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"Do I Really Lack Self-Control?": Compulsive Over-Eating

What is it?
Compulsive over-eating is characterized by uncontrollable eating followed by feelings of guilt and shame. It is different from bulimia in that it does not involve any purging. While it inevitably results in weight gain, it is also not to be confused with obesity. Not everyone who is overweight has an eating disorder.

Why do it?
While people who compulsively over-eat are usually very preoccupied with issues of food, eating, and weight, their uncontrollable bouts of eating are an attempt to manage other hidden issues. That is, the compulsive over-eater uses food to cope with stress, upset, emotional distress, and other problems (i.e., depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem). However, the negative feelings blocked by the over-eating are only momentarily avoided, as the person inevitably feels guilty, shameful, and even defective about the over-eating.

How does it start?
Compulsive over-eating generally has a gradual beginning, often starting in early childhood when eating patterns are formed. It usually starts very subtly, with a child turning to food whenever she or he is upset. Over time, that person learns that food in fact will soothe the upset feelings. The destructive pattern continues as the person does not learn to trust that feelings pass and that she/he is capable of self-soothing without food.

Why is it so hard to stop?
Like someone with bulimia, the person who compulsively over-eats has usually tried every way they can think of to stop. Often the attempt at control takes the form of rigorous dieting or living by inflexible standards of eating. While strict dieting may help intermittently with the weight gain, in the long run it doesn't do anything to remedy the emotional reasons for the compulsive over-eating. Moreover, restrictive dieting is so depriving that it creates a situation of compounded desperation to eat. Therefore, dieting often backfires and just perpetuates the compulsive overeating.

Misunderstanding and prejudice
Compulsive overeating has only recently come to be taken seriously and straightforwardly in our culture. Prejudicial impressions remain very strong. People with this kind of disordered eating are often stereotyped as lazy and gluttonous, or, at best, as having too big an appetite and lacking in willpower or self-control. Their pain is then overlooked not only by themselves but also by many of us.

Change
Recovery is completely possible for compulsive overeaters through a gradual process of lifestyle change and with the help of others. Along with the medical, psychotherapeutic and nutritional assistance helpful to anyone with distorted eating habits, oftentimes groups such as Overeaters Anonymous are very useful.

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Adapted from: Siegel, M., Brisman, J., and Weinshel, M. (1997). "Surviving an Eating Disorder." Harper Perennial Publishers, NY, NY.


 
Boston College Eating Awareness Team
Last Updated: January 28, 2002