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Compulsive eating: Causes, symptoms and treatment

Compulsive eating is something that many people struggle with, often in silence or secret.

Compulsive Eating: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment | Juniper

TW: This article discusses topics related to eating disorders.

Compulsive eating is something that many people struggle with, often in silence or secret.

Characterised by episodes of compulsive overeating, statistics show that binge eating disorder is actually the most common eating disorder. But what is it, exactly? Does it differ from compulsive overeating? And how do experts diagnose it?

If these are questions you've found yourself asking — particularly in regards to your own eating habits and relationship with food — you've come to the right place.

In this article, we'll break down everything you need to know about compulsive overeating, the signs and symptoms of food addiction, as well as the physical health risks and how to stop binge eating habits and regain control of your life.

What is compulsive eating?

Compulsive eating is when someone consumes large amounts of food, often beyond the point of feeling full or satisfied.

People who engage in compulsive eating sometimes feel a loss of control when it comes to their eating habits, and may keep eating even when they no longer feel physically hungry.

While compulsive overeating isn't necessarily an eating disorder in itself, it can often be a symptom of other eating disorders [1].

Several factors can contribute to compulsive eating. Often, these include negative emotions and poor mental health. Compulsive eaters may be triggered to eat by difficult emotions like stress, boredom, sadness, low self-worth, or anxiety. They may use food as a way to cope with emotional issues, or to fill a void in their lives.

Compulsive eating is often associated with emotional eating, as people turn to food for comfort from uncomfortable feelings, rather than for nutritional needs.

Compulsive eating can have negative effects on both physical and emotional well-being, leading to weight gain, obesity, and various health issues.

In order to successfully stop compulsive overeating, a typical treatment plan often uses a combination of group therapy and individual counselling, to address any underlying mental health conditions.

If you or someone you know is struggling with compulsive eating, it's important to seek professional help for support and guidance.

Is compulsive eating the same as binge eating?

While compulsive overeating and binge eating are related concepts, they're not necessarily the same.

Both involve consuming large amounts of food (often in a short period) and a sense of loss of control during eating episodes. However, there are distinctions [1].

Compulsive eating is defined by impulsive, uncontrolled episodes of eating, often when the person isn't hungry. But unlike binge eating disorder, compulsive overeating can be more generalised.

Compulsive overeaters may not eat an extreme amount of food in a short amount of time, but rather, have a more chronic, ongoing habit of overeating in day-to-day life.

However, there are also similarities with binge eating disorder, in that compulsive overeating is often triggered by psychological factors like poor mental health and negative emotions. Eating large amounts is often a way for individuals to cope with stress, boredom, low self-esteem, and other emotional issues.

Binge eating disorder (also referred to as BED), by contrast, is a mental illness recognised as an eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

BED is characterised by recurrent episodes in which people eat compulsively and quickly, beyond the point of fullness. During a binge eating episode, individuals often feel distress and lack of control, and afterwards, a sense of guilt.

During an eating disorder binge, a person will likely be eating alone, eating faster than they normally would, eating a larger amount of food than they normally would, and often in secret.

The diagnostic criteria state that a person with a binge eating disorder will have at least 1 binge eating episode a week for at least 3 months, without any compensatory behaviours [2].

If you or anyone you know struggles with BED or any other eating disorders, there are resources and help available, including Beat and National Centre for Eating Disorders

What are the symptoms of compulsive eating?

Many symptoms of compulsive overeating may also be warning signs of an underlying mental health issue or eating disorder.

If these symptoms are causing distress or impairment in daily life, seeking support from healthcare professionals, such as therapists, counsellors or registered dietitians, can be beneficial in addressing the root causes and developing healthier coping mechanisms.

