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Understanding Compulsive Overeating

People who chronically overeat may be suffering from a common eating disorder known as compulsive overeating, also known as binge eating.

This eating disorder is characterized by eating large amounts of food, by eating quickly (often to the point of discomfort), and eating when no longer hungry. While many people experience a food binge periodically, the compulsive overeater averages binging two times a week for at least six months.

Gradual start

Compulsive overeating may start gradually. For example, a child may turn to food when upset. Over time, the child learns food soothes upset feelings.

The disorder may develop when others make repeated negative comments about a person's weight. It may develop after a traumatic event in childhood, or after restrictive dieting. A person's home environment also can play a role. For example, if a person’s parents were overcontrolling or not present, that person may not have had good role models for eating.

Compulsions typically follow obsessions, which reduce anxiety. Therefore, obsessive thoughts of low self-worth, being overweight, or dieting, can trigger the compulsion to eat.

The more weight a person gains, the harder the person tries to diet. Dieting is usually what leads to the next binge.

Signs and symptoms

People who eat compulsively often do so in private. They usually are reluctant to talk about their eating problems.

If you or someone you know has several of these signs and behaviors of binge eating, talk with your health care provider:

  • Eating a little in public and a lot in private

  • Feelings about yourself based on weight

  • Depression after overeating

  • Feeling tormented by eating habits

  • Going on and off many diets

  • Binge eating


Compulsive overeating can’t always be prevented, especially when the condition has roots in childhood. However, these suggestions can help:

  • Avoid restrictive diets. They can easily lead to feelings of deprivation, which result in binge eating.

  • Check your body image. Talk with a dietitian or psychologist if you have a negative body image.

  • Know when you eat for comfort. If you feel depressed, angry, or anxious, talk with your health care provider.


If your child or teen appears to eat for emotional reasons or eat as a way to cope with problems, talk with your child's health care provider. It's important to get help to break the cycle before it becomes a full-blown eating disorder.

Multiple approaches to help people with this disorder include: cognitive-behavioral and nutritional therapy, and psychotherapy. Medication may be indicated, but will require close supervision, especially for children and teens. Healthy life choices and skills are the goals in overcoming compulsive overeating.