Compulsive Eating: A Large Topic

Henry VIII

As we mentioned before, the definitions of compulsive eating, compulsive overeating, and binge eating are a bit slippery, depending on whom you ask. One clue to the problem is the nature of the food in which people tend to overindulge.

Zoe Harcombe, who characterizes herself as “a real food lover and a processed food hater,” expressed to Dr. Pretlow the purpose of her activities, “campaigning for a return to real food and a condemnation of the processed food that made us fat and sick.”

How sick? A reader who wants to be anonymous told this story:

You know those round potato chips in a tube? I wolfed down a whole can of those. A while later, when I felt the nausea coming on, I made to the bathroom door, but not as far as the commode. All of a sudden, it’s like a blast from a fire hose or a scene from the Exorcist. I redecorated the bathroom. Every surface had to be cleaned. I’ve never seen anything like it.

It would be foolish to pretend that nobody ever pigged out on real food, because people have been doing that for centuries, given the means and opportunity. In his younger days, King Henry VIII was a lithe athlete who had always won at games, and not just because the fawning courtiers let him.

But the stuff we eat nowadays is different. Even real food is grown in ways that endanger everyone’s health. Real food is mixed with filler, and substances are added for that “more-ish” sensation, to make it hyperpalatable and impossible to resist. The lack of nutritional value in pseudo-food is bad enough, but then it adds injury to insult by actively doing us harm.

Are comfort eating and compulsive eating the same? It would seem logical, because the person is being compelled to seek comfort. Sometimes a person is compelled to seek relief from stress. Is comfort the same emotional state as stress relief? If these are two different problems, what do the differences suggest about the treatment modalities needed to address them?

Another anonymous writer, billed as “A Compulsive Overeater,” shared thoughts via The Huffington Post. The subject is the TV program, The Biggest Loser. The writer starts by mentioning how a former champion weight-loser named Erik Chopin returned to the show with every pound back in place.

The writer says,

This show can peel hundreds of pounds off a person through extreme diet and extreme exercise… but it can’t deal with the underlying emotional, physical and spiritual problems that cause addiction… Anyone can lose weight, but compulsive overeaters can’t keep it off without admitting they have a problem beyond the physical.

The best answer found so far is long-term residential treatment, which for a number of reasons is not available to everyone. Ideally, this is followed by lifelong attendance of 12-step meetings. For many people, a 12-step program in the community can be the answer. Even without a period of inpatient treatment, the program works if you work the program. For those who haven’t slipped irrevocably into full-blown addiction, people who have experienced binge eating and compulsive eating offer suggestions, such as the ones listed by “Jenny V.,” who says,

Turning to food as an emotional comfort source is a very bad way to get started and it can turn into a difficult addiction to break away from once this form of emotional eating becomes a habit. In most cases, the binge eater is well aware of what they are doing, but they fool themselves into thinking that it will stop once they feel better. This is definitely not the right frame of mind to have.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Why Kirstie Alley and the Biggest Losers Will Gain the Weight Back,” The Huffington Post, 05/12/10
Source: “How to Stop Binge Eating — Overcoming Compulsive Overeating,”
Image by Ben Sutherland, used under its Creative Commons license.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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