Compulsive Overeating Causes & Effects

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Understanding Compulsive Overeating

Learn about compulsive overeating

Compulsive overeating, also known more simply as compulsive eating, is characterized by the presence of a pattern of behaviors in which individuals consume excessive amounts of food in an attempt to cope with problems they are facing or with emotions that they do not know how else to manage. Unlike symptoms of bulimia nervosa, individuals who participate in compulsive overeating do not follow their eating with purging behaviors. The lack of this symptom often leaves individuals not understanding that they are actually suffering from a disease. When one intentionally makes him or herself throw up after eating, he or she can typically recognize that such behaviors are negatively affecting his or her health. Yet, the act of compulsively overeating can cause significant damage to one’s health, both physically and psychologically, as well.

Compulsive overeating is oftentimes confused with binge-eating. However, individuals who are suffering from binge-eating disorder will consume excessively large amounts of food in a single sitting, while individuals who compulsively overeat may not eat in excess every time they consume food. Rather, these people will consistently eat throughout the day but may eat small amounts of food at a time. However, due to the constant nature in which these people are consuming various foods, those consistent, small portions eventually lead to overeating.

While the presence of compulsive eating patterns can be devastating to a person’s life, there is treatment available that can help these individuals not only overcome their symptoms, but also teach them how to develop new, healthy eating habits and restore their sense of positive self-worth.


Compulsive overeating statistics

Statistics regarding the number of people who engage in compulsive overeating are lacking, but general estimates have suggested that approximately 2% of the general population is affected by such behaviors, and 8% of the population who suffers from obesity participate in compulsive overeating.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for compulsive overeating

The causes and risk factors for the presence of compulsive eating behaviors have been described as being similar to those which lead to drug and/or alcohol addiction. The following explanations have been offered:

Genetic: Genetic influences can impact the development of compulsive eating and food addiction. Individuals who have biological family members who struggle with compulsive overeating are at a greater risk of participating in similar behaviors than are those individuals who do not have the same familial background.

Environmental: There are a number of different environmental factors that can have an impact on the development of compulsive overeating. Experiencing a traumatic event or being the victim of various types of abuse and neglect can lead a person to begin compulsively eating as a means of trying to numb him or herself to the negative emotional consequences those experiences have elicited. Additionally, if a person spends a great deal of time in an environment where much emphasis is placed on food, dieting, and weight, he or she is more susceptible to developing the behaviors associated with compulsive overeating.

Risk Factors:

  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Family history of eating disorders or compulsive overeating behaviors
  • Experiencing a traumatic event
  • Being the victim of abuse and/or neglect
  • Low self-esteem

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of compulsive overeating

Examples of the various signs and symptoms that may be displayed by individuals who engage in compulsive overeating can include the following:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Eating uncontrollably, even when not hungry
  • Eating much more rapidly than is considered normal
  • Eating alone
  • Hiding food
  • Participating in unsuccessful dieting attempts
  • Making self-defeating statements about how much food one eats
  • No longer participating in activities one once enjoyed
  • Social isolation

Physical symptoms:

  • Fluctuations in weight
  • Weight gain
  • Fatigue
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Sleep apnea

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Preoccupation with food
  • Preoccupation with body weight
  • Minimized or complete loss of sex drive

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Feelings of guilt and shame
  • Feeling disgusted with oneself


Effects of compulsive overeating

When left unaddressed, the long-term effects of compulsive eating can be detrimental to a person’s psychological and physical health. Examples of such effects can include:

  • Major depression
  • Excessive anxiety
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Bone deterioration
  • Sleep apnea
  • Arthritis
  • Stroke

Co-Occurring Disorders

Compulsive overeating and co-occurring disorders

While compulsive overeating is not considered a diagnosable disorder in and of itself, the patterns that occur that when someone is struggling with this condition can often present alongside a number of other mental health disorders, including:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Substance use disorders

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The staff at Center for Hope saved me from my eating disorder. I am so thankful for each and every one of them.

– Anonymous Client