of abuse or neglect may turn to overeating to manage emotional distress.
  3. Low Self-Esteem: Poor self-image and low self-esteem can contribute to compulsive overeating behaviors.
  4. Personal and Family History: A history of mental illness, particularly mood disorders, can increase the risk of compulsive overeating.
  5. Family History of Eating Disorders: Having family members with a history of eating disorders or compulsive overeating behaviors can also be a risk factor.

Genetic predisposition, environmental influences, traumatic experiences, and personal/family history all play significant roles in the development of compulsive overeating behaviors. Recognizing these factors is essential in addressing and managing this disorder effectively.

Treatment

Due to the complex nature of compulsive overeating, it is incredibly important that those who are experiencing this behavior seek professional help. Professional help is essential because compulsive overeating threatens both emotional and physical health.

Treating compulsive overeating is more than just having the willpower not to overeat. It is complex and requires a team of professionals to help. With proper support from an eating disorder specialist or an eating disorder treatment center, it is possible to repair a person’s relationship with food.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is compulsive overeating?

Compulsive overeating is a complex behavior characterized by an obsessive relationship with food, where individuals frequently consume large quantities of food, often in secrecy, and experience a loss of control over their eating habits. It is often accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame, and distress.

How does compulsive overeating differ from binge eating?

While binge eating involves episodes of consuming large quantities of food in a short period with a loss of control, compulsive overeating is a broader term that includes binge eating but also encompasses other patterns of disordered eating. Compulsive overeating may involve continuous grazing throughout the day and is characterized by an obsessive, compulsive nature towards food consumption.

What triggers compulsive overeating?

Compulsive overeating can be triggered by various factors including emotional stress, anxiety, depression, and other psychological factors. It often serves as a coping mechanism to deal with underlying emotional distress.

Can anxiety lead to compulsive overeating?

Yes, anxiety can be a potent trigger for compulsive overeating. Individuals experiencing anxiety may find temporary relief in the act of eating, which can sometimes foster a harmful cycle where the initial anxiety is compounded by the distress and guilt stemming from compulsive overeating.

What are the potential consequences of compulsive overeating?

Compulsive overeating can lead to various physical and emotional consequences, including weight gain, increased risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, as well as feelings of self-loathing, depression, and heightened anxiety.

How can one seek help for compulsive overeating?

Seeking professional help is crucial in addressing compulsive overeating. Treatment often involves a team of professionals including therapists, nutritionists, and medical doctors to help individuals develop healthier eating habits and address the underlying emotional triggers.

Are there support groups for individuals struggling with compulsive overeating?

Yes, there are support groups and communities where individuals struggling with compulsive overeating can share their experiences and receive support from others who understand their challenges. It’s recommended to reach out to local mental health organizations or online platforms for information on support groups in your area.

If you or a loved one is struggling with compulsive overeating, it is vital to seek help as soon as possible. Veritas Collaborative is here to help. Give us a call at 1-855-875-5812 or fill out our contact form.