Compulsive Overeating Symptoms and Causes

At Structure House, we’ll help you to identify the obstacles that are preventing you from achieving your health goals. You’ll work with compassionate professionals to understand the signs and symptoms of compulsive eating that may be holding you back.

Understanding Compulsive Eating

What is compulsive overeating

Compulsive overeating (which is also referred to as “compulsive eating”) is a behavioral problem that is characterized by an inability to exert control over the amount of food one consumes. Compulsive overeating is similar to binge eating disorder (BED) and emotional eating — in fact, the primary difference between compulsive overeating and BED is that binge eating disorder is a recognized name of an eating disorder, while compulsive overeating is a term used by many to describe the behavior they are exhibiting or witnessing. In the effort to determine if a person is dealing with compulsive overeating or should be diagnosed with BED, some experts evaluate the sense of control (or lack thereof) that the patient experiences during a binge. Though both conditions are associated with a failure to control one’s eating, studies suggest that people with binge eating disorder experience an even greater sense of lost control than do those who are exhibiting compulsive overeating.

That said, it is important to understand that compulsive overeating is much more serious than merely eating too much at a meal or over a more extended period of time. Compulsive overeaters have an inability to exercise appropriate portion control, in a manner similar to an alcoholic who is unable to stop after “just one drink.” Once a compulsive over-eater begins an eating binge, he or she may very well feel virtually powerless to stop.

Compulsive overeaters eat beyond the point of satisfaction or pleasure, and when their binge is over, they often experience guilt, shame, and similar emotions. However, unlike people who have the eating disorder bulimia, compulsive overeaters do not follow their binges with purging behaviors such as vomiting, laxative abuse, or excessive exercise.

Compulsive overeating can clearly lead to a range of physical, emotional, and social problems – but the good news is that effective treatment options are available. Many people who once struggled with compulsive overeating have been able to regain control over their behaviors through therapy, education, support groups, and similar experiences.


Compulsive eating statistics

Because compulsive eating is not a formally recognized eating disorder, it has not been studied and quantified to the degree that anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder have. Still, since compulsive eaters exhibit symptoms close to those who have been diagnosed with BED, we are able to get a sense of the prevalence of this problem.

Experts estimate that between 2 and 5 percent of the U.S. population will struggle with episodes of binge eating or compulsive overeating during their lifetimes. As is often the case with disordered eating, statistics suggest that compulsive overeating seems to disproportionately affect women. A survey conducted by Overeaters Anonymous found that 87 percent of OA members who struggled with compulsive eating are women, and 13 percent are men.

Causes and Risk Factors

Overeating causes and risk factors for compulsive eating

Compulsive eating can be caused, influenced, and triggered by several internal and external factors. As is commonly found when studying mental health or behavioral disorders, both genetic and environmental factors have been associated with compulsive eating.

Genetic: People with a family history of compulsive eating are more likely to engage in the behavior themselves than are those who do not have relatives who struggle with this condition. When close family members (parents are siblings) are compulsive overeaters, the risk is even higher. Other evidence of a genetic or biological influence can be found in the fact that compulsive overeating can trigger the “pleasure centers” in the brain in a manner similar to what occurs in the brains of substance abusers.

Environmental: Family history of compulsive overeating can also be an environmental issue. For example, parents who exhibit symptoms of compulsive overeating may unintentionally teach their children that this is a proper or healthy way to act. When parents engage in compulsive overeating or other unhealthy behaviors as a means of dealing with anger, sadness, or stress, this can also increase the likelihood that their children will adopt these unhealthy strategies when faced with similar challenges. Also, children who have been abused and/or neglected may be at increased risk for engaging in compulsive eating.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history
  • History of trauma
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor self-image
  • Ineffective coping skills
  • Depression
  • Anger management problems
  • Addiction
  • Age
  • Impulse-control problems
  • Anxiety or panic disorders

Signs & Symptoms

Compulsive eating symptoms and signs

Identifying a person who is struggling with compulsive overeating isn’t always as easy as one might initially think. As is the case with many behavioral problems, compulsive overeating is often accompanied by deceptive practices that are meant to hide the problem from friends and family members. However, the following are among the more common signs and symptoms that could indicate compulsive overeating:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Eating quickly
  • Eating in large quantities, even when not apparently hungry
  • Eating alone or in secret
  • Evasiveness or denial when discussing eating habits and/or weight gain

Physical symptoms:

  • Weight gain
  • Feeling bloated or uncomfortably full
  • Constipation

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Feelings of shame and guilt, especially in relation to food
  • Obsessive thoughts about food and/or eating
  • Low self-esteem
  • Suicidal ideation

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Consistently refusing invitations to dine with others
  • Withdrawal from family, friends, and other interpersonal interactions
  • Difficulties dealing with stress or pressure
  • Problems with anger management
  • Heightened sensitivity to comments about weight or body shape

If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.


Effects of compulsive overeating

When it comes to behavior problems such as compulsive eating, clear cause/effect relationships are difficult to establish. However, significant evidence exists that compulsive overeaters are at increased risk for the following effects:

  • Overweight and obesity
  • Obesity-related effects including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease
  • Digestive problems
  • Malnutrition

Why Consider Treatment

Why consider treatment for compulsive eating at Structure House

Compulsive disorder often occurs in concert with one or more other behavioral or mental health conditions. In some cases, the compulsive eating leads to or exacerbates the co-occurring disorder or disorders, while in other cases the compulsive eating is a result of the other disorders. The following are among the more common co-occurring disorders that are experienced by compulsive overeaters:

  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Addiction
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

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