EDReferral Main Menu Image

What is Compulsive Overeating? What is Binge Eating?

Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center

Compulsive Overeating and Eating Disorders



Binge eating disorder, or BED follows predictable patterns. Compulsive overeating patterns can be understood by following the diet/binge cycles described below on this page. You may stay in one cycle or mover repetitively back and forth between the two, alternating periods of compulsive overeating with periods of compulsive restriction, or you may never restrict, although the wish to do so is part of what drives the bingeing. Whichever pattern you follow, understanding the triggers to your eating and being able to slow down the binges are the key to breaking the cycles.

Let’s start by defining compulsive eating as any eating out of relation to physiological hunger and satiation. This means that anytime one eats for reasons other than hunger or bringing hunger to satiation, we say that eating was compulsive in nature. Which is to say we all eat compulsively at times (i.e. for reasons other than physiological hunger).

People with eating problems, however, eat compulsively consistently and feel terrible shame about both the behavior and the effects of the behavior (perceived or real) on their body size. In fact, each compulsive eating episode tends to be accompanied by a great deal of shame, as shown in the cycles below. Indeed it could be said that shame is the main ingredient that turns a "normal" experience of compulsive eating into a repetitive anguished pattern.

Individual Therapy for Eating Problems:

In my work with people with eating disorders, I listen to them carefully as they describe their eating in detail to me. Below is the common pattern I have distilled from underneath the many stories I have heard. When you come in for your first appointment, you may have a lot to say, or you may be so nervous that you don't know what say. Trust is a key issue, and you may feel afraid to trust or you may want to dive right in. Either way, we will both come to understand that trust is not a static thing - it comes and it goes, and generally has to be earned to be meaningful. While we are exploring these complexities, it's often a relief to start talking. We begin by helping you explore your personal experiences with food, feeding, fat, and body size, and why these issues are so painful for you.

Techniques for Working on Eating Problems:

You may have been put on diets or diet pills, forced to eat when you weren't hungry, weighed and lectured by well meaning (or not so well meaning?) doctors or relatives, or felt otherwise disrespected and intruded upon. I will not be weighing you or telling you what or what not to eat. This may feel like a relief, or you may not like that. Some people become dependent on others to tell them what to eat. I will simply be encouraging you to sense your hunger and satiation points, and to notice when you can follow them as guides, and when it seems too difficult.

We may choose to include journal, art, or movement work, and guided fantasies to help you express what the eating problem has been trying to say. Ultimately, you will learn to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. But in the meantime, when you cannot always do this, we will use the symptoms to point us to the triggers and issues in your life that you have been using bingeing, and/or dieting to solve. We work these through one by one, until you feel strong enough to face these difficulties without depriving or punishing yourself with food.

Judy Lightstone is a licensed Marriage, Family, Child Counselor. She has a private practice where she works with individuals and couples.  *Permission for use granted by Judy Lightstone.


Many women of all ages have been compulsive overeaters most of their lives. Their health gets increasingly worse. They battle with depression. They get temporary and partial relief from drugs such as Prozac, but nothing deeply changes their inner experience or eliminates their compulsive overeating.
Because of this some live lonely lives with food as their prime companion. Despite the inner agony and desperation that accompanies compulsive overeating, many have what most would consider to be good lives. They may be of very large size and eat massive amounts of food per day. But they also often have interesting and fulfilling jobs. They often have loving husbands. They often have beautiful children. They often have friends. They often have respected positions in their communities.

Some keep trying to tell themselves that these wonderful aspects of their lives are enough to balance their pain, and they should just accept their compulsive overeating and their fat as permanent conditions.
There's a hope here that if they have this acceptance, the depression will go away. There's also some denial here because the health risks increase as time goes by.

Others, those on the verge of getting help, admit to themselves that all their achievements in the outer world are not addressing their inner pain. As one compulsive overeater said, "I am so miserable I cannot be happy."
When all avenues they thought might bring them freedom from the compulsive overeating fail, the courageous women, through their anxiety and pain, at last, look for help.

Perhaps you who are reading this now, are one of those courageous ones, scouring the internet privately, looking for answers, people, resources, a confidante, hope, a way, that will help you move beyond your painful situation.
If you are, you are looking for something that is beyond your imagination because you have already done everything you can think of to help yourself. You are being brave as you explore what must be new territory. You know that healing methods exist in areas you don't know about yet. That's the beginning of awakening.

And you have more than a hope. You have a sense that there is knowledge and methods, people and understanding that could be there for you. And if you are still reading, still surfing the net with eating disorder keywords, that sense in you is strong. You are on the verge of getting help.

Poppink, Joanna (October, 1998). Joanna Poppink is a licensed Marriage, Family, Child Counselor in Los Angeles, CA since 1980 (License #15563). She has a private practice where she works with individual adults and couples. Contact Information: https://www.edreferral.com/united-states/los-angeles/individual-therapist/joanna-poppink-mft-eating-disorder-recovery-specialist 

by Fran Weiss,

Losing weight is a national obsession and a challenge for most of us. Every season there’s a new diet that promises to be the magic bullet. Many people—the psychologically well-equipped, who can regulate themselves, or those blessed with an efficient metabolism—do find some combination of eating differently and exercising more that works for them. But for others the challenge is agony.

Obesity is now considered by many professionals as a chronic medical disease. The good news in this is that many health insurance programs are beginning to cover obesity treatment, allowing access to many who couldn’t otherwise afford it. The bad news is that emotional causes and solutions for weight gain are being ignored in favor of often dangerous quick fixes. Bariatric surgery, which uses various techniques to seal off parts of the stomach or prevent the absorption of food, is increasingly popular. Surgery may be appropriate, even miraculous, for those who have dire medical or bio-chemical problems. But even with improved surgical techniques, the life-long side effects and management required are tremendous. If being overweight is unpleasant, consider dizziness, nausea, gallstones and uncontrollable vomiting.

Such extreme treatments were devised for a reason. Americans are fatter than ever and getting sick from it. Yet often the surgery is more cosmetic than life-saving—or the life to be saved is that part of us still unreachable by scalpel. Women remain disinclined to like or accept what they see in the mirror, and their discontent is spreading to an ever larger number of men, and more disconcertingly, children. In many cases discontent is far too mild a word. Thousands of people wake up daily inside a body they hate, a mind torn by the anguish of self-loathing. The attempt to shed pounds has become a vicious internal struggle they feel they can neither control nor understand. Many have gone to countless weight control programs, to the best physicians and nutritionists, but in the long run failed. Even those who succeed often find that their self-perception hasn’t changed. They still feel unattractive, afraid or ashamed. Theirs is a hollow victory.

Fran Weiss has been a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City for over 25 years. Fran works in many areas, but her main focus is on people who have serious problems with weight regulation—those who repeatedly self-sabotage and don’t know why. Among the questions she asks these patients are: Is there a hidden gain to being or perceiving yourself as fat? Does extra weight provide a feeling of protection? Is it a kind of armor? Is it a way of controlling mood, or hiding from your sexuality or sexual identity? Do you use food and your body as a way of telling a story you have no language for?

Fran explained, "Often people’s internal world, constructed from a legacy of long ago experiences, is what keeps them from using tools of diet and exercise information to achieve their stated goals. They are trapped in the past, unable to move forward. This causes enormous frustration."

Fran is a resource person on women’s health issues, weight regulation, and body image for TV networks, The New York Times , and periodicals ranging from Woman’s Day to The American Journal of Psychotherapy . She has been the senior psychotherapy consultant at The New York Obesity Research Center and its clinical arm, the TVI Center for Nutrition and Weight Management, and for the NIH funded Look Ahead Study and the Diabetes Prevention Program, all at St. Luke’s -Roosevelt Hospital. She is also on the faculty at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.

Fran has developed The Body Image Transformation Experience ™. B.I.T.E. is a two part workshop, each part consisting of twelve sessions. The first part is short term psychotherapy group focusing on people’s eating experiences, self-perception, motivation and ambivalence to change. The second part is more intensive and experiential. Participants make drawings of how they perceive themselves now, of their ideal self, and how they imagine they are seen by others. The drawings are often surprising, uncovering unconscious beliefs and past traumas that contribute to current weight problems. Each session also incorporates a half hour of gentle T’ai Chi and Alexander movements specifically designed for overweight people and led by a certified instructor. These guided movements are important in helping people to reconnect with their bodies in a loving manner—in the process finding power they didn’t know they had.

B.I.T.E. is for people who have learned that the quick fix doesn’t work, who understand that their emotional life may get in the way of whatever diet or exercise regimen they follow. It provides a supportive environment for those who have lost weight, yet still see a ghostly fat person in the mirror; and for those who sense danger in being their new, thinner self.

"Unless you can integrate your external and internal worlds, you’ll continue to have hollow victories and pseudo cures," said Fran. " B.I.T.E. works to effect inside and outside change."
For information about B.I.T.E. contact Fran Weiss,

We cannot diagnose or treat eating disorders by email, but we can send you information and assist you in finding resources. Information provided by the Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center is not a substitute for medical treatment or psychological care. It is vital that you talk with your physician and a qualified mental health professional regarding eating disorder symptoms and treatment.

While EDReferral.com includes articles and links to sites which provide additional information on eating disorders and related topics, EDReferral.com does not endorse or recommend any site, product or service provided on these links.

In Partnership with the American Eating Disorder Association- -SINCE 1999