Compulsive and Binge Eating

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Compulsive eating and binge eating disorder are two separate conditions with a great deal in common. Compulsive overeaters generally exhibit compulsive behaviors around food, eating, and body image. Their eating behaviors can actually interfere with daily functioning. Compulsive overeaters eat for relief, comfort, and as a way of nurturing themselves. They eat because they are stressed, bored, afraid, and/or lonely. Frequently they will plan the next meal while they are eating this one. They feel they are out of control with food.

Compulsive overeaters will eat privately and surreptitiously. They feel shame about their excessive eating and about being fat or obese and will use food and eating as a way of coping with these feelings. They may seek help in many different places in an attempt to lose weight or control their weight. They may engage in strict dieting or fasting programs and community weight loss programs. Out of desperation, they may try diet pills, prescription weight loss medications, laxatives and diuretics. They have frequent weight fluctuations, often exceeding 10 pounds. Most people who are compulsive overeaters or binge eaters are overweight.

The “textbook” definition of binge eating disorder is as follows (but keep in mind that there are many variations):

  • eating, in a discrete period of time (for example, within any two-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances, and
  • a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (for example, a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating)

The binge eating episodes are associated with at least three of the following:

  • eating much more rapidly than normal
  • eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  • eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
  • eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating
  • feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or feeling very guilty after overeating
  • marked distress regarding binge eating
  • occurs, on average, at least two days a week for six months
  • is not associated with the regular use of inappropriate compensatory behaviors (e.g., purging, fasting, excessive exercise) and does not occur exclusively during the course of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa

Whether a person has binge eating disorder or is a compulsive overeater, emotional pain associated with these conditions is no different. Nor are the medical complications. Both groups are at risk for:

  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • high blood cholesterol levels
  • hallbladder disease
  • heart disease or CVD (cardio-vascular disease)
  • certain types of cancer
  • liver damage

If you are experiencing symptoms of compulsive or binge eating as described above, consult your doctor or a mental health professional.


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