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The 7 Symptoms Of Compulsive Eating And Why Binge Eating Is Different

Last updated on July 11, 2020

Covid-19 has us all stuck at home and eating more. So does this mean we now all have the symptoms of compulsive eating?

No! Overeating ≠ Compulsive Eating.

We all overeat from time to time. Just because you overeat occasionally does not mean you’re a compulsive eater. 

But if overeating occurs automatically and is part of a frequent lifestyle habit that makes you feel guilty, bloated and that impairs your social life, then you might be a compulsive eater. 

Of course, you might also be an emotional eater as well, meaning you eat to dampen out negative feelings. Or, you could be a binge eater

Heck, what does ‘compulsive eating’ even mean? 

And what does it mean to be a compulsive eater?

If you’re wondering about the symptoms of compulsive eating and eating struggles in general, you’re in the right place. 

In this post today I’m going to answer some FAQ’s about the symptoms of compulsive eating so that you can:

  • Learn Whether You Are A Compulsive Eater, Emotional Eater, Food Addict or Binge Eater
  • How Much Food Is Considered A Binge
  • Whether If Eating All The Time Is A Disorder
  • Learn The Signs And Symptoms of Compulsive Eating
  • Learn Why You Feel A Compulsion To Eat 

Compulsive Eating Versus Binge Eating, Emotional Eating, And Food Addiction

Compulsive eating can be an informal catch-all phrase to describe common eating struggles. 

In everyday language you might switch off saying compulsive eating one day and emotional eating the next. 

You might say that you had a binge, or are addicted to cookies. 

People typically use these terms loosely, and imprecisely. 

So let’s get more technical. Here’s a quick overview and then I’ll go more in depth down below:

  • Binge eating is where you consume a LOT of food in one sitting
  • Compulsive eating is where you keep eating during the day, but in small amounts. You still overeat, but just not all at once 
  • Emotional eating is where you eat to feel better or to manage your emotions
  • Food addiction is where not having certain foods, oftentimes sugary foods, leads to withdrawal symptoms 

Binge Eating Disorder: How Much Food Is Considered A Binge

Binge eating disorder and compulsive eating have many similarities, and one big difference.

The similarities are numerous: a lack of control, eating too much, and feeling lousy afterwards.

The difference between binge eating disorder and compulsive eating is in the amount eaten at a meal.

Here are some clinical criteria that define Binge Eating Disorder (the bullets bolded are reasons which separate binge eating from compulsive eating):

  • Eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances.
  • A sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating).
  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  • Eating more rapidly than normal (i.e. two hour period)
  • Feeling depressed, guilty, or disgusted with oneself after overeating
  • Eating alone because of embarrassment associated with how much one is eating
  • Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry

And as for how much food is a binge …

The answer is subjective. We are guided by the clinical criteria of ‘definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances’.

Essentially an eating disorder binge is a subjective answer without a precise caloric limit. 

With that being said, according to Walden Center, ‘most binges within binge eating disorder involve the consumption of more than 1,000 calories, with a quarter of binges exceeding 2,000 calories.’

Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is another commonly used phrase like compulsive eating. 

Most people use these two phrases interchangeably and for good reason: the differences between emotional eating and compulsive eating are minor. 

However, most times people assume that emotional eating is always bad. That’s not true. Emotional eating can be good too. 

When Emotional Eating Is “Bad” Example: You are stressed out after a long day of work and have no support system in place. Food is one of the only things that helps you calm down. 

When Emotional Eating Is “Good” Example: You are having a blast eating out with friends at the local restaurant and without asking your friend orders an extra plate of fries for the group. You go along with the flow of the group and have more fries.

(I use good and bad in parentheses because I don’t like moral judgments of eating habits. But that’s a conversation for another day

So when is emotional eating “bad”?

Emotional eating is “bad” when food is your primary way of soothing yourself. 

In these situations, emotional eating is frequently how you deal with stress or other negative emotions. 

  • Something upset you at work? Time to eat!
  • A friend said something nasty? Time to eat!
  • Something unexpected happens? Time to eat!

In these times the emotional eating comes on quickly and urgently. There’s a sense that if you don’t get the food something bad will happen.

It’s different from physical hunger. Physical hunger comes on more gradually and isn’t as urgent.

Emotional eating in this sense is because you haven’t gotten your emotional needs met, and the only way you know how to ‘meet your needs’ is through food. 

But food is a shallow substitute. Oftentimes the real work to deal with emotional eating lies in becoming more assertive, setting boundaries, healing, tolerating distress and practicing mindfulness. 

I know this can sound like ‘compulsive eating’ and for the most part, there’s a lot of overlap between emotional eating and compulsive eating. 

The main difference is that compulsive eating takes place at all times throughout the day whereas emotional eating is in response to a specific negative emotion. 

Is Eating All The Time A Disorder?

Yes – eating all the time is a disorder. 

Eating all the time is the defining characteristic of compulsive eating. 

Other aspects of compulsive eating are shared with the binge eating disorder and emotional eating categories. However, the aspect of continuously eating all day is unique to compulsive eating. 

Now in many ways it doesn’t matter. As I have stated before, all eating disorders are basically treated the same

For example, one of the primary ways I work with clients — whether they struggle with emotional eating, binge eating, or compulsive eating — is by establishing a base of food satisfaction

The whole point of establishing a base of food satisfaction is so that you are not drawn to food like a magnet. 

For example, many people are undereating. They have a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a skimpy salad for lunch, and then wonder why they lose control of their eating at night. 

They lost control because they didn’t have a base of food satisfaction. 

You can get a base of food satisfaction by eating 3-4 meals a day with a snack, and not munching in between meals. 

Within the meals you need a variety of carbs, proteins and fats. For example, with cereal you would also need some nuts, yogurt, or berries. 

If you can eat more regularly and consistently (3-5x per day) with meals that sustain and nourish you, this is what it means to have a base of food satisfaction. 

And this is the first step towards treatment for all types of eating struggles. It’s learning the signals of hungry eating, which are there and just need to be re-discovered.

Sometimes mental health issues like anxiety or depression can make people uncertain about the amounts of food they really need.

However, with proper eating disorder treatment a person can learn to stop binging and the symptoms of compulsive eating.

So, in many ways the differences don’t really matter between emotional eating and compulsive eating, binge eating disorder versus food addiction. 

Treatment is treatment. One treatment blends into another treatment.

However, I have a lot of clients who have downloaded my free course on binge eating and after studying their eating habits, realized they exhibited a combination of binge eating, compulsive eating and emotional eating. 

They felt confused and asked me for clarification. This blog article here is my part of response, in addition to our private conversations 🙂 And if you’d like to talk privately too just book something with me here.

Oh, and we never talked about food addiction, so let’s cover that real quickly before we dive into the signs and symptoms of compulsive eating and why you feel the need to compulsively eat in the first place. 

Food Addiction

In common language, food addiction is defined by the absence of food and by the absence of withdrawal symptoms. 

For example, a person has developed lifestyle habits of eating foods high in fat, sugar and sodium.

It’s possible that when a person is deprived of these foods their brain responds similarly as if they were addicted to substances like alcohol, heroin or cocaine. 

A person might experience intense cravings and sometimes panic attacks, and behave irrationally to get their food. 

And just a quick note, there is no scientific definition of food addiction. It’s very hard to define and measure because in some sense we all are addicted to food.

Some of my other colleagues in the binge eating disorder field believe that there’s no such thing as food addiction. Believing in food addiction can prevent a person from believing in their body’s natural ability to eat food and regulate.

I personally don’t believe in food addiction from a technical standpoint. We just eat food to live so it’s hard to say that’s an addiction.

And furthermore, food addiction is always intertwined with deprivation, which is a topic I’ll talk about later in the environmental section about what causes food cravings.

(Basically when you are deprived of food, foods can seem addicting)

Overall I believe the American Psychiatric Association has the appropriate stance: they say food addiction may appear to be real, but it’s hard to technically call food addiction an addiction.

