September 26, 2023
September 26, 2023

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Compulsive Overeating: What Is It Really About?

“You work with eating disorders? I have an eating disorder…I never know when to stop eating!” This is the response I most often receive when individuals hear that I work in the eating disorder field. Though many of these responses are made nonchalantly, I feel that addressing the issue of compulsive overeating would greatly benefit many members of our community.

Compulsive overeating differs from Binge Eating Disorder in that compulsive overeating falls under the category of disordered eating, rather than an eating disorder. Compulsive overeating is when an individual feels the need to eat past satiation. A compulsive over-eater may do so from time to time or it may be habitual. S/he may also binge at times which is somewhat different as it involves eating a large amount of food in a small window of time and doing so in an obsessive and non-aware manner.

When an individual compulsively overeats, s/he is taking in more food than is actually needed for healthy body functioning. If one is craving potato chips, for instance, this might very well be a sign that the body is lacking in sodium. The body knows what it needs and this triggers specific hunger cues. Many times compulsive overeaters attempt to ignore these hunger cues and reach for a completely different food that they think more healthful. But if these hunger cues are ignored, the individual is more likely to “go overboard” by compulsively eating a large amount of food.

The second component of compulsive overeating relates to the reason behind it. When a person eats compulsively, s/he is either providing his/her body with the food it has been missing or there may be a deeper psychological component. The psychological reason for compulsive overeating generally relates to the person feeling hollow or empty in some emotional area, and therefore eats to compensate for this empty feeling. Thus a person can find himself eating extra ice cream or simply starting a box of cookies that he hadn’t even intended to open because he feels like he must. The key is to dig deeper as to why he is compulsively doing so. This may be because he is bored and turns to food…perhaps it is because he feels lonely or stressed and finds food as a comfort. There could be a number of different reasons, but they all relate to what is going on emotionally for the individual. Once he discovers why he is compulsively overeating, he can address the emotional aspect and begin to consciously work on filling that void so that food does not become the go-to factor. For instance, if an individual compulsively overeats and then worries about gaining weight, feelings about not being desirable may be what is driving her to overeat. Within eating disorders and disordered eating it is always important to look beyond the eating behaviors and toward the underlying emotions.

What should compulsive overeaters do? While there are many healthy diets out there, it is not necessarily healthy to cut out any food groups completely. Instead, one should eat in moderation. Therefore, one of the first steps if one is trying to stop compulsive overeating is to make sure s/he is receiving a relatively normal intake of a variety of foods. If you are craving a cookie, it is probably best to have that cookie. Your body has a natural weight and if you try to go much above or below that weight, it will result in yo-yo dieting which has been proven to be unhealthy for one’s body. This does not mean that I do not believe in dieting; rather, I encourage individuals who compulsively overeat to consider a diet that includes all food groups.

We all overeat at times. This often takes place on Thursday or Saturday nights when there is an abundance of food. Please note that if you find yourself compulsively overeating, you should not be diagnosing yourself with an eating disorder. Rather, you should discuss this with a physician or therapist and get to the root of why you are doing so. For those interested in this subject I recommend Feeding the Hungry Heart by Geneen Roth.

For more information email Temimah at

By Temimah Zucker

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