Compulsive Overeating

Numerous terms have been used to describe a loss of control overeating.  Among others, these include compulsive overeating, binge eating, emotional eating, and food addiction. Of these, binge eating is the only term with clear meaning since it is one of the necessary criteria for a diagnosis of binge eating disorder.  

While not clearly or consistently defined, compulsive overeating can best be thought of as an umbrella term that includes both emotional eating and food addiction both of which make intuitive sense because both the anticipation and act of eating palatable (comfort) foods which are high in sugar, fat and/or salt trigger widespread opiod release in the brain, which is associated with feelings of pleasure and euphoria.  Over time, this behavior may become a habitual response to an urge rather than in response to any particular event or emotion.  And there is a significant amount of research to suggest that individuals who eat compulsively are particularly susceptible to habit formation and prone to respond impulsively.  

Compulsive overeating is by far the most distressing problematic eating behavior reported by individuals whether they have an eating disorder or not.  This type of eating behavior extends beyond eating too much at a holiday meal or your favorite restaurant and the solution is far more complex than simply “eating less” or “exercising more” to burn off the calories ingested and "doing better" tomorrow.  In fact, this strategy often has the reverse effect since negative emotions such as guilt or shame often precede overeating and allowing ourselves to get too hungy (from eating less) or too tired (from exercise) lowers our inhibitory control and sends powerful messages to our brains signaling us to eat.

Those struggling with overeating who are of normal and higher weight don’t often see themselves as having an eating disorder. They tend to minimize maladaptive overeating and instead attribute their failed weight loss and food issues to moral failing (“I am a bad dieter” or “I have no willpower”). Once they learn about the diagnostic criteria for various overeating disorders, they often recognize behaviors that have been evident since childhood.

If you are struggling with compulsive overeating or related problems, it does not mean that you lack self-control and when treated effectively recovery is possible.