On the other hand, I know many people in the Overeaters Anonymous community who believe in food addiction, and I don’t mean to attack their belief system. Food addiction can be very real from a subjective standpoint.

With that all being said, let’s continue onward to the main focus of this article, the symptoms of compulsive eating. 

The Signs And Symptoms of Compulsive Eating

This section about the symptoms of compulsive eating needs to be taken in context.

Some compulsive eating is not the end of the world!

Some emotional eating is not going to kill anyone!

And yes, I’ll go ahead and say it, some binge eating is actually pretty normal!

Heck, just the other day I over ate and made a simple mental note to watch out for in the future. No big deal, overeating happens to all of us.

However, if compulsive eating is happening all the time, nearly everyday, and it’s impairing your life – then we need to talk

If this is an ongoing habit and problem area for you, keep an eye out for these red flag indicators:

Physical Symptoms of Compulsive Eating

Psychological Symptoms of Compulsive Eating

  • Shame or guilt after eating
  • Desire to regain control after eating which quickly fizzles out
  • Panic
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Behavioral Symptoms of Compulsive Eating

  • Very quick eating 
  • Fear when you eat
  • Fear that the food will be gone
  • Consuming a lot 
  • Being unable to set boundaries around food
  • Feeling out of control around food

Additional Signs and Symptoms of Compulsive Eating to Look For

  • Fearful that you won’t have control around food
  • Anxiety around food or social events centered around food like birthday parties
  • Not going to social events because of food
  • Trying diet after diet after diet
  • Having tons of dieting rules 
  • Varying self esteem based on how well you ate or lost weight
  • Can’t stop thinking about food
  • Feel like you are tortured by your eating habits
  • Weight is the primary obsession in your life

Why Do I Feel A Compulsion To Eat?

So we’ve covered the basics of compulsive eating so far. 

You know that the symptoms of compulsive eating are slightly different than binge eating and emotional eating.

But why do these cravings arise in the first place?

Generally speaking there are two main reasons:

  1. Genes 
  2. Environment

Genetics:

Many studies have shown that individuals who struggle with food also tend to have family members who struggle with food. 

Just like we can trace depression, anxiety and many other personality traits through genetic expression, we can likewise do so with food. 

And eating struggles are also highly correlated with anxiety and depression. For example, most people with an eating disorder also have both anxiety and depression . 

And since we know anxiety and depression are strongly related to family history of mental health, it’s definitely clear that eating disorders are related to your genes. For example, if you or a loved one have an eating disorder, the odds are simply increased.

However, I don’t want to dwell on the genetic factors. Genes are important in the causes of eating disorders, but there’s nothing you can do about your genes or your loved ones and family.

You can’t change your genes. So why worry about them?

While it’s true that it can be helpful to realize that some of your struggles are completely out of your control, I suggest you don’t worry too much about your genes.

It can also be easy to fall into a victim state of thinking where you blame your genes for your struggles.

However, whatever your genetic background, you can and deserve a normal life with food. 

We have evolved through millions of years to eat food. Likewise, your genetic expression has evolved over millions of years. 

So don’t blame your genes. Just realize that even with a genetic predisposition towards eating struggles, you can heal fully with proper treatment. 

Environment 

Environment is much more a factor than genetics. 

For example, the rise of eating disorders can be directly traced to the changing standards of body image

Here are other examples of ‘environment’:

  • Dieting
  • Cutting out food groups for ‘cleanses’
  • Detoxing and avoiding carbs or fats

Think about it: people weren’t trying to obsessively lose weight for most of human history. Dieting and everything related is response to the environment change, when people started believing a thinner body image was more important and that being bigger was bad.

Overall, our environment shapes us to act in the following pattern: 

The diet binge cycle showing a diagram of dieting, craving, binge eating, and trying again

It’s this pattern that causes compulsive eating. 

Eating disorder treatment can be approached in many different ways. There’s no ‘one right’ way to conduct eating disorder treatment.

However, all forms of binge eating disorder treatment will address the cycle above.

Oh and one last thing!
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