Compulsive Eating

Compulsive eating and compulsive overeating often refers to Binge Eating Disorder (BED), or a symptom of Bulimia, which is where teens binge and purge. This article discusses when complusive eating is a problem, compares eating disorders, and offers treatment options.

Compulsive eating and compulsive overeating are popular terms that can refer to the occasional overindulgence in food or to one of two mental disorders. For one thing, it can refer to the disorder known to physicians as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder (BED). At this point, BED is listed in the appendix as a proposed specification for a diagnosis that would currently be given as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). Compulsive or binge eating also forms an important component of the disorder bulimia nervosa, in which binging is followed by purging. This article provides some basic information about compulsive eating or binge eating.

Occasional Overindulgence

Some people eat compulsively, but only on rare occasions. This might seem paradoxical, but imagine that the compulsion is short-lived, and that the word compulsion is not really being used in a clinical sense. It could happen in any of several ways:

  • a person is particularly hungry for some reason (perhaps a strenuous exercise session) and/or a special occasion or some accomplishment (the fact that it’s Friday night; finishing the mid-term exam) makes him or her feel that s/he “deserves” a treat
  • a person orders a meal at a restaurant, buys a box of doughnuts, orders a pizza, or something similar, and doesn’t want to leave any unfinished
  • the person makes a bet involving food and has to eat a certain amount to win the bet
  • the person enters a food-eating contest

An incident like this might show poor judgment and/or give the person a stomachache or make him or her feel otherwise impaired, but it’s not a disorder.

When Compulsive Eating Is a Problem

When compulsive eating is a sign of an eating disorder, it doesn’t just pop up on the occasional Saturday night. Here are some of the criteria for compulsive eating to be diagnoses as Binge Eating Disorder:

• recurrent episodes of binging, at least 2 days a week for a period of at least 6 months

• a feeling of loss of control over one’s eating that manifests in at least 3 of the following 5 ways:

            • eating rapidly
            • eating without feeling physically hungry
            • eating without company
            • eating to the point of being uncomfortably full
            • feeling self-disgust about one’s binging

Binging can also occur in bulimia nervosa. In that case, purging or other weight-loss behaviors are used to diminish or negate the effects of the binges.

Telling the Types of Compulsive Eating Apart

For the person who has the eating problem, consulting one’s feelings about one’s eating, looking at the criteria and talking to a mental health professional are the best way to tell if further steps should be taken with regard to one’s compulsive eating. For someone trying to determine if a relative, friend, or acquaintance might have a problem with compulsive eating, here are some thoughts.

The occasional binge might be a pint of ice cream in bed by oneself, but it also might manifest in a bar, a restaurant, or at a friend’s house. Often, in such cases, a person is acting out of the ordinary, and doesn’t mind if others see it. The rarity and the openness about the situation may be two key elements that suggest that one of the more problematic disorders is less likely to be involved.

In the case of both binge eating disorder, it may be difficult for an outsider to know that compulsive eating is going on. Because the binge eater tends to eat alone, the behaviors that lead to diagnoses are unlikely to be seen by others. And because people with binge eating disorder don’t, by definition, take steps to counteract their weight gain, while those with bulimia nervosa do, a binge eater may either be overweight or underweight, or in between.

Treatment of Compulsive Eating

The occasional binge might need rethinking, but it doesn’t need treatment. For those who do have an eating disorder, counseling involving some type of therapy is often offered. Since many people who have Binge Eating Disorder have a history of depression, therapy can be combined with antidepressants, as appropriate.

Depression is also often associated with binge eating disorder, more than half of patients having a history of major depression. Low self-esteem has also been cited as connected.


Related Article: Binge Eating Disorder >>