Compulsive eating is eating large quantities of food when a person is not hungry. This may occur in a short period of time (a binge) or it may be continuous snacking throughout the day. People of any size may eat compulsively.
Compulsive eating is often accompanied by a feeling of being out of control, not knowing why they are eating, and not being able to stop. Compulsive eating is usually a very secretive thing and the person often feels a sense of shame.
Why do people eat compulsively?
The reasons will be different for each person. It is, however, likely that food will be being used to manage difficult feelings. Again these feelings will be different for each person and, although there is a huge range, some of the feelings that lead to eating may be sadness, anger, shame, fear or anxiety, feeling down, tiredness, guilt, boredom, emptiness or disappointment. It can feel as though the food is pushing down or replacing a feeling, however its effects are only temporary.
Compulsive eating can also be brought on by hunger. If a person gets over hungry they are more likely to eat more than their body needs.
How does dieting effect compulsive eating?
Dieting and compulsive eating are intricately linked through the diet/binge cycle
Giving up dieting
In order to recover from compulsive eating it is essential to give up dieting and the goal of losing weight, otherwise you stay stuck on the diet/binge cycle. This can be very scary. It often involves giving up the hope that “everything will be okay if I just lose weight”. It involves finding other ways to make things okay. This is a gradual process.
People are often terrified that if they give up dieting they will put on lots of weight. In actual fact, if it is done through natural eating (that is listening to hunger and satisfaction) this is not usually the case. You will probably end up eating less, because the less you restrict your eating the less you are likely to binge or eat compulsively. Everybody’s natural weight is genetically determined. This is called your set point (see Set Point handouts), and your body will try to maintain this. Depending on your current weight, your set point, and the amount your metabolism has been affected by dieting, you could lose, gain, or stay the same weight. It is important to let your body find out it’s own set point. Studies show that 95% to 98% of diets don’t work (see Diets Don’t Work handouts)in the long term.
How can a person recover from compulsive eating?
Recovery from compulsive eating takes time. It is a slow process and you need to be gentle with yourself. It is likely that you have been using food to cope for some time and it will take time to resolve the underlying issues and learn new behaviour.
When we work with someone who eats compulsively we will explore their relationship with themselves, their body, and food; work with their emotions and learn how to manage them (both old emotions from the past and current emotions that lead them to eat); explore their thoughts about themselves and their bodies; help them develop a good relationship with their body; explore the social pressures to be thin; and help them change their behaviors around food and eating. Working on all of these things can help a person to move off the diet/binge cycle and start to eat naturally. Eating naturally (see natural eating handouts) means eating according to the hunger and satiation signals in your body, not according to the thoughts in your head. It means feeling hungry, eating what you really want, feeling satisfied, and moving on to the rest of life.