Understanding Compulsive Overeating

People who chronically overeat may be suffering from a common eating disorder known as compulsive overeating.

“This type of eating disorder is characterized by uncontrollable eating and consequent weight gain,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, R.D., a Cleveland-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “Compulsive overeaters use food as a way to cope with stress, emotional conflicts, and daily problems.”

Gradual start

Compulsive overeating may start gradually. A child may turn to food when upset. Over time, the child learns food soothes upset feelings.

“Most people who become compulsive eaters never learned healthy ways of dealing with unhappy situations,” Jamieson-Petonic says.

The disorder may develop when others make repeated negative comments about a person's weight. It may develop after a traumatic event in childhood, or after restrictive dieting. A person's home environment also can play a role. For example, if a person’s parents were overcontrolling or not present, that person may not have had good role models for eating.

“People who overeat compulsively often have an extremely negative sense of self-worth, a need for perfection, and a history of being overweight or obese,” she adds.

The more weight a person gains, the harder the person tries to diet. Dieting is usually what leads to the next binge.

Signs and symptoms

People who eat compulsively often do so in private. They usually are reluctant to talk about their eating problems.

If you or someone you know has several of these signs and behaviors of binge eating, talk with your health care provider:

  • Eating a little in public and a lot in private

  • Feelings about yourself based on weight

  • Depression after overeating

  • Feeling tormented by eating habits

  • Going on and off many diets

  • Binge eating

Prevention

Compulsive overeating can’t always be prevented, especially when the condition has roots in childhood. Even so, these suggestions can help:

  • Avoid restrictive diets. They can easily lead to feelings of deprivation, which result in binge eating.

  • Check your body image. Talk with a dietitian or psychologist if you have a negative body image.

  • Know when you eat for comfort. If you feel depressed, angry, or anxious, talk with your health care provider.

Recovery

If your child or teen appears to eat for emotional reasons or eat as a way to cope with problems, talk with your child's doctor. It's important to get help to break the cycle before it becomes a full-blown eating disorder.

“The best therapy is a combination of cognitive-behavior and nutrition therapy, psychotherapy, and medication, if called for,” Jamieson-Petonic says. “These therapies can help overeaters develop healthy life skills and sound nutrition habits.”

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