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Introduction

When the words ‘eating disorder’ are spoken, anorexia or bulimia nervosa are what often come to the minds of most people. However there is another problematic eating pattern that affects more people than anorexia and bulimia combined: compulsive overeating.

Medical professionals in the US have reported that around half of all people seeking treatment for weight problems will report symptoms of compulsive overeating.

Compulsive overeating (which is a symptom of, but not the same as, Binge Eating Disorder or BED) is defined as feeling addicted to food, where the sufferer cannot stop eating when they are full and feels compelled to eat even when there is no physical hunger. It often starts in late adolescence or early adulthood, later than eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. It is not classified as an eating disorder in itself but it may be part of an eating disorder such as BED; either way it is a problem.

The behavior pattern is characterized by abnormal eating habits such as periods of eating much faster than usual, eating past the point of fullness, and the sufferer feeling as though they have no control over their eating or that they have been ‘taken over’ during these periods.

Most often these episodes will occur in secret, as compulsive overeating has a strong sense of shame surrounding it. Sufferers describe feeling compelled to eat but are then disgusted with themselves or feel depressed after consuming large amounts of food.

If you often find that no amount of food can satisfy you; you find yourself preoccupied with consuming large amounts of food in a short space of time (when you are not hungry) and if you feel guilt and shame afterwards, you may be suffering from compulsive overeating.

Along with the impact on sufferers’ mental health, compulsive overeating often causes rapid weight gain which can lead to problems such as heart disease, joint stress and back pain among other issues.

Creating a solution to your eating problem has both short and long term benefits for mental and physical health. Compulsive overeating can also affect a sufferer’s finances, as purchasing large amounts of unnecessary food puts a strain on their bank balance as well as their body.

There are several ways to access support and put things in place in order to help yourself, from identifying why you are overeating to seeking professional treatment. Here are our four simple steps that you can take today towards stopping your compulsive overeating behavior.

Step 1: Identify Why You Are Overeating

There is often a strong emotional connection between people and food, and this follows us into adulthood and affects our eating behavior. Were you always told to ‘finish your plate’ as a child, or was food scarce? Were there comments about your body, or other people’s, that made you overly aware of food and its effects?

Adverse childhood events such as trauma are high risk factors for developing eating problems later in life, so try to identify anything that you think is relevant. It may not be a pleasant process but getting to the root of the problem is essential if you are to deal with overeating behavior thoroughly and prevent relapses.

Interestingly, although comfort eating is a common thing to do the physical and mental effects are anything but comforting. The distraction of eating simply delays dealing with unwanted emotions, and creates new problems such as physical health issues in the meantime.

Journaling and free writing can help bring to the surface thoughts and emotions that we aren’t aware of consciously; this may be a painful process so asking a friend to support you or going to a therapist to start this process may be a good idea.

It may be that a physical cause is the root of your compulsive overeating. Many people describe dieting as a catalyst for overeating, as lack of food creates feelings of hunger and depression, as well as potentially causing the body to become deficient in nutrients that it then craves.

Some overeaters have described thinking that if they let themselves eat the foods they were craving once, the desire would go away, but this is unfortunately not the case. Banning foods completely from diets creates a sense of lack and increases the perceived value of the food as a ‘forbidden item’. Creating a culture of healthy eating and wellbeing in your life is far better than short-term diets, which are not sustainable and often leave dieters feeling worse than before they started.

Step 2: Identify Environmental Risk Factors

Most compulsive overeaters will describe how they often eat in secret; this is similar to how those suffering from bulimia often binge and purge at night as they are less likely to be seen by other people. If there is a certain time of the day that you are more likely to overeat, arrange to go out with someone or be somewhere that makes it harder for this to happen. Habits are easy to fall into but one study found that it took participants just two months to form a new habit, so a change of routine may help you to break the cycle of overeating and form new, healthier behaviors.

Stress is also found to play a role in most eating problems. If you can identify anything in your life that is causing you large amounts of stress regularly, it is a good idea to think about changing them for the sake of your health. Whether it is a change of job or work hours, relationship counseling or asking for help with day-to-day family life, making positive life changes can contribute to a decrease in stress (and the stress hormone that makes us put on weight faster!)

Do certain foods trigger compulsive overeating? Are you someone who promises themselves that they’ll have “just one square” of chocolate but ends up finishing the whole bar? Some people who compulsively overeat look forward to satisfying themselves emotionally with food, but changing your shopping list and having a break from indulgent ‘trigger foods’ may be the best thing for your long-term health.

Step 3: Do Some Feel-Good Self Care

People who compulsively overeat often do so because of emotional issues, but their eating behavior fuels even more shame, frustration and sadness. Taking up a new hobby, especially a physical one such as Zumba, swimming or yoga, will help overeaters find accomplishment and fulfillment in something other than food as well as help their physical wellbeing.

If you have certain times of the day when you are more likely to overeat, book in an exercise class for that time or treat yourself to a spa treatment. After treating your body badly, consciously caring for it will help positive habits, thoughts and emotions form and fuel the way you eat in future.

Step 4: Seek Professional Help

Talking to someone who has had experience helping others with their eating habits is a great idea for someone wanting to stop compulsively overeating. Your doctor should be the first place you go; they will have had experience of talking to people with the same problem and will have ideas about what works to fix it, and what doesn’t.

They will also be able to refer you to specialists if they feel you need further treatment, for example if your overeating seems to be part of a wider eating disorder or if it is causing serious weight problems.

Your doctor will be able to talk with you about both your mental and physical health completely in confidence, which may help those feeling ashamed of their eating habits to open up and accept help. They may refer you to nutritionists, dietitians or therapists (or a combination) in order to help you in all the areas of your eating behavior.

If your overeating isn’t causing physical problems yet and you feel that you are ready to start working through emotional problems that trigger emotional overeating, or you have already started working on them but would like support, finding a private therapist is a great idea. Private therapists work with clients to create goals, and guide the client to achieve these. There are many different types of psychotherapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, EMDR, Somatic Therapy and others. These often incorporate periods of talking with physical exercises in order to holistically address the issues that are causing compulsive overeating; each therapist is different and you may want to have a few introductory talks to see which kind of therapist suits you best.

Conclusion

Compulsive overeating is one of the secretive eating behaviors that can leave sufferers trapped in a cycle of shame and unwanted behavior. Emotional eating does not help comfort the sufferer; it is simply a way of avoiding addressing difficult emotions and has no long-term benefits. By identifying events or reasons that may have started the behavior; figuring out environmental risk factors; doing some much needed self-care and perhaps accessing professional help, people who compulsively overeat can take back control of their eating behavior and continue down the path to optimum health.

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This article has been reviewed and fact-checked by a certified nutritionist, and only uses information from credible academic sources.