Compulsive overeating and binge eating disorder both involve eating in excess. Doctors classify them differently based on the frequency and severity of symptoms. Binge eating may qualify as a mental health condition.
This article looks at the differences between compulsive overeating and binge eating disorder (BED). It also compares symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatments and provides an overview of where to get support.
Findings from anecdotal research conclude that people often confuse compulsive overeating and binge eating.
The main distinction between the two is that a person who compulsively overeats may not necessarily eat in excess every time they consume food. However, a person with BED will consume larger amounts of food at most sittings, often as a result of physical and psychological factors. BED may also lead to additional physical and psychological effects.
Compulsive overeating definition
According to a
Binge eating disorder definition
BED causes a person to feel like they cannot control their eating habits. They may experience
BED is among the newest eating disorders that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) formally recognizes.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the symptoms of compulsive overeating are similar to those of BED. The severity of symptoms distinguishes the two.
Symptoms of compulsive overeating may include:
- eating quickly
- eating large amounts even when not hungry
- eating until it is physically impossible to consume more
- avoiding eating in public
- eating at night
- eating impulsively
- experiencing rapid fluctuations in weight
- experiencing gastrointestinal issues
If a person has any of the above symptoms, it is important to speak with a doctor. This can help prevent these eating behaviors from developing into an eating disorder.
BED may affect a person emotionally, behaviorally, and physically in the following ways:
Emotional and behavioral effects
- appearing uncomfortable or embarrassed when eating around others
- showing extreme concern with weight and image
- frequently checking appearance in the mirror
- engaging in secret, recurring episodes of binge eating
- eating throughout the day with no planned mealtimes
- skipping meals
- engaging in sporadic fasting or repetitive dieting
- developing food rituals around certain food groups or acts of chewing or preparing food
- feeling disgusted, depressed, or guilty after overeating
- having low self-esteem
- fearing eating in public
- stealing or hoarding food
If a person has some or all of the above symptoms, they should consult a doctor for support and to help address the symptoms of their eating disorder.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that compulsive overeating may result from emotional triggers or learned behaviors.
For example, people may find satisfaction from eating when feeling stressed or sad. In addition, if someone observes a close family member or friend eating compulsively, they may repeat this behavior from time to time.
- Psychological factors:
- trouble with impulse control
- difficulty managing and expressing feelings
- low self-esteem
- body dissatisfaction
- Biological factors:
- Social and cultural factors:
- social pressures around when and how a person eats
- parents’ or caregivers’ unintentional use of food to comfort, dismiss, or reward children, which may lead to disordered eating in the future
There are no specific tests to diagnose compulsive overeating or BED.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that overeating tends not to be as recurrent as BED.
Since compulsive overeating does not have an official medical diagnosis, doctors may consider a person’s eating habits and family and medical history.
Diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder
According to the American Psychiatric Association, in order for doctors to diagnose BED, a person must binge at least once per week for 3 months, have a sense of lack of control, and have three or more of the following eating behaviors:
- consuming food more quickly than usual
- eating until uncomfortably full
- consuming large amounts of food when not hungry
- eating alone because of embarrassment over the amount of food they eat
- feeling disgusted, depressed, or guilty after a binge
The DSM-5-TR provides
There is no specific treatment available for compulsive overeating.
Because, in many cases, compulsive overeating occurs in one-off instances, anecdotal evidence suggests that people may be able to seek support to prevent the habit from worsening.
A doctor or therapist can help a person understand the triggers for their overeating episodes to better manage their condition and the possible causes.
- Psychotherapy: This is usually the first-line treatment for BED. Common types include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): People may have CBT with a mental health professional or through a self-help program. Overall, experts associate CBT with higher abstinence from eating disorder behaviors.
- Interpersonal psychotherapy: This type of therapy may occur in a group setting or individually. It focuses on the aspects that link to the disorder and certain changes to address possible causes.
- Dialectical behavioral therapy: This therapy aims to educate and provide appropriate skills for people to manage behaviors. These may include:
- watchful eating
- balancing emotional needs
- tolerating unpleasant circumstances
- preventing relapses
- Medications: People may receive medication if they do not have access to or respond to psychotherapy. Possible medications include:
- selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a type of antidepressant
- antiepileptic drugs
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medications
Anecdotal evidence suggests that a person who is experiencing compulsive overeating may seek support from:
- loved ones or friends
- medical professionals and therapists
- online or physical support groups
- a registered dietitian
It is important for a person who experiences compulsive eating to seek support to prevent an eating disorder.
Support for BED
- find other ways to relieve negative feelings
- identify triggers with a food and mood diary
- learn to manage triggers
- learn to manage cravings
- maintain healthy lifestyle habits such as:
- regular exercise
- better sleep
- social connection
- stress management
Several organizations may be able to offer support to a person with BED:
- The National Alliance for Eating Disorders can provide support in finding treatment. A helpline is available from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on weekdays at 866-662-1235.
- Overeaters Anonymous offers 12-step meetings for binge eating recovery.
- Eating Disorders Anonymous provides support and group meetings with other people with eating disorders in a person’s local area.
BED and compulsive overeating cause a person to consume large amounts of food. The main difference between the two is the frequency of consumption — compulsive overeating may occur sporadically, whereas binge eating in BED tends to happen repeatedly.
Behavioral, psychological, and social factors tend to cause BED, whereas compulsive eating may develop as a result of an emotional or social trigger in a person’s environment. It is important that a person consult a doctor to help manage and treat these conditions.
Because compulsive eating may not happen frequently, it can be difficult to diagnose or treat. Speaking with family, friends, or a medical professional can help a person manage their eating behaviors.
Doctors treat BED with psychotherapy and medication.