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.

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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 2017 research review, compulsive overeating involves overeating even when a person does not feel hungry and despite negative effects. However, this may occur only from time to time.

Read more about disordered eating behaviors.

Binge eating disorder definition

BED causes a person to feel like they cannot control their eating habits. They may experience recurring episodes of eating larger amounts of food than usual. This may lead some people to become overweight.

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.

Learn more about types of eating disorders.

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

Physical effects

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.

BED can result from a combination of factors, including:

  • Psychological factors:
    • depression
    • trouble with impulse control
    • difficulty managing and expressing feelings
    • low self-esteem
    • loneliness
    • body dissatisfaction
  • Biological factors:
    • issues with the hypothalamus not sending the correct messages for a person to know when they are hungry or full
    • genetic mutations that may cause food addictions
    • low serotonin levels, which play a role in binge eating
  • 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 specific criteria for diagnosing eating disorders. For BED, a person has to eat a large amount of food in a short period and feel out of control when bingeing.

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.

There are several types of treatment available for BED:

  • 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:

Learn more about stopping binge eating.

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.

Find out more about how to manage overeating.

Support for BED aims to help people:

  • 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

Professional organizations

Several organizations may be able to offer support to a person with BED:

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.