Compulsive Eating

Compulsive overeating describes a behavior which is present with some forms of eating disorders. It is not a diagnosis in its own right, but more of a description of a type of behavior. It is typically used to describe frequent episodes of uncontrollable eating, where a person continues to eat food long after they feel full and even to the point of feeling sick. Compulsive overeaters may meet criteria for Binge Eating Disorder (BED), which is a formal diagnosis.


The American Psychiatric Association’s publishes a manual for diagnosing mental health disorders. According to that manual, called DSM-5, for someone to be diagnosed with Binge Eating Disorder they must meet the following criteria;

  • A binge is when a very large amount of food is eaten in a small amount of time
  • Binging happens at least twice a week for 6 months or more
  • The binge is not compensated for, i.e there is no purging
  • The sufferer is aware that the binge eating is abnormal

Compulsive EatingRigid dietary practices have been linked to a higher incidence of BED. Sufferers with a negative body image might initially restrict food or diet in order to lose weight. This restriction in calories may then spark a cycle of binge eating behavior as their body spirals out of balance. Weight gain can be followed by feelings of powerlessness, guilt, shame and failure.

Compulsive overeaters usually feel out of control and are aware that their eating patterns are abnormal. In a way similar to people with bulimia, compulsive overeaters and people with Binge Eating Disorder do recognize they have a problem. Individuals with BED who are overweight may be subjected to weight stigma and teasing, especially if they are children or teenagers.

Binge Eating Disorder is now seen as a serious medical condition which can be treated. Like anorexia and bulimia, compulsive overeating can result in chronic disease and death. With the proper treatment, which should include therapy, medical and nutritional counseling, it can be overcome. Learn more about treatment.

Bingeing, the act of overconsumption, usually involves foods that are high in sugar and/or fat, but that are low in real nutrient value. The low nutrient value of sugar rich foods means that the person’s body continues to require additional consumption of foods in order to feel fulfilled. For this reason people with BED can gain weight but remain relatively malnourished as the foods that they are consuming are void of essential vitamins and minerals.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Binge eating
  • Fear of not being able to stop eating voluntarily
  • Depression
  • Self-deprecating thoughts following binges
  • Withdrawing from activities because of embarrassment about weight
  • Going on many different diets
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Eating little in public, while maintaining a high weight
  • Believing they will be a better person when thin
  • Feelings about self based on weight
  • Social and professional failures attributed to weight
  • Feeling tormented by eating habits
  • Weight is focus of life

Emotional Eating

Emotional Eating is another term that is frequently used but is not a diagnosis as such. It refers to instances when a person turns to food for comfort rather than hunger. In most instances of emotional eating the person is under some form of stress.

Emotional eating can also refer to instances when a person uses food as a reward, after a hard day at work, or when they feel lonely or depressed. Whatever the reason for emotional eating, it is important that the person realizes that eating and food are being used as an emotional coping strategy, and that they should work to find out what it is that is causing them the stress in this first place.

Emotional hunger is different than physical hunger. It often comes on all of a sudden and feels like an urgent need for food. Physical hunger tends to grow more gradually. Physical hunger also dissolves when food is eaten; emotional hunger on the other hand does not go away after eating.

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One of the most successful programs that specializes in treating eating disorders is the Milestones Program. They have many years of experience treating compulsive overeaters, and their programs help both the affected individual and their family. You can follow this link to the Milestones In Recovery Website to learn more, and see how they can help you.


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Updated by Tabitha Farrar – 2014
Written By: Colleen Thompson – 2001


Iacovino JM, Gredysa DM, Altman M, Wilfley DE. (August 2012).”Psychological treatments for binge eating disorder”

Fairburn et. al, 1998. “The classification of recurrent overeating: the “binge eating disorder” proposal”. International Journal of Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders Handout – Sudbury General Hospital Eating Disorders Clinic (information for handout obtained from NEDIC)