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Causes and Treatment Options for Compulsive Overeating

written by: SunnyGriffis • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 2/23/2011

Compulsive eating disorder affects roughly two percent of the population and can negatively impact nearly every aspect of a person's life. Learn about the common causes of compulsive overeating, as well as effective treatments for the disorder.

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    What Causes Compulsive Overeating?

    Medical research is inconclusive about the causes of compulsive overeating, which is also referred to as binge eating disorder. However, there are common preexisting conditions that many people with compulsive overeating share, including depression.

    Chronic dieting and over exercising may also lead to overeating. Skipping meals or avoiding certain foods can trigger emotional and physical responses that cause people to binge eat. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine reported in the Spring 1993 issue of Behavior Therapy that consuming a very low calorie diet often leads to overeating, even in people with no preexisting disorders.

    Stress and emotional turmoil can often lead to compulsive overeating, as well. The accumulation of everyday stresses and insufficient coping mechanisms can cause binge eating episodes. Traumatic events such as sexual abuse, divorce, violence, or death of a loved one can also be a contributing factor to compulsive overeating.

    Compulsive overeating disorder is a form of addiction, which can leave you feeling out of control. People suffering from this disorder become fanatically preoccupied with food and begin thinking about their next food choices immediately following a meal.

    The addictive nature of compulsive overeating begins a vicious cycle where sufferers will rotate between healthy foods and junk food, never fully satisfied and usually laden with guilt. Meals no longer offer normal enjoyment or fulfillment for overeaters; thoughts about food become an obsession.

    Addiction to food and compulsive overeating disorder may begin with associating food with comfort or celebration. When food is used as a reward, it can also foster addiction. Additionally, many people suffering from the disorder tend to gravitate towards foods with addictive additives, such as sugar, fat, and salt, which can trigger a release of chemicals in the brain that cause feelings of happiness and fulfilment. Many people seek to alleviate their stressors with food and become trapped in a cycle of compulsive overeating.

    If you or someone you know seems to be suffering from symptoms of compulsive overeating, it’s important to be aware that there may be an underlying medical condition that’s causing the behavior. In addition to the above other possible causes of compulsive overeating include:

    • Hypothalamus disorder
    • Tapeworms
    • Bipolar disease
    • Grave’s disease
    • Hypoglycemia
    • Diabetes
    • Mania
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    How to Stop Overeating: Treatment Options for Compulsive Overeating

    An important thing to keep in mind if you’re suffering from compulsive overeating disorder is that you’re not alone and there is help available. You’ll want to speak to your health care provider if you suspect you have a disorder to begin a treatment plan that’s right for you.

    Cognitive-behavioral therapy is one of the treatments for compulsive eating disorders. Mental health care specialists can help you keep track of your eating patterns and slowly change your eating habits. They can also teach you techniques that help you deal with stressful situations, help you develop a healthy self-image, and avoid triggers.

    Interpersonal therapy helps people by looking at relational causes of overeating disorders, such as relationship difficulties, and helps them create healthier, authentic relationships with people in their lives. Both cognitive-behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy effectively reduce compulsive overeating and have significant long-term success rates, according to the American Psychological Association.

    In a therapy session, your therapist will first help you identify the root causes of your disorder. Most therapy sessions last about an hour, and may continue for up to six months to a year. Cognitive behavior therapists help you establish an understanding that if you change the way you feel, your actions will follow suit. You’ll work closely with your therapist to:

    • Deal with emotional conflict in a healthy way
    • Avoid running to food for comfort
    • Find new ways to manage stress
    • Learn how to avoid relapsing into old poor eating behaviors
    • Examine the relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and actions
    • Learn how to avoid and tolerate stressful situations
    • Replace negative thoughts and feelings with positive emotions that lead to a healthier lifestyle

    One of the highest aims of behavioral therapy is to help you understand that you are truly in charge of your recovery. This can help foster a feeling of personal empowerment which is so important for compulsive overeaters who often feel their lives spiral out of control.

    In some situations, drug therapy may be necessary to effectively treat compulsive overeating and this can include the use of antidepressants or anti-seizure medication.

    Some people may also find relief with herbal tea, yoga, meditation, regulated eating schedules, and deep breathing exercises.

    Because of the complicated, unclear nature of eating disorders, you'll want speak to your health care provider before starting any treatment options.

    NB: The content of this article is for information purposes and is not intended to replace sound medical advice and opinion.

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    References

    MedicineNet.com, http://www.medicinenet.com/binge_eating_disorder/page2.htm

    Telsh, Christy. “The effects of a Very Low Calorie Diet on Binge Eating” Behavior Therapy. Stanford University School of Medicine, Spring 1993.

    Walden Behavioral Care, http://www.waldenbehavioralcare.com/compulsive_overeating.asp

    American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/monitor/mar02/binge.aspx

    TheGoodDrugsGuide.com, http://www.thegooddrugsguide.com/addiction-types/behavioral-addiction/food-overeating-disorder.htm