Compulsive Eating

August 21, 2018 | Pennsylvania Counseling Services, Inc.

compulsive eating
an irresistible drive to overeat, in some cases as a reaction to frustration or disappointment. Related to binge-eating disorder and food addiction.


Compulsive eating (also called binge-eating disorder) is the most common eating disorder in the United States. It affects men and women of all ages, decreasing their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. It goes goes beyond the simple overuse of food as a response to hunger.

A compulsive eater feels an almost constant, uncontrollable urge to eat, whether they’re hungry or not. Eating becomes a way to cope with intense emotions and feelings of psychological emptiness rather than to provide fuel for the body’s needs.

However, unlike the bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa, compulsive eating does not involve attempts to balance the excessive food intake with vomiting,  starvation or other methods of caloric reduction.


Compulsive eating or binge eating disorder is caused by:

  • eating to escape worry, trouble or pain

  • eating to feel comforted or calm

  • binge eating or constant picking at food

  • sneaking food or hiding food

  • lying or feeling guilty about food intake

  • obsessive thoughts about food

  • continuing to eat until the food is completely gone

  • irritability when food is unavailable


Most compulsive eaters try to hide their eating from others, even though weight gain can’t be easily hidden. The obvious result of compulsive overeating is obesity and its medical risks. However, the pain of this disorder goes beyond the problems of excess weight. As the disorder progresses, efforts to control weight gain become less effective and self-esteem begins to disintegrate.

A compulsive eater feels shame, remorse, guilt and despair as every attempt to lose weight results in rebound weight gain. Feelings of hopelessness begin to intensify, and the person falls further into excessive eating to relieve the emotional distress. Soon the food that was originally meant as a comfort only makes the compulsive eater feel worse.


Research shows that recovery from compulsive eating cannot be cured by simply following a diet. Addressing a person’s weight gain is only the beginning of finding complete, long-term recovery from compulsive eating. Unlike other addictions, like a nicotine addiction, compulsive eating cannot be treated by going “cold turkey.” We need food for energy and survival, so a compulsive eater needs to rebuild their relationship with food while facing its temptation every day.

To achieve long-term recovery from compulsive eating, a person needs to:

  • understand which triggers cause them to eat compulsively

  • identify when their eating transitions from normal to compulsive

  • avoid eating in secret

  • reconstruct their vision of the purpose of food

  • be completely honest with a trusted friend, loved one or therapist about their food intake

Complete, long-term recovery from compulsive eating relies on reconstructing a person’s eating behaviors and resolving underlying psychological issues. With professional help (nutrition therapist, psychotherapist, etc.), the pain and secrecy of overeating can be successfully replaced with healthy food intake and a positive body image.

If you or someone you know is having a difficult time overcoming compulsive eating, we can help. Check out our outpatient services page for a full range of treatment options including individual and family counseling.