Compulsive “overeating” is often confused with binge eating disorder (BED), the most common eating disorder in the United States. (1) However, the signs and symptoms of compulsive “overeating” disorder—and the reasons behind it—are unique unto themselves.
When describing the effects of any disorder, doctors will typically designate “signs” vs. “symptoms.” While these terms are commonly used interchangeably, they actually describe two different experiences.
Signs of a disorder include the effects that can be independently and objectively measured, typically through a medical test or the observations of doctors or close friends and family. With a disorder as complex as compulsive eating, there are a number of accompanying signs.
Compulsive eating of any type is a form of disordered eating that can negatively impact the systems of the body that thrive on regularity. While this disorder can present in several ways, a common form of compulsive eating is compulsive “overeating,” where an excess amount of food is regularly consumed, which could lead to additional physical troubles and signs.
Not everyone struggling with compulsive eating presents as a higher weight. However, the frequent act of eating an excessive amount of food may lead many people to gain weight or present as a larger body for a period of time.
Many people who struggle with compulsive eating feel intense guilt or shame about these “overeating” episodes. (2) This often leads to periods of under-eating to make up for the episodes. Overall, these opposing behaviors can lead to frequent weight fluctuation, which is often considered a sign of compulsive “overeating.” (2)
Frequent weight fluctuation also puts people with compulsive eating behaviors at risk for several other physical ailments. One of those is Type 2 Diabetes, which has been tied to recurrent changes in weight. (3)
Frequent fluctuation of both blood pressure and cholesterol levels can also be signs of compulsive “overeating.”
Unfortunately, this could lead to problems for people with compulsive eating behaviors, if their weight goes up and down. High cholesterol and blood pressure have long been linked to numerous other health issues, while a recent report also showed a connection to fluctuating blood pressure and cholesterol levels and a higher risk for heart disease. (5)
Compulsive “overeating” also has emotional signs. Episodes are often deeply tied to a person’s emotional state. In fact, emotions often play such a key role in “overeating,” the disorder is often also referred to as “emotional eating.”
The intense guilt and shame associated with these episodes—and potentially the weight gained in response to them—can also lead to a number of behavioral signs of compulsive “overeating.”
A key aspect of emotional eating is its compulsive nature. People struggling with a compulsive "overeating" disorder often feel like they can't stop or control themselves while eating. (2)
As a physical sign of compulsive "overeating" disorder, this could manifest as someone who eats very quickly or eats large volumes of food while taking few or no breaks. (2)
People who generally struggle to control what or how they eat may also exhibit unusual eating patterns. This can include anything from eating more in private than they do in public, not attending events that heavily revolve around eating, or buying food on the way home from dinner. (6)
Another way a person can exhibit trouble controlling what and how they eat is the act of eating throughout the day. (7) It might only be small handfuls of food, but the act will happen consistently over the course of a day.
When it comes to compulsive “overeating,” the disorder may manifest as people trying to hide their true eating habits, eat less after a binge eating episode, combat stress, or simply struggling to control their eating generally. (6)
While weight fluctuation may naturally arise in a person with compulsive eating habits, a history of yo-yo dieting may be related to their attempts to control their compulsive eating.
Repeated attempts at dieting may also be tied to the guilt and shame that often accompanies compulsive eating behavior itself or the weight stigma that is unfortunately frequently attached to the disorder. (7)
Medically speaking, “symptoms” of a disorder or illness are unmeasurable or even undetectable by anyone other than the person going through them. They can range in severity from very mild, such as a headache, to intense feelings of anxiety or depression.
And, once again, the physical and emotional complexity of emotional eating lends itself to the manifestation of many symptoms of compulsive “overeating” disorder.
Difficulty with hunger and fullness cues is a major factor for many people struggling with compulsive eating behaviors. This can lead to a number of physical symptoms of compulsive “overeating.”
People with compulsive “overeating” tendencies frequently exhibit trouble controlling how much they eat. This commonly leads to them continuing to eat even after their bodies have been satiated.
The phenomenon may be linked to a similar “loss of control” experienced by people struggling with binge eating disorder. In these cases, exposure to more “palatable” foods—or those high in fat and sugar—can lead to a flood of "feel good" chemicals in the brain powerful enough to override the mechanisms meant to signal fullness in the body. (8)
On the other end of the spectrum, eating when a person is not feeling hungry is another common symptom of compulsive “overeating.”
Once again, this could be linked to several related aspects of emotional eating, such as eating to alleviate the stress or anxiety that often accompanies the disorder. If the behavior persists on a regular basis, neurochemical pathways can eventually be altered, responding not just to regular triggers for hunger but to these newer, “learned” cues, such as eating when feeling stressed, sad, or bored. (9)
A number of gastrointestinal issues have been linked to weight fluctuation and eating an excessive amount of food. These can include both short-term and long-term effects that span everything from bloating, swollenness, and general discomfort, to gassiness, acid reflux, and general digestive distress. (10)
As its name suggests, emotional eating isn’t purely a physical illness. The reasons behind the consumption and its compulsive nature are closely bound to a person’s mental health, which may be reflected in certain behaviors people struggling with compulsive eating exhibit.
Depression and anxiety are often considered comorbid or co-occurring disorders for many people struggling with emotional eating, and eating disorders in general. But rather than presenting purely as symptoms of compulsive “overeating,” these underlying conditions may help drive the disorder.
People may feel depressed about the way they look, which could lead them to “overeat.” Higher weight people are often shamed for being fat, which can also lead to depression and overeating. Or they may engage in compulsive eating behaviors due to anxiety. (10) Depression and anxiety can also manifest in a number of other ways tied to the disorder.
Mood swings are also a common symptom of compulsive "overeating." They can be related to a number of aspects of the illness, from the general energy swings that take place when a person's diet drastically fluctuates to the intense sense of shame or guilt that often accompanies episodes of compulsive eating. (7)
People struggling with compulsive eating have a troubled relationship with food, which leads to the various signs and symptoms of compulsive “overeating.”
But it can also often lead to a preoccupation on the subject of weight itself. While this can be related to the person’s weight gain or fluctuation, attempts at dieting to control their weight, or the difficulty they experience during episodes of excessive eating, there are two much bigger culprits negatively influencing all these things: weight stigma and diet culture. (11) Because our society has such a negative attitude toward people of higher weight, including blaming all kinds of problems on weight, and diet culture is so pervasive, the subject of weight often takes a leading role in the person’s mind. (12)
Another symptom of compulsive “overeating” related to the disorder’s intense emotional responses, self-isolation, often impacts people struggling with compulsive eating. (6)
The behavior could develop as a defense mechanism if the person is feeling sensitive about their weight or guilty about their eating behaviors. It could also arise as an attempt by the person to hide the true nature of their eating habits.
Compulsive eating can have a detrimental effect on a person’s mental and physical health. While there’s no official medical opinion on when the “best” time to enter treatment for compulsive eating may be, once the disorder starts disrupting someone’s life or causing undue amounts of stress, it’s certainly time to seek help.
Luckily, a number of diverse treatments exist that can help someone bring balance to their relationship with food by promoting a sense of peace in their body and mind.
In general, the sooner a person seeks treatment, the better, which is why it’s important to look out for these signs and symptoms of compulsive “overeating” disorder. If you recognize some, any, or all of these signs and symptoms of compulsive "overeating" in yourself or someone else, it’s time to seek out further help.
Within Health has developed a revolutionary at-home care program for compulsive overeating, and all other disordered eating practices. Our clinical care team helps you at every stage of treatment, and recovery, through our virtual care application. Call our admissions team now to get started.
Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.