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.

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