- Compulsive eating is a behavior where someone has an uncontrolled urge to eat.
- People struggling with compulsive eating will eat as a response to a trigger like uncomfortable feelings or emotions.
- A registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) can help you break the cycle of compulsive overeating by creating a plan personalized to your specific needs.
Compulsion means an irresistible urge to do something, so compulsive eating means an uncontrollable need to eat. It isn’t a diagnosis like binge eating disorder (BED)—although they can look very similar—but someone with BED may eat compulsively as part of the condition.
This article will help you understand what compulsive eating is, why it happens, and how to regain control.
What Is Compulsive Overeating?
Compulsive overeating means someone lacks control surrounding food and eats large amounts of food even when not hungry. This can result in snacking and eating throughout the day, or after certain triggering situations.
Eating compulsively has very little to do with actual feelings of hunger but is instead a behavior someone uses to deal with uncomfortable feelings and emotions. Several studies suggest compulsive eating activates areas of the brain also involved in addictions like gambling or drug use to form reward pathways for certain behaviors.
In the case of compulsive overeating, the brain recognizes a distressing emotion and sends the message that food may help. Eating food becomes a reward that triggers the release of brain chemicals that may help someone feel relief or calm—but only temporarily. As soon as the uncomfortable feeling returns, the cycle resumes, and food becomes the answer.
How Does Compulsive Overeating Start?
Since compulsive eating is not about hunger, scientists have tried to understand what triggers it and highlighted the following three important aspects:
- Habitual overeating.
- Overeating to relieve a negative emotional state.
- Overeating despite aversive consequences (like not feeling well or gaining weight).
Compulsive eating becomes a cycle associated with temporary feelings of pleasure because of the release of brain hormones. The behavior is then repeated to recreate those pleasurable feelings, and food becomes a way to regain control.
Similarly to how the brain responds to drugs, food can increase the release of dopamine. This neurotransmitter promotes feelings of pleasure and can make you want to continue seeking that reward, especially if it’s used to alleviate anxiety or stress.
Some studies even suggest that people who struggle with BED or compulsive overeating may have differences in their brain structure that affect how they respond to food.
Signs of Compulsive Eating
Remember that compulsive eating is not an occasional behavior. It’s something that occurs over and over and is difficult to control. Signs you may be dealing with compulsive overeating include:
- Feeling like you can’t stop eating despite not being hungry.
- A feeling of guilt or shame after eating.
- Feeling sick or GI concerns like reflux, bloating, or diarrhea.
- Weight gain.
- Hiding or hoarding foods.
- Creating rituals around timing or types of foods.
- Eating in secret or hiding behavior from family.
Compulsive eating could be linked to genetics or environment (like a traumatic event), but it also could stem from a history of food restriction. Following diets that significantly restrict what, when, or how much you can put food on a pedestal where the more it’s prohibited, the more you want it.
How to Control Compulsive Overeating
It’s essential to recognize that compulsive eating is not about willpower or weakness. It’s a complex issue that runs deeper than simply telling yourself to stop. It requires compassion, support, and a gradual approach.
Avoid Labeling Your Food
Food labels are everywhere. You can’t turn on social media or read a health magazine without seeing articles about so-called clean food or guilty pleasures. Even subconsciously, you may label food good or bad because of your personal experiences—maybe you grew up in a house that labeled carbs as bad, so now you can’t help seeing bread and immediately thinking these thoughts.
Labels do little more than apply moral judgments to food where it doesn’t belong. Plus, telling yourself you can’t or shouldn’t eat something increases the appeal. For people who compulsively overeat, these forbidden foods loom larger than life, making it hard to resist when the opportunity arises. Working towards a mindset where all foods fit can help remove labels and open up food choices.
Recognize Your Hunger Cues (or Triggers)
Recognizing hunger cues may be easier said than done, especially if you’ve taught yourself to ignore them most of your life. Journaling can be a great tool to help you track how you feel emotionally and physically when you eat. Relearning these sensations can help you tune into your hunger cues again. Prompts for your journal entries include: is it an emotional response, or are you experiencing true hunger cues like a grumbling stomach or lightheadedness?
Telling someone who compulsively overeats to listen to their hunger cues can seem unrealistic initially because the behavior isn’t about hunger. Still, through this process, you’ll learn what it means to feel hungry, which may also help you identify triggers.
Restriction almost always leads to overeating eventually. Food restriction has similar risks as labeling foods: when you tell yourself you can’t have something, it makes it that much more enticing. When you finally eat it, you feel like you have to eat a lot since you don’t know when you’ll be able to eat that food again.
Studies show that people who restrict food (called restrained eaters) are more likely to overeat high-calorie, high-fat foods (aka tempting foods) than those who don’t regularly limit foods. Finding a middle ground between restriction and compulsive overeating isn’t easy, but it is possible. Nourish can connect you with a dietitian specializing in disordered eating to provide a safe, judgment-free space to explore how to enjoy food again.
Try A Change In Environment
Consider limiting your exposure if a location or situation triggers compulsive eating. For example, if you find yourself overeating in front of the television at night, maybe switch up your routine and try taking a bath or listening to a favorite podcast at the end of the night.
Or perhaps the car is a trigger because it’s a private place, and you can eat in secret without anyone noticing. If that’s the case, leaving food out of the car may help to avoid the connection.
While all of the above tips are important, it’s also normal and expected if you feel overwhelmed and unable to take control of your eating without help. A registered dietitian (RDN) can help you repair your relationship with food, identify triggers, and create a plan to move forward. If you struggle with compulsive overeating, consider booking a virtual appointment with a registered dietitian. Nourish provides virtual nutrition counseling and accepts most popular insurance carriers.
Depending on the reasons why you compulsively overeat, it may also help to work with a therapist at the same time. A therapist can help you identify and work through the underlying psychological issues that may be causing the compulsive behavior, such as depression, anxiety, or trauma. By understanding why you eat, you can begin to make changes that will help improve your relationship with food and yourself.
Compulsive overeating is driven by psychological and emotional factors, not simply physiological hunger. If you find yourself compulsively overeating, consider exploring your relationship with food and identifying any triggers that might be causing the behavior.
Working with a registered dietitian can help you develop strategies to break the cycle of compulsive eating. Connect with an RD today.
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