Some of the symptoms of compulsive overeating are:

  1. Frequent episodes of overeating. Consuming unusually large amounts of food in a relatively short period, often beyond the point of feeling physically full.
  2. Loss of control. Feeling unable to stop overeating, or control the amount of food consumed during a binge can be a symptom of compulsive overeating. A person may also eat faster than normal and struggle to regulate their eating behaviour.
  3. Eating when not physically hungry. Consuming food in the absence of hunger and eating for reasons other than nourishment, such as emotional distress, stress, boredom or as a response to environmental cues.
  4. Secretive eating. Eating alone, or regularly hiding food consumption due to feelings of shame, guilt or embarrassment about the quantity of food being consumed, can be a symptom of compulsive overeating.
  5. Emotional distress. Experiencing negative emotions, such as guilt, shame or remorse, following episodes of compulsive overeating.
  6. Preoccupation with food. Constantly thinking about food, planning meals, or being preoccupied with the next opportunity to eat, even when not physically hungry.
  7. Rapid eating. Eating quickly and without savouring or enjoying the food, often in an attempt to consume as much as possible in a short period.
  8. Frequent dieting or weight fluctuations. Engaging in repetitive cycles of dieting, often followed by periods of overeating, which leads to fluctuations in body weight.
  9. Body dissatisfaction. Feeling dissatisfied or unhappy with one's body size or shape, which may contribute to a reliance on food as a means of coping.
  10. Physical consequences. Experiencing physical discomfort, such as bloating, indigestion or weight gain, as a result of compulsive eating episodes.

Common causes of compulsive eating

There are several common causes of compulsive overeating.

Often, a person who struggles with eating compulsively will find that they're triggered by a combination of genetics, psychological issues and sociocultural factors, so let's break it down [3].

  1. Emotional triggers. Compulsive overeating is often triggered by emotions like stress, anxiety, sadness, or boredom [4]. In this situation, eating food works as a temporary escape or distraction from negative feelings, but this can lead to a reliance on food consumption as a means of emotional regulation.
  2. Dieting and restriction. Extreme diets or disordered eating can create a toxic cycle in which a person goes through a period of deprivation, followed by a period of overindulgence.
  3. Body image issues. Negative body image, self-loathing and a preoccupation with weight and appearance can contribute to compulsive eating. Sometimes, a person will attempt to soothe feelings of low self-esteem with binge eating.
  4. Boredom. Sometimes, people will eat to fill a void or to provide a source of entertainment [5]. Mindless food consumption can lead to overeating, even when not physically hungry.
  5. Biological factors. Hormonal imbalances, neurotransmitter irregularities and genetic factors may also play a role in compulsive overeating [6].

How to overcome compulsive eating

In order to stop compulsive overeating, a treatment plan will often involve a combination of self-awareness, lifestyle changes and psychological support. A great first step is to try to identify what's triggering your episodes of overeating.

One way to do this is to keep a journal that tracks your eating behaviour, noting the situation, your emotional state or any other stressors.

You can also try to establish regular eating patterns and practice mindful eating, by paying close attention to your body's hunger cues and physical sensations while eating.

If you suspect your eating habits fit the diagnostic criteria of binge eating disorder, it's important to seek help from a healthcare professional, like a doctor, therapist, or registered dietitian, who specialises in eating disorders.

However, because compulsive overeating is often a response to stress and other negative emotions, it can be good to speak with a healthcare professional even if you don't fit the criteria for an eating disorder.

It's important to note that overcoming compulsive eating may require a multi-faceted approach, and progress may be gradual. Seeking professional help is crucial for tailored guidance and support.

Additionally, building a healthier relationship with food involves addressing the emotional, psychological and behavioural aspects of compulsive eating.

If you want to stop compulsive overeating, lose weight and improve your overall health, Juniper's Weight Reset Programme might be just what you're looking for.

Juniper's Weight Reset Programme was designed by UK clinicians and dietitians and uses semaglutide, a groundbreaking medication that can help curb compulsive overeating, reduce food cravings, and lose weight safely.

When combined with personal, one-on-one support from a health coach who will offer advice and keep you accountable, the Weight Reset Programme is designed to set you up for long-term success.

If you're ready to stop compulsive overeating and regain control of your life, check your eligibility today.

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