Compulsive Eating: Causes & Risk Factors

Man with compulsive overeating issues

When people feel uncomfortable emotions, they can cope with these feelings in a variety of ways. Some of these coping mechanisms are healthy, while others are self-destructive.

Using food to cope with emotions can set people on a dangerous path of disordered thoughts and behaviors surrounding food and their bodies.

Is This the Same as Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is common for anyone to succumb to on occasion. When you have a bad day, you might want to drown your sorrows in a scoop of ice cream on the way home.

Related issues arise when food behaviors are an individual’s only or primary coping mechanism. This can be compared to having a glass of wine versus the whole bottle. Some professionals even refer to compulsive overeating as having a “food addiction.”

Just as a large part of the distinction between disordered eating and a full-blown eating disorder depends on the amount of distress caused, determining whether you are truly struggling with compulsive eating depends a lot on the depth of the physical and emotional consequences of your behaviors. Those who compulsively overeat typically feel extreme shame surrounding their behaviors and go to great lengths to hide it.

Some who compulsively overeat fit the diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder (BED). However, this is not always true. BED is characterized by binges without subsequent compensatory behaviors. While this can be labeled as compulsive overeating, this label is also true of cases in which people eat smaller amounts compulsively throughout the day.

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.

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.

Getting the Help You Deserve

Anyone who struggles with disordered eating deserves to be freed from the confines of such an all-consuming and obsessive condition. Compulsive overeating, regardless of whether it fits the diagnostic criteria for BED, can significantly impact an individual’s day-to-day life and affect his or her job, relationships, and mental health.

If this describes your relationship with food, reach out for help today. There is no shame in asking for help, and it might just save your life.


Courtney Howard

About the Author: Courtney Howard is a Certified Life Coach specializing in eating disorders through Lionheart Eating Disorder Recovery Coaching. As a content writer at the Sovereign Health Group, Courtney is a passionate advocate for recovery and works to fight the stigma surrounding all mental health disorders. She graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) from San Diego State University, holds a paralegal certificate in Family Law and is a Certified Domestic Violence Advocate.


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 July 25, 2016
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.