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Compulsive eaters, sometimes called food addicts, use food as a coping mechanism, using food to deal with negative emotions, stress and anxiety. Compulsive eaters tend to be very overweight, and the disorder is rarely recognized as the mental health condition that it is.

Most compulsive eaters learned early in life to use food as a way to deal with negative feelings, and most never learned healthy coping skills for life's challenges. Some compulsive eaters learn food as coping in response to emotional, physical or sexual trauma. Sexual abuse victims in particular report sometimes using obesity as a shield from the attentions of the world. Compulsive eaters eat when they are hungry and full, when they're happy and sad – food is the only known effective response to the turmoil of daily life.

Unlike most eating disorders, men are equally susceptible to compulsive eating.

Diets Won't Work

Compulsive eating often goes unrecognized as an eating disorder, with concerned and well-meaning loved ones, and even professionals, pushing dietary treatment as a solution to the problem. Compulsive eaters, although they usually know they have a problem, often believe that diets provide the answer, and will spend most of their time cycling on and off of diets, diets that will always fail.

Because the root cause of compulsive eating is emotional, dietary treatments alone cannot offer long-term betterment of the problem. Although some compulsive eaters do achieve temporary weight loss, without mental-health treatment bettering underlying psychological issues, weight is sure to be regained. Obesity is just a physical symptom of the disorder, and treating the symptoms without treating the disease can never work for long.

Compulsive eaters often suffer from low self esteem; self esteem made worse by their obesity. Unfortunately, since the only way they know how to deal with feelings of guilt and shame is through ever more eating, the compulsive eater gets trapped in a downward spiral. binging, feeling guilty and ashamed about it, and binging again as the only known response.

Signs of Compulsive Eating

  • Eating in Binges
  • Not eating excessively in public, yet maintaining a very high weight
  • Believing that most of their problems would be solved were they thin
  • Constant dieting without effect
  • Social isolation
  • Depression
  • Low self esteem
  • A fixation on weight and weight loss

Health Risks of Compulsive Eating

Compulsive eating leads to obesity and health problems associated with obesity, such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High Cholesterol
  • Arthritis
  • Varicose veins
  • Embolism
  • Fatigue and shortness of breath
  • Difficult mobility

Although many of the health risks associated with compulsive eating would be bettered through weight loss, weight loss alone will not remove a compulsion to eat. Treatment must focus on psychological issues that lead to the use of food as a coping mechanism. Compulsive eaters need psychiatric treatment, and often find individual therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and support groups very beneficial.

Compulsive eaters may not seek out help on their own, but most know to some degree that they have a problem, and family may be able to convince of a need for mental health treatment. Treatment almost always helps, but too few compulsive eaters ever get it.

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Page last updated Aug 05, 2010

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