Understanding Compulsive Overeating

People who chronically overeat may have a common eating disorder called a compulsive overeating. It is also known as binge eating.

This eating disorder is marked by eating large amounts of food, by eating quickly (often to the point of discomfort), and by eating when no longer hungry. Many people have a food binge now and then. But a compulsive overeater averages binging 2 times a week for at least 6 months.

Slow start

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

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

Compulsions often follow obsessions, which reduce anxiety. So 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 often what leads to the next binge.


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

If you or someone you know has a few of these symptoms and behaviors of binge eating, talk with your healthcare 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. This is even more likely when the condition has roots in childhood. But these suggestions can help:

  • Don't go on restrictive diets. They can easily lead to feelings of deprivation. These feelings result in binge eating.

  • Check your body image. Talk with a dietitian, nutritionist, 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 healthcare provider.


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

Different approaches to help people with this disorder include cognitive-behavioral and nutritional therapy, and psychotherapy. If it is decided that medicine is unlikely to help, close supervision will be needed, especially for children and teens. Healthy life choices and skills are the goals in overcoming compulsive overeating.

Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Paul Ballas MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2019
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