When was the last time you ate so much you thought you might pop?

We’re all guilty of the occasional blow-out. There’s nothing like a wine and cheese night, indulgent evening with girlfriends, or Christmas lunch to get us groaning about over-eating. How did you feel the last time you over-ate? Perhaps you were a little sheepish, perhaps a little annoyed at straying away from mindful eating habits. Or perhaps you were overcome with feelings of guilt or shame.

Eating disorders are tricky to define. We tend to categorise eating disorders into variations of two common conditions: bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa. What most of us don’t realise is that eating disorders don’t always manifest themselves as these conditions. Compulsive over-eating is an insidious and often-overlooked disorder that many women suffer from, often without ever receiving treatment.

Don’t be alