Compulsive Eating: Causes and Risk Factors

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Contributor: Amy M. Klimek, MA, LCPC, Director of Program Development, Eating Disorder Program Coordinator, Timberline Knolls

Compulsive Eating is characterized as an “addiction” to food. The individual uses food and abnormal eating behaviors as a means to manage or attempt to control emotions driven by daily stressors. While the clinical disorder Binge Eating Disorder (BED) has the component of compulsive overeating, not everyone who compulsively overeats will be diagnosed with BED.

Binge Eating Disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States, affecting 3.5% of women, 2% of men, and 1 and up to 1.6% of adolescents. The difference between BED and compulsive eating often comes down to how often and how much. If left untreated, the likelihood of compulsive eating leading to BED is probable.

Symptoms of Compulsive Eating

Symptoms of overeating include binge eating behaviors or eating uncontrollably when not experiencing hunger and eating until uncomfortably full. Eating in isolation is common due to the shame and guilt an individual can experience as result of the behavior.
Other signs include:

  • History of weight fluctuations due to cycles of radical dieting
  • Preoccupation with their weight trend
  • Holding on to the belief that life will improve if they could only lose the weight
  • Repeatedly share self-defeating statements after eating or about their weight
  • Experience of fatigue and depression

The addiction perpetuates the gWoman severing relationship with family member over the phone.uilt and shame from the behavior of overeating to the inability to stop oneself from eating normally, and the possible weight gain it can cause. This leaves the person back to food to cope with this distress. Individuals suffering with this relationship with food likely respond with rapid dieting to offset the increased weight, leaving them to having a misrepresentation of a normal relationship with food. When an individual is driven to overeat, an intense experience of angst is present. Consuming food in excess and rapidly produces a euphoric feeling, often similar to that experienced with drug use. The byproduct is a temporary release from the suffering and diversion from the emotions.

Understanding Food Addiction

The term “food addiction” has been linked to the compulsivity behind overeating behaviors. Research has suggested that certain foods commonly report sugar as addictive, causing changes in the brain similar to those addicted to drugs. Research continues to speculate that “an abnormality of endorphin metabolism in the brain activates the process of overeating” and the consummation of excess amount of food releases the neurotransmitter, serotonin, as it would with drug or alcohol addiction. This is not to say food is the addictive substance; instead it is the behavior of binging or excessively eating that causes the dependency.

Causes & Contributing Factors

There is a variety of contributing factors to the development of any eating disorder. These include biological, psychological, and environmental factors that come into play when an individual uses food behaviors to cope with unwanted emotions. As some in the field say, genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger.

man stressed about compulsive overeatingTurning to food to cope is common among individuals who have low self-esteem, co-occurring mental health conditions, and/or have suffered some form of trauma.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common among those with eating disorders, particularly in relation to past sexual abuse.

When these unbearable feelings are only relieved by disordered food behaviors, it is recommended that the individual seeks professional help immediately.

Though they might provide temporary relief from what someone is going through, engaging in disordered behaviors actually magnifies pain and suffering in the long-run.

It acts as a band-aid when psychotherapy, actually processing uncomfortable feelings, and sometimes medication are the true healers.

Individuals who have a family history of disordered eating or a personal history of trauma have a greater risk of struggling with compulsive overeating.

Effects on the Mind & Body

Disordered eating inevitably takes a toll on both the mind and body. Compulsive overeating has unique side effects that can wreak havoc on an individual’s health.

The cycle of the addictive behaviors produce emotional, psychological and physiological threats to the individual, compromising one’s quality of life. Left untreated, health risks include:

  • Heart attack
  • High blood-pressure and cholesterol
  • Kidney disease and/or failure
  • Arthritis
  • Bone deterioration
  • Stroke
  • Major depression
  • Generalize anxiety
  • Sleep apnea.

Cardiovascular problems, including heart disease, are common with compulsive overeating. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is another life-threatening side effect.

Individuals who compulsively overeat are often overweight as a result, making them at high risk for the development of Type 2 Diabetes. This is because extra weight can lead to insulin resistance. Type 2 Diabetes is a serious health condition but once a diagnosis has been made, it can usually be managed through insulin, a corrected meal plan, and regularly checking in with your physician.

attractive lady overcoming compulsive overeating Other physical conditions that often accompany compulsive overeating include muscle and joint pain, gastrointestinal problems, and sleep apnea.

Even if there are no pre-existing mental health conditions when an individual begins eating compulsively, depression, anxiety, and/or other disorders commonly follow.

This is partially because eating disorders can actually change an individual’s brain chemistry. Additionally, disordered eating is often considered shameful, so someone struggling to cope might isolate, furthering the battle going on in his or her head.


Hope for Healing and Treatment

Treatment is available. Nutrition counseling can help the individual understand nutritional needs, reestablish intuitive eating cues and end the cycle of overeating and restrictive dieting. Deprivation can be a stressor just as much as depression or anxiety. Integrative psychotherapy will support the process of awareness of the core emotional stressors and psychological triggers. Compassion

Incorporating mindfulness into therapy will help the individual learn how to build tolerance for both internal and external stimuli. Attendance at Overeaters Anonymous 12 step meetings, Food Addiction Anonymous meetings or similar support groups can help a person abstain from the behavior with food while building a community of support with others who have similar experiences.

Unlike other compulsions of choice, people cannot abstain from all foods; instead they learn how to abstain from the behavior of binging or compulsive overeating of food. Recovery cannot be done alone. The support and encouragement from family and friends can help the individual through the therapeutic process.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

If you have struggled with compulsive eating, what resources were helpful to you for recovery?

Amy Klimek photoAbout the Author: As the Eating Disorder Program Coordinator, Amy facilitates supervision for Eating Disorder Specialists, offers support through training to TK staff, and provides education on eating disorders to the community.

Amy started at Timberline Knolls as a Behavioral Health Specialist. As such, she provided support at the milieu level for all residents. She transitioned to Eating Disorder Specialist in 2012, supporting healing in present moment experiences for residents who struggled with eating disorders and body image. Amy earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Sociology from the University of Illinois. She was awarded a Master’s Degree in Counseling specializing in both community and school counseling from Lewis University.



The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 28, 2016
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