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What is compulsive eating?

Updated: Apr 19

close up photo of a hand holding a fist full of potato ships crisps

Compulsive eating is a type of behaviour with food: when a person eats in a way that feels out of control, that has an emotional component and involves eating an uncomfortably large amount.

Compulsive eating is not an eating disorder in itself. It can be a recognised feature which is part of known eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. If you need support, please don't hesitate to contact our team at Schoen Clinic.

What are the signs of compulsive eating?

It may be difficult to identify compulsive eating as a distinct feature compared with the normal parameters of food consumption. We all have favourite foods which we turn to for comfort and food types which we might like to avoid or limit but find it hard to do so. It is normal to feel our eating is not as controlled as we may wish to lose or maintain weight. It is also normal to have certain foods that we turn to for comfort.

If you are concerned you may have a problem, consider these signs which indicate compulsive overeating may be present:

  • Eating rapidly and in secret. You may dislike eating in public or socially.

  • Eating beyond the feeling of comfortable fullness; feeling completely unable to stop.

  • Turning to food whenever you experience difficult feelings, moods or situations

  • The urge to eat large amounts of food and/or forbidden food is experienced as utterly overwhelming

  • Looking at feelings and well-being as a whole, these are indications you may be experiencing compulsive overeating:

  • Always trying to diet but unable to lose weight

  • Immense feelings of self-dislike/disgust at eating habits and inability to lose weight

  • Depression and low self-esteem are often present

  • A sense that life would improve if weight could be lost but feeling powerless to achieve this

Is compulsive eating the same as binge eating?

Binge eating is part of the diagnostic criteria for bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder and as such, clear measures have been developed to define a binge:

  • Quantity of food consumed in a binge is described as: “an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

  • Feeling out of control during the binge

  • Binge behaviour occurs at least once a week for a period of three months

It could be argued that binge eating, particularly as part of a diagnosis of bulimia or binge eating disorder, is a more specific classification than compulsive eating. A binge requires the food consumption to be large (although what is large for one person may be normal for another), as well as the accompanying feelings of loss of control, shame and secrecy.

Compulsive overeating is more focused on the feelings around the eating behaviour, rather than the amount consumed in a single episode. Compulsive overeating could be present in an overall pattern without the presence of single, large binges.

In practice, many clinicians suggest the difference between definitions is slight: individuals present and talk about experiencing binges, compulsion and food addiction. The key, common characteristic is the underlying feelings of loss of control, disgust and secrecy and the link between food consumption and difficult emotions.

How is compulsive eating treated?

If you feel you may be suffering from compulsive overeating, an assessment may be very important, particularly if you have accompanying, harmful purging behaviours of bulimia nervosa. At Schoen Clinic, we offer private assessments for individuals of all ages and run one-to-one Cognitive Behavioural Therapy programmes for people with bulimia.

There is a strong evidence base for the effectiveness of this approach.

Please reach out to our caring team at Schoen Clinic if you need support for yourself or a loved one. Our specialists in London, Birmingham and York offer highly specialised treatments for children, teens and adults.

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