Compulsive overeating can be difficult to identify. If you’re concerned you or a loved one is struggling with compulsive overeating, this page outlines the warning signs, symptoms, and causes of this condition.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Compulsive Overeating?
A person with symptoms of compulsive overeating has what can be characterized as an addiction to food. She uses food and eating as a way to hide from or manage her emotions, to fill a void she feels inside, or to cope with daily stresses and problems in her life.
Signs and symptoms of compulsive overeating include:
- binge eating, or eating uncontrollably even when not physically hungry
- eating much more rapidly than normal
- eating alone due to shame and embarrassment
- feelings of guilt due to overeating
- preoccupation with body weight
- depression or mood swings
- awareness that eating patterns are abnormal
- history of weight fluctuations
- withdrawal from activities because of embarrassment about weight
- history of many different unsuccessful diets
- eating little in public, but maintaining a high body weight
- holding the belief that life will be better if they can lose weight
- hiding food in strange places (closets, cabinets, suitcases, under the bed)
- vague or secretive eating patterns
- self-defeating statements after food consumption
- holding the belief that food is their only friend
- weight gain
- loss of sexual desire or promiscuous relations
Unlike bulimia nervosa, persons with compulsive overeating disorder do not purge them of excess calories following a binge episode.
What are the Effects of Compulsive Overeating?
Compulsive overeating produces emotional, psychological and physiological side effects that can dramatically compromise one’s quality of life and hope for the future.
When a compulsive overeater consumes excessive amounts of food it can produce a euphoric feeling similar to that experienced through drug usage. They feel a temporary release from psychological stress and a diversion from feelings of sadness, shame, loneliness, anger or fear. Researchers have speculated that an abnormality of endorphin metabolism in the brain of compulsive eaters that triggers the process. This is in line with other theories of addiction that attribute it to a primary problem in the reward centers of the brain. In the case of compulsive overeating, the ingestion of trigger foods causes release of the neurotransmitter, serotonin. This could be another sign of neurobiological factors contributing to the addictive process. Attempts to abstain from compulsive overeating may result in higher levels of depression and anxiety due to the decreased levels of serotonin.
Left untreated, compulsive overeating can lead to serious medical conditions, including
- high cholesterol
- heart disease
- hypertension (high blood-pressure)
- sleep apnea (temporary suspension of breathing during sleep)
- major depression
- kidney disease
- bone deterioration
What is Compulsive Overeating?
A person with compulsive overeating disorder will tend to be overweight, and is usually aware that her eating habits are abnormal. Seeking emotional comfort in food exposes her to society’s tendency to stereotype the overweight individual. Words like, “just go on a diet” can be emotionally devastating to a person suffering from compulsive overeating, as it is not so much an issue with food consumption as with methods of living life on life’s terms and healthfully coping with emotional stresses.
A person who is compulsively eating will sometimes hide behind her physical appearance, using it as a shield against society; this is common in survivors of sexual abuse. She may feel guilty for not being good enough (according to someone else’s standards), shame for being overweight, and generally have a very low self-esteem. Her use of food and eating is an effort to cope with these feelings, which only perpetuates the cycle of feeling these emotions and trying to find a way to cope again. With a low self esteem and need for love and validation, she may turn to obsessive episodes of binging and eating as a way to forget the pain and the desire for affection. Even when she really wants to stop eating compulsively, she cannot arrest the disease without help (no more than a person with cancer can arrest her disease without treatment). The inability to stop using all in the face of the potentially life-threatening consequences is a hallmark of the disease of addiction.
What Should Parents or Friends Say If They Are Concerned?
Compulsive overeating is a very serious eating disorder, particularly if it is accompanied by co-occurring disorders. Like anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders, compulsive overeating is a medical disease that can result in irreversible health complications, including death. Learn more about compulsive overeating treatment for women and adolescent girls at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center.