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What Is Compulsive Eating?

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What is Compulsive Eating? You get home. You’re not particularly hungry. You ate two hours ago. But, you feel a drive take over you. You move like a marionette toward the kitchen. Open the fridge. Close the fridge. Open the fridge. You move the celery out of the way and head straight for the leftover take-out you were saving for tomorrow’s lunch. You eat a normal amount—just enough to take the edge off. You put the rest of the food back and return to your business.

A little while later, fork, food, and what seems like two minutes later, an empty container. You’re left feeling full and empty at the same time. You didn’t eat a large amount in any one sitting, but you know there’s more to your eating than physical hunger. There’s guilt, possibly shame, and promises to do something to keep this from happening again.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Compulsive eating is an addictive relationship to food. Many people who struggle with food, struggle with compulsive eating.

The Facts

The key quality of compulsive eating is a feeling of compulsion, or lack of choice, around eating. The word compulsion derives its root, pul, from the Latin word pulsus, meaning to drive or push. Compulsive eating is eating in a state of feeling driven or pushed to eat. It’s a feeling of lack of control over what, when, or how much we eat.

People who struggle with compulsive eating typically eat alone to avoid other people witnessing their compulsory relationship with food. Compulsive eating may include binge eating, in which the person eats a day’s worth of food or more in a single sitting, but does not have to. Compulsive eating can often be characterized by grazing throughout the day, eating in one sitting what would appear to be a regular amount, but still taking in a higher amount of calories than one needs in the day. The key qualities are marked distress and ambivalence about eating and a feeling of checking out while eating or inability to sense hunger and fullness cues accurately. It doesn’t feel like a choice.

Statistics show that about 2% of people in the United States have binge eating disorder. It’s less clear what the statistics are on people with compulsive eating because it is less recognizable as a struggle that needs help and does not have diagnostic criteria. Compulsive eating affects men and women almost equally, with women making a slight majority. It affects people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and abilities. The root causes are debated, but here are some general areas to explore if you struggle with compulsive eating.

Compulsive Eating as Process Addiction

People have long spoken about “eating their feelings.” Often, the psychological hunger that drives compulsive eating is an unconscious acting out of feelings, such as anger, fear, or sadness that have been banished as unacceptable to that person or their environment. It can even be that people feel guilty for being happy and struggle with compulsive eating around good feelings, or being sad they don’t last. When we cannot express our truth, we often stuff our feelings with food. After all, food was one of the very first things we learned soothed us as babies. If we have relationship issues, and we don’t think we’ll get soothing through affection or affirmation from others, we can go toward that soothing object called food.

Self-soothing is not something many of us know how to do well. It takes awareness, acknowledgment, and acceptance of how we feel and then the ability to stay with that feeling through its apex. When we don’t know how to do this, we can become addicted to the naturally occurring opiates that are released through ritualized behavior, such as eating, as a way to alter our mood.

Compulsive Eating as Substance Addiction

Many people believe that compulsive eating is linked to a substance addiction, or sensitivity, to a particular food substance. Overeaters Anonymous, the 12-step program for compulsive eating, has long held through collective wisdom, that a crucial component of overeating comes from an allergic or addictive reaction to sugar in all of it’s processed forms. They still contend that there is personal and spiritual work to be done once the substance is cut out. But just like in Alcoholics Anonymous, one cannot be fruitful in the personal and spiritual work if one is still drinking or addicted to their substance.

Here at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating we teach that each person has their own journey to decide if there’s a biophysical component to their compulsive eating. But, if you’ve done work to understand the emotional, spiritual, and psychological underpinnings of your compulsion and have a missing link, you may want to start tracking food behavior in a log and notice if there’s a connection between substance and behavior.

You might notice that your body is fine with simple sugars, but compulsion begins when you consume casein, a protein found in dairy products, gluten, corn, or some other food. More often, food sensitivities to proteins, such as casein or gluten, will produce a withdrawal when the food has NOT been eaten for a particular length of time, a craving for it like a fix, and a good feeling when being consumed. This can set up that guilt cycle in which we eat something we may not consciously want, but our biology may be screaming for it. Here at the Institute we teach that we each have a unique bio-individuality that deserves its own understanding.

Addiction as Ambivalence in Relationship to Self, Other, or Spirit

Often, when there’s an addictive process happening, there’s a parallel ambivalence in relationship to self, other, or Spirit. The field of Dynamic Eating Psychology teaches us that we can actually act out with food a similar process that we do with our relationship to ourselves, with significant others or friends, or with whatever version of a Higher Power we believe in.

For example, we may do fine in our relationship with food until there’s a crossroads, in which it becomes difficult to trust in Life. It is in this arena that we begin to act out our feelings of powerlessness with food. We can substitute food to fill in for the missing version of a Higher Power’s presence in our lives. Similarly, we may act out with food when we don’t trust we are worthy, or when we want someone else to act a certain way because we struggle with how to regulate our own emotions or accept someone else’s choices. This is certainly a valid area to explore in your own self-awareness practices.

A Few Tips to Begin to Self Manage and Heal

Again, if you struggle with compulsive eating, you’re not alone. For many, psychological or emotional struggles can get channeled into physical or biological struggles with food. Shifting our focus from an adversarial relationship with food to one of curiosity around what messages our psyche is trying to communicate can open up a whole world of understanding.

Track food and mood throughout the day using a meal log as a way to discover patterns with food. This can help with both physiological culprits and emotional ones that may need some extra attention. Learn and practice some self-soothing strategies, such as rocking, taking a walk or bath, singing, humming, or playing an instrument. Whatever makes you feel good, without causing yourself harm. Talk to a counselor, clergy, or trusted friend if external processing works for you. Try some meditation or another form of self-regulation and awareness. Play and find what works for you!

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