Compulsive overeating, also sometimes called food addiction, is characterized by an obsessive/compulsive relationship to food. Professionals address this with either a behavior therapy model or a food-addiction model. An individual suffering from compulsive overeating disorder engages in frequent episodes of uncontrolled eating, or binge eating, during which they may feel frenzied or out of control, often consuming food past the point of being comfortably full. Bingeing in this way is generally followed by feelings of guilt and depression. Unlike individuals with bulimia, compulsive overeaters do not attempt to compensate for their bingeing with purging behaviors such as fasting, laxative use or vomiting. Compulsive overeaters will typically eat when they are not hungry. Their obsession is demonstrated in that they spend excessive amounts of time and thought devoted to food, and secretly plan or fantasize about eating alone. Compulsive overeating usually leads to weight gain and obesity, but not everyone who is obese is also a compulsive overeater. While compulsive overeaters tend to be overweight or obese, persons of normal or average weight can also be affected.
In addition to binge eating, compulsive overeaters can also engage in grazing behavior, during which they return to pick at food throughout the day. These things result in a large overall number of calories consumed even if the quantities eaten at any one time may be small. When a compulsive eater overeats primarily through bingeing, he or she can be said to have binge eating disorder.
Left untreated, compulsive overeating can lead to serious medical conditions including high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, sleep apnea, and major depression. Additional long-term side effects of the condition also include kidney disease, arthritis, bone deterioration and stroke. Other negative effects may include the amount of money that is wasted on food and the feelings of low self-esteem that comes as a result of bingeing.
Signs and symptoms
- Binge eating, or eating uncontrollably even when not physically hungry
- Eating much more rapidly than normal
- Eating alone due to shame and embarrassment
- Feelings of guilt due to overeating
- Preoccupation with body weight
- Depression or mood swings
- Awareness that eating patterns are abnormal
- Rapid weight gain or sudden onset of obesity
- Significantly decreased mobility due to weight gain
- History of weight fluctuations
- Withdrawal from activities because of embarrassment about weight
- History of many different unsuccessful diets
- Eating little in public, but maintaining a high body weight
- Very low self-esteem and feeling need to eat greater and greater amounts.
During binges, compulsive overeaters may consume from 5,000 to 15,000 food calories daily, resulting in a temporary release from psychological stress through an addictive high not unlike that experienced through drug abuse. In bulimics, this high may be intensified by the act of purging. Researchers have speculated there is an abnormality of endorphin metabolism in the brain of binge eaters that triggers the addictive process. This is in line with other theories of addiction that attribute it not to avoidance of withdrawal symptoms, but to a primary problem in the reward centers of the brain. For the compulsive overeater, the ingestion of trigger foods causes release of the neurotransmitter, serotonin. This could be another sign of neurobiological factors contributing to the addictive process. Abstinence from addictive food and food eating processes causes withdrawal symptoms in those with eating disorders. There may be higher levels of depression and anxiety due to the decreased levels of serotonin in the individual.
There are complexities with the biology of compulsive eating that separate it from a pure substance abuse analogy. Food is a complex mixture of chemicals that can affect the body in multiple ways, which is magnified by stomach-brain communication. In some ways, it may be much more difficult for compulsive overeaters to recover than drug addicts. There is an anecdotal saying among Overeaters Anonymous members that "when you are addicted to drugs you put the tiger in the cage to recover; when you are addicted to food you put the tiger in the cage, but take it out three times a day for a walk."
The physical explanation of compulsive overeating may be attributed to an overeaters' increased tendency to secrete insulin at the sight and smell of food, though medical evidence supporting this is controversial. Research has found a link between the sugar and fat content of foods and binging behaviors.
Compulsive overeating is treatable with counselling and therapy. Approximately 80% of sufferers who seek professional help recover completely or experience significant reduction in their symptoms. Many eating disorders are thought to be behavioral patterns stemming from emotional struggles that need to be resolved in order for the sufferer to develop lasting results and a healthy relationship with food. Compulsive overeating (along with anorexia) is a serious problem and can result in death. However, with treatment, which should include talk therapy, medical and nutritional counseling, it can be overcome. Several Twelve Step programs designed to help members recover from compulsive overeating and food addiction exist today.
- Binge eating disorder
- Binge eating
- Bulimia nervosa
- Eating disorder
- Eating disorder not otherwise specified
- Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous
- Food Addicts Anonymous
- Overeaters Anonymous
- International Journal of Eating Disorders
- Kriz, Kerri-Lynn Murphy (May 2002). The Efficacy of Overeaters Anonymous in Fostering Abstinence in Binge-Eating Disorder and Bulimia Nervosa. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
- Weiner, Sydell (1998). "The Addiction of Overeating: Self-Help Groups as Treatment Models". Journal of Clinical Psychology 54 (2): 163–167. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1097-4679(199802)54:2<163::AID-JCLP5>3.0.CO;2-T. PMID 9467760.
- Avena, N. M.; Rada, P.; Hoebel, B. G. (2009). "Sugar and Fat Bingeing Have Notable Differences in Addictive-like Behavior". Journal of Nutrition 139 (3): 623–628. doi:10.3945/jn.108.097584. ISSN 0022-3166.
- "Eating Awareness Training" Molly Groger, copyright 1983 "...reclaim (your) 'birthright', the right to eat without compulsion, obsession, or suffering. ...what the body wants, as much as it wants, whenever it wants." from the Preface by Thomas Lebherz, M.D.
- C. Brownlee, "Food Fix: Neurobiology highlights similarities between obesity and drug addiction", Science News, Vol. 68, No. 10, 9/3/2005
- The Food Farce "FOOD ADDICTION | The Perils of Processed Foods in America’s Diet"