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