Are You Compulsive Eating? Signs, Causes and Treatment Options

Last Updated: April 11, 2024

Dr. Norman Chazin Reviewed by Dr. Norman Chazin
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The modern world has given us various technological and medical advances. Yet, it has also brought a stress-driven life due to the economic recession, more strict workplaces and higher professional expectations.

76% of Americans reported that stress has significantly impacted their health, which is one of the causes of compulsive eating or eating unhealthy foods. As a consequence, the U.S. has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world, with people suffering from chronic diseases, such as hypertension, stroke, respiratory problems and various types of cancers.

These eating habits may lead to diverse eating disorders, like binge eating disorder (BED), bulimia nervosa or the recently proposed “food addiction.” Keep reading to learn about these disorders, their signs, their causes and how to get help.

What is Compulsive Eating?

A compulsive behavior is defined by a strong, irresistible internal drive to act, usually against one’s will and it’s frequently present in several psychiatric conditions.

In this case, compulsive overeating is regarded as a behavioral addiction consisting of uncontrollably repetitive episodes of overeating without feeling hunger as a way to relieve stress and anxiety. This behavior is sustained over time despite adverse consequences.

These episodes are shared across several eating illnesses, including:

  • Bulimia nervosa (BN) and binge eating disorder (BED)
  • Obesity
  • Food addiction (FA), also known as eating addiction

While these eating disorders share similarities in their clinical profile, all of them have very different diagnostic considerations. For example, food addiction is a newly recognized behavioral pathology. However, further research is needed to understand its diagnostic criteria, measurement methods, prognostic factors, and treatment.

Addiction to food is complex, including clinical features of eating disorders, substance use disorders, impulsive personality traits, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), leading to many social and health problems.

Signs and Symptoms of Compulsive Eating

Warning signs of compulsive overeating from other eating disorders are crucial for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment.

While symptoms of compulsive eating may overlap with conditions such as binge eating disorder, one of the most unmistakable symptoms is consuming large amounts of food without physical hunger. Other symptoms include:

  • Regularly consuming large quantities of food in a short period
  • Unable to stop eating or control the amount of food consumed, even knowing it’s harmful
  • Consuming food in response to emotional triggers rather than hunger cues
  • Avoiding eating around others due to feelings of shame or embarrassment about eating habits
  • Feeling remorseful or ashamed after binge eating episodes or overeating
  • Constantly thinking about food, planning meals or fantasizing about eating
  • Concealing food consumption, such as eating in secret or disposing of food wrappers to hide evidence
  • Withdrawal symptoms after spending time without eating
  • Weight gain, fluctuations in weight, and gastrointestinal discomfort

To differentiate signs and symptoms among the most common eating disorders, refer to the following chart:

Criteria Bulimia Nervosa (BN) Binge Eating Disorder (BED) Food Addiction (FA)
Recurrent episodes of binge eating Yes Yes Yes
Inappropriate compensatory behaviors Yes No No
Frequency of episodes At least once a week for 3 months At least once a week for 3 months Chronic
Self-evaluation influenced by body shape and weight Yes No Yes
Cognitive symptoms associated with binge episodes No Yes Yes
Marked distress regarding binge episodes Yes Yes Yes
Use of inappropriate compensatory behaviors Yes No No
Associated with purging Yes No No
Consumed more than planned Yes Yes Yes
Unable to cut down or stop Yes Yes Yes
Significant time spent on behavior Yes Yes Yes
Important activities are given up or reduced Yes Yes Yes
Use despite knowledge of consequences Yes Yes Yes
Tolerance Yes No Yes
Withdrawal symptoms Yes Yes Yes
Craving or strong desire Yes Yes Yes

Causes of Compulsive Eating

Authors frequently report a high degree of comorbidity between food addiction and other psychiatric disorders, which are medical manifestations also present in patients with substance use disorders or behavioral addictions.

This high rate of comorbidities encourages healthcare professionals to accept that dual diagnosis are the rule rather than the exception. This clinical profile could happen due to self-medication, shared genetic vulnerability, environmental factors, lifestyle or neural pathways.

A spectrum of causes of compulsive overeating includes:

  • Overeating as a coping mechanism for stress, boredom, loneliness, sadness and other negative emotions
  • Restrictive dieting can trigger episodes of binge eating (deprivation and subsequent loss of control)
  • Traumatic events, neglect or dysfunctional family dynamics during childhood
  • Genetic predisposition and abnormalities in brain chemistry
  • Cultural norms, societal pressures and media messages promoting unrealistic body image
  • Observing and mimicking the eating behaviors of family members or peers with disordered eating habits
  • Negative body image and low self-worth
  • Depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

6 Treatments for Compulsive Eating

As research results suggest, compulsive overeating shares traits with other eating disorders, such as binge eating and dietary restraint, and even obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This level of comorbidity encourages a combination of therapeutic approaches aimed at addressing both the underlying psychological factors of overeating and promoting healthier eating behaviors.

Here are some commonly used treatments:

1. Psychotherapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are often effective in helping individuals identify and change unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors related to food and body image.

2. Nutritional Counseling

A nutritionist or dietician can provide help with food addiction, guidance and health counseling. These professionals can also help patients plan meals to develop normal and healthy eating habits gradually.

3. Support Groups

Participating in support groups or group therapy sessions with others who struggle with compulsive eating can provide a sense of community, understanding, and accountability.

These support groups are:

  • Overeaters Anonymous (OA)
  • GreySheeters Anonymous (GSA)
  • Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA)
  • Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA)

4. Medication

In some cases, antidepressant medications may be prescribed to help manage underlying comorbidities such as mood disorders such as depression or anxiety, which can contribute to compulsive eating.

5. Holistic Techniques

Practices such as mindfulness meditation, yoga and deep breathing exercises can help individuals become more aware of their emotions and eating habits and learn healthier ways to cope with stress and anxiety.

6. Medical Monitoring

People suffering from compulsive overeating or eating disorders may benefit from regular medical monitoring to assess and manage any physical health concerns associated with their eating behaviors, such as obesity, diabetes or cardiovascular issues.

Compulsive Eating − Final Considerations

Eating disorders are sustained over time due to complex and multifactorial elements, particularly the comorbidities associated with them.

Treating compulsive overeating requires a series of psychological interventions, nutritional guidance and lifestyle changes to increase chances of recovery and long-term healing. Individuals struggling with eating disorders need to seek professional help and support, avoiding self-medication and “miracle solutions” found online.

Recovery is possible, always by the hands of healthcare professionals and support groups.

People Also Ask

What is a compulsive appetite?

Compulsive appetite is the intense and uncontrollable urge to consume food, often driven by psychological factors rather than physiological hunger cues. This condition can lead to binge eating episodes and may be indicative of underlying emotional or mental health issues.

How do you deal with food compulsion?

Effectively addressing food compulsion requires seeking professional help such as therapy, cognitive-behavioral techniques and nutritional counseling. Developing coping strategies, establishing structured meal plans and fostering a supportive environment are vital in managing triggers and promoting healthier eating behaviors.

Why is it so hard to break eating habits?

Breaking eating habits is challenging due to their rooted nature in daily routines and neural pathways. Habits offer comfort and familiarity, making change difficult. Additionally, emotional ties, societal influences and biological factors contribute to the resistance to altering established eating patterns.

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Page Sources

  1. Stress in America 2022. (n.d.). In
  2. Obesity is a Common, Serious, and Costly Disease. (2022, July 20). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  3. Moore, C. F., Sabino, V., Koob, G. F., & Cottone, P. (2017). Neuroscience of Compulsive Eating Behavior. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 11.
  4. Kakoschke, N., & Aarts, E. (2019). The Cognitive Drivers of Compulsive Eating Behavior. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 12, 427236.
  5. Vasiliu, O. (2021). Current Status of Evidence for a New Diagnosis: Food Addiction-A Literature Review. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12.
  6. Kakoschke, N., Aarts, E., & Verdejo-García, A. (2018). The Cognitive Drivers of Compulsive Eating Behavior. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 12.
  7. Pollack, L. O., & Forbush, K. T. (2013). Why Do Eating Disorders and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Co-Occur? Eating Behaviors, 14(2), 211.
Retrieved on April 11, 2024.

Published on: December 8th, 2017

Updated on: April 11th, 2024

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