Compulsive Overeating Disorder

Compulsive overeating disorder is an eating disorder that affects your ability to control your eating habits. If you have compulsive overeating disorder, you may consume excessive amounts of food even when you are not hungry. This disorder is sometimes referred to as a “food addiction.” Compulsive overeating disorder is not recognized as a specific disorder by the DSM-IV or the ICD-10. However, it is classified as an eating disorder not otherwise specified (NOS).

To be diagnosed with compulsive overeating disorder, the overeating must interfere with your daily functioning and cause you significant distress.

What is the Difference between Compulsive Overeating Disorder and Other Eating Disorders?

There are several eating disorders like compulsive overeating disorder that consist of overeating. For example, if you suffer from bulimia nervosa, you also overeat. The core difference between bulimia and compulsive overeating disorder is that bulimia involves purging after eating while compulsive overeating does not.

The terms “compulsive overeating disorder” and “binge eating disorder” are often used interchangeably. However, these are separate types of eating disorders. When you have compulsive overeating disorder, you consistently and constantly overeat, but not necessarily in excess amounts every time you eat. In addition, you may only eat small amounts of food at a time, but the accumulation of foods consumed at constant rate can lead to overeating. When you have a binge eating disorder, you consume large amount of food at one time, which leads to overeating.

What Characteristics are Associated with Compulsive Overeaters?

Compulsive overeating is not currently a mental health disorder defined by the DSM-IV or ICD-10 so there are no established diagnostic requirements. However, there are characteristics that differentiate compulsive overeating disorder from other eating disorders.

Compulsive Overeating Disorder

Feeling guilty about eating too much is common with Compulsive Overeating Disorder.

These characteristics may include:

  • Uncontrollable eating
  • Eating even when not hungry
  • Constantly returning to “pick” at food throughout the day, even when not hungry
  • Feeling guilty about eating too much
  • Generally eating alone due to embarrassment over eating habits
  • Anxiety over weight and body image
  • Frequently attempting to diet without success

If you have this disorder, you are probably overweight due to excessive calorie consumption. This does not mean, however, that all overweight people have a compulsive overeating disorder. Furthermore, it is possible for you to have a compulsive overeating disorder and weigh the recommended amount.

What Causes Compulsive Overeating Disorder?

Compulsive overeating disorder is frequently called a “food addiction” because eating can cause biological changes in your body that are similar to those caused by addictive substances. Studies have found that foods, particularly high-fat foods, affect the areas of your brain associated with pleasure. These biological triggers can then cause you to associate food with pleasure. Over time, your brain develops a tolerance to the food causing you to increase the amount of food that you consume in order to achieve the same pleasure from eating. If left untreated, this association can develop into a compulsive overeating disorder. Once you stop eating in excess, you may experience withdrawal symptoms.

Like with drug addictions, there are often many contributing factors to a food addiction aside from the potential addictive properties of food. If you have this disorder, you probably have a history of depression and/or anxiety. Depression and/or anxiety can cause you to overeat leading to a food addiction. The food addiction can cause weight gain, which can worsen your underlying mental health problem.

How Prevalent is Compulsive Overeating Disorder?

Compulsive overeating disorder is not recognized as a mental health disorder so it is hard to locate reputable information about its prevalence. However, there are many indications that compulsive eating disorder is prevalent. In particular, the popularity of support groups like “Overeaters Anonymous” has increased over the years, implying that this disorder is becoming more commonplace.

Compulsive overeating disorder occurs almost equally among men and women. Approximately 40% of men have this disorder as compared to approximately 60% of women.

What Treatments are Available for Compulsive Overeating Disorder?

It is imperative that you seek treatment if you believe that you may have compulsive overeating disorder. This disorder can lead to severe health problems such as: high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and/or death. One of the problems with treating compulsive overeating disorder is that people with this disorder often seek weight loss treatment instead of treatment for their mental illness. Unless the weight-loss method addresses the behavioral addiction of overeating, it will not be effective.

Studies show that self-help methods for this disorder are effective, thus eliminating the need for psychological treatments. In one study, 68% of compulsive overeaters recovered with simple methods like reading about their affliction and receiving access to health and dietary services.

Group therapy has also proven very effective in treating compulsive overeating disorder. The group “Overeaters Anonymous” is located throughout the United States and its members have a low rate of relapse, particularly when staying in the program for longer periods of time.


American Psychiatric Association. (2001). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, D.C.

Klein, S. (2009). Fatty foods may cause cocaine-like addiction. CNN. Retrieved from

Kriz, K. M. (2002). The efficacy of overeaters anonymous in fostering abstinence in binge-eating disorder and bulimia nervosa.  Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Smialowski, B. (2009). Eating disorders in straight and gay men.The New York Times.


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