What's Behind Compulsive Overeating?

What is compulsive overeating and what drives people to eat compulsively?

Most of us overeat from time-to-time, but compulsive overeating is a condition in which the person overeats frequently with the desire (compulsion) to eat being driven not by hunger, but rather by psychological factors. The eating may involve eating large amounts of food (usually in a period of minutes or hours), or may involve eating smaller amounts of food which is usually loaded with a large number of calories ( and is usually fat, sweet, salty) on a fairly regular basis, again driven by psychological factors.

What Causes Compulsive Overeating?

There are many psychological factors which can result in the activity of compulsive overeating. Some of the more common ones mentioned by sufferers are: guilt, shame, depression, anger, stress, and negative self image. Some have had stressors earlier in life, such as abuse, neglect, failure, embarrassment, but others report no such problems.

Once the problem of compulsive overeating begins, there are resulting physical, psychological, or relationship issues that may develop that may cause the problem of compulsive overeating to continue. Increase in weight can result in negative self-image, which can then result in either embarrassment or false bravado. Relationships become disturbed, self-image often suffers, and shame and depression may result.

Compulsive behaviors, whether they be compulsive gambling, shopping, sexual behavior or chemical abuse have several things in common. They are often driven by psychological factors involving anxiety, and overwhelming desire. When the person engages in the behaviors there is often a tremendous feeling of relief. The compulsion behavior decreases the negative feelings, but often only for the duration of the behavior. Following the overeating, there often follows a sense of overwhelming guilt, embarrassment and often depression.

Biological Factors Behind Compulsive Overeating

While the cause of the behavior is psychological, there is also a strong biologic component usually involving the release of a brain chemical called "dopamine." The emotions following the "giving in" to the compulsive behaviors is chemically more complicated. The result of the negative feelings following "giving in" is often to repeat the behaviors later, often despite personal "promises" to avoid the behaviors at all costs.

Although there is a biological and psychological component to compulsive behaviors, there may also be a situational and genetic component as well.

Treatment for Compulsive Overeating

The treatment of compulsive overeating and other compulsive behaviors is most commonly to engage in individual or group psychotherapy or support group follow-up. (Read: How to Stop Overeating)

On this week's HealthyPlace TV show, we will talk about compulsive overeating, its causes, results and treatments.

Watch the HealthyPlace TV Show on "Compulsive Overeating"

Join us this Tuesday, December 1, 2009. You can watch the HealthyPlace Mental Health TV Show live (5:30p PT, 7:30 CT, 8:30 ET) and on-demand on our website.

Dr. Harry Croft is a Board-Certified Psychiatrist and Medical Director of Dr. Croft is also the co-host of the HealthyPlace TV Show.

next: Coping with Mental Illness in the Family
~ other mental health articles by Dr. Croft

APA Reference
(2009, September 21). What's Behind Compulsive Overeating?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Last Updated: January 14, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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