When I was young, the only eating disorders that I ever heard ever discussed were anorexia and bulimia, and even then it was a rare conversation and only in whispers. If someone was severely overweight, it was seen as personal failure versus the result of binge eating. In my opinion, the eating disorder community has come a long way in some areas since I began my struggle with bulimia at age eleven. One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is the official acknowledgment of Binge Eating Disorder (BED) as part of this class of illness. While I also can say that I’ve seen progress in taking the stigma off of talking about eating disorders, they remain misunderstood, underreported, and largely untreated.
Today, however, I want to talk about a disordered eating behavior that in my experience is generally dismissed altogether by therapists, doctors and most of the world. Compulsive Eating Disorder. Those who struggle with this one are generally not even aware that they have it because it’s so common, and they rarely seek help for it because they believe they just have a willpower issue. They usually are aware that they don’t eat like “normal” people do, but think it’s because they are weak or lack discipline. They may feel out of control or sneaky about the things they do with food, like eating normally in front of others and then overeating in secret. Or hiding wrappers or eating in the car and disposing of the evidence. They often feel deep regret afterwards or like a fraud. Food and eating should never be the source of shame. That’s why this is truly an eating disorder that needs attention and treatment.
I believe the problem is that they don’t fit the definition of what most people, even professionals, consider “disordered.” Because it's not quite like binge eating, anorezia, or bulimia, compulsive eaters don't exactly check the boxes you would answer on an eating disorder intake form when you talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist. It also doesn’t affect persons with any particular body type or size; when it comes to Compulsive Eatig Disorders, you can be thin, heavy, or anywhere in between. Because there isn’t an ongoing conversation about it, and it doesn’t seem urgent like some of the other disorders, compulsive eating often remains a source of secret shame.
What Is Compulsive Eating?
Compulsive eating is when you feel that you must eat. You are likely not hungry, though your stomach may even growl. The compulsion can be triggered by an emotion, feeling, or habit, or seemingly nothing at all. It can also start with a “normal” meal, but progress to not being able to stop eating until there is no more there, even though you feel full long before it is all gone. You may eat until it physically hurts. You may even believe you cannot handle whatever is happening in your life unless you eat to relieve the pressure.
This behavior comes with a ton of shame and guilt. Those who suffer feel at war with themselves. They cannot understand why they keep doing the exact opposite of what they want to do with food. They tell themselves that today will be the day they are completely in control. Then suddenly, they find themselves secretly eating, or having a mouth full of candy or nuts and can’t remember reaching for it. Or maybe they find themselves repeatedly standing at the pantry or refrigerator gazing in looking for something to eat, but cannot remember even walking there.
I have personally battled eating disorders (ED) for my entire life. I have experienced all forms of the disorder. I’m forty-seven, and over the last three decades I have had more therapists and hospital/ treatment center stays than I can even remember. I am also trained in cognitive behavioral therapy for eating disorders, so I truly believe I have seen every approach to ED that exists, and have witnessed first-hand the huge gap in acknowledging and treating compulsive eating.
While I have been in recovery now for five and a half years, for the least four, I have worked full time with other people who have ED. I’ve spent thousands of hours helping them understand and address their eating issues to get to a place of freedom. My views on this subject come from personal experience with my own addictions as well as from those client experiences. I believe it is my purpose and responsibility to shine a light on this! My mission is to pull the lid off of it and expose the ugliness and darkness that comes along with it. It’s the only way you can get free! I desperately want people to know that you don’t have to do it alone. There is help and hope.
My friend and fellow coach, Mary, and I teach a food addiction and ED recovery class. Maybe you have seen one or both of us post about it. Maybe you haven’t thought you need it because you don’t really consider yourself disordered or addicted. I hope that reading this will help open your eyes to these harmful eating behaviors that can be resolved.