Factsheet: Compulsive overeating

In a culture obsessed with image comes the pressure to achieve an unrealistic size or shape with the consequence that eating disorders are on the rise. This factsheet gives information and advice about Compulsive Overeating and Binge Eating Disorder (BED).

Compulsive over-eating

What is Binge Eating Disorder (BED)?

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a condition marked by compulsive bingeing on food without vomiting or purging. Binge eating can take different forms such as overeating, comfort eating, secret eating and night eating. It is characterised by periods of uncontrollable eating, usually of food high in calories and perceived as "forbidden".

What is Compulsive Overeating?

A variant of BED is Compulsive Overeating where sufferers also do not vomit or purge food, however they eat regardless of hunger. A compulsive overeater may eat constantly or in a cyclical manner.

What are the characteristics of these conditions?

The following behaviours are typical:

· Sufferers feel out of control and powerless to stop themselves which manifests in guilt and remorse after eating;

· Low self-esteem. Sufferers commonly perceive their habit as distressing or disgusting and frequently struggle with depression;

· Obsessive thinking about food and weight and attempting to deal with the effects of overeating by starving/dieting/exercising/weighing;

· Sufferers are frequently overweight and may use their weight or appearance as a shield to avoid social interaction or avoid confronting problems;

· Compulsive eaters are often trying to escape from life issues or underlying problems they feel unable to face. Food is used as a way to cope with stress, emotional conflicts and daily problems.

Who's most likely at risk?

Unlike anorexia and bulimia, compulsive eating affects both men and women. There is no correlation between unhappy childhood experience and compulsive eating disorder.

The personality types typically affected are givers, helpers, people pleasers, worriers, avoiders and deniers. People who feel dissatisfied, unfulfilled, lonely, socially inadequate frequently suffer as do those who drink heavily and have food intolerances.

In terms of occupation there is a higher incidence of compulsive eaters doing shift work, jobs which demand weight control and jobs which place people near food.

What are the consequences of BED and Compulsive Overeating?

Blood sugar swings can lead to cravings, stomach pain, intolerance to heat and cold and headaches. The disorder can also cause high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Other effects include fatigue, joint pain, Type II diabetes, gallbladder disease, and heart disease. The emotional effects include depression, panic attacks, lack of concentration, hopelessness, anxiety

How can BED and Compulsive Overeating be treated?

Because overeating usually takes place in secret it can be hard to seek help. If the sufferer decides to take action family therapy and the support of friends is invaluable in facilitating recovery. GPs can refer patients to counsellors, alternatively TOAST (The Obesity Awareness and Solutions Trust) has a growing database of counsellors specialising in eating distress. Local Citizens Advice Bureaus can also advise if there are support groups in the area.

Other useful treatment methods include use of food diaries to identify triggers, self-esteem enhancement courses, assertion training and interpersonal skill building.