Over Eating

Compulsive overeating is characterised by an addiction to food. An individual suffering from compulsive overeating disorder engages in frequent episodes of uncontrolled eating, or binging, during which they may feel frenzied or out of control. They will eat much more quickly than is normal, and continue to eat even past the point of being uncomfortably full. Binging in this way is generally followed by a period of intense guilt feelings and depression. Unlike individuals with bulimia, compulsive overeaters do not attempt to compensate for their binging with purging behaviours such as fasting, laxative use or vomiting. Compulsive overeaters will typically eat when they are not hungry, spend excessive amounts of time and thought devoted to food, and secretly plan or fantasize about eating alone. Compulsive overeating almost always leads to weight gain and obesity, but not everyone who is obese is also a compulsive overeater.

In addition to binge eating, compulsive overeaters can also engage in grazing behaviour, during which they return to pick at food over and over throughout the day. This results in a large overall number of calories consumed even if the quantities eaten at any one time may be small. When a compulsive eater overeats primarily through binging, he or she can be said to have binge eating disorder. Where there is continuous overeating but no binging, then the sufferer has compulsive overeating disorder.

Left untreated, compulsive overeating can lead to serious medical conditions including high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and clinical depression. Additional long-term side effects of the condition also include kidney disease, arthritis, bone deterioration and stroke.

Causes of compulsive overeating

In common with other eating disorders, there is a significant emotional element to compulsive overeating. Although there is no known exact cause, there are several likely options. Most sufferers of compulsive overeating use food as self-medication to cope with overwhelming emotions of shame and depression. Many feel guilty that they are “not good enough” and are ashamed of their increasing weight. Most have very low self esteem. Sufferers also frequently have a constant need for love and validation, which they attempt to satisfy with food.

Compulsive overeating normally begins in childhood, when eating patterns are formed. Most compulsive overeaters never learned effective ways to deal with stressful situations, and instead learned to turn to food as a way of blocking out painful emotions. Some compulsive overeaters consciously or unconsciously use excess body fat as a protective layer, particularly those who have been the victims of sexual abuse. They sometimes feel that being fat will make them less attractive, and therefore less likely to be abused further.

Although many sufferers of compulsive overeating try to combat their increasing weight through dieting, this can exacerbate the condition. Dieting can lead to feelings of deprivation, which the compulsive overeater is then driven to block out by further binging. Unless the emotional reasons for binging are resolved, the sufferer frequently becomes locked into an unending cycle of dieting and binging, with the accompanying feelings of guilt, shame, self-loathing and depression that result.

Signs of compulsive overeating

  • Binge eating, or eating uncontrollably even when not physically hungry
  • Eating much more rapidly than normal
  • Eating alone due to shame and embarrassment
  • Feelings of guilt due to overeating
  • Preoccupation with body weight
  • Depression or mood swings
  • Awareness that eating patterns are abnormal
  • History of weight fluctuations
  • Withdrawal from activities because of embarrassment about weight
  • History of many different unsuccessful diets
  • Eating little in public, but maintaining a high body weight

Recovery from compulsive overeating

Compulsive overeating is treatable with counselling and therapy, and approximately 80% of sufferers who seek professional help either recover completely or experience significant reduction in their symptoms. All eating disorders are behavioural patterns which stem from emotional conflicts that need to be resolved in order for the sufferer to develop a healthy relationship with food. Like other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, compulsive overeating is a serious problem and can result in death. However, with the proper treatment, which should include talk therapy, medical and nutritional counselling, it can be overcome.

There is a twelve-step program called Overeaters Anonymous that offers support to individuals who are recovering overeaters. Important points of the program are:

  • Eliminating addictive substances from the diet completely. This varies from person to person, and Overeaters Anonymous does not endorse any particular plan of eating. Some people eliminate alcohol, caffeine, sugar, white flour, all flour, and wheat, along with other items that are personal addictions, or triggers for binging.
  • Not eating between meals AT ALL
  • Developing, with support, a food plan that is well planned and balanced, weighed and measured, and sticking to it absolutely – Not one bite more, not one bite less.
  • Eating your planned meals at regular times each day

A. Writing down a food plan each day, for the following day, so that no time is needed to think about what is to be eaten today. B. This planning is best done after all that day’s food has been consumed. C. Once written, not changed.

Overeaters Anonymous

(OA) is a twelve-step program offering a program of recovery from compulsive overeating and other eating disorders using the twelve steps and twelve traditions as interpreted by OA. Participants need not be overweight in fact, some OA members are bulimic or anorexic. Like other twelve-step groups, OA groups typically meet weekly. More women than men participate in this program in most locations.

Like members of Alcoholics Anonymous, members of OA generally hold that they have an illness of the body an abnormal reaction to certain foods and/or eating behaviours which creates uncontrollable cravings, similar to the alcoholic’s cravings and an illness of the mind or an obsession of the mind which continues to find reasons for returning to those foods and eating behaviours (reasons ranging from severe emotional upsets to rationalizations like “I’ve been good in the last hour/week/year”). This dual problem is the explanation for what is commonly called “yo-yo dieting”, the tendency to lose weight and then to gain the weight back again.

Unlike members of AA, however, OA members do not all have one specific and common substance or attribute which causes cravings. Experience in OA has shown that different members develop cravings from different kinds of foods or eating behaviours, and therefore each member has to develop his or her own plan of eating. OA uses the concept of “abstinence from compulsive eating” rather than “sobriety”; a plan of eating would ideally, therefore, eliminate those foods and/or eating behaviours which cause cravings, which provides the member with abstinence.

Aside from this one difference, OA functions just like any other twelve-step program. It was founded on January 19, 1960, in Los Angeles, by two individuals, one of whom, Rozanne S., has remained in the program since its inception and is considered the co-founder of OA. Its headquarters are currently in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There are approximately 6500 meetings in 60 countries, and its estimated membership is around 70,000.

There is extensive OA literature available. OA members also use AA literature.

Other twelve-step groups that deal with eating issues, such as CEA-HOW, GreySheeters Anonymous, Food Addicts Anonymous, Anorexics and Bulimic’s Anonymous, differ from OA by having a specific plan of eating which all members must follow, by having more specific structure in their meetings, or by being directed to specific eating disorders.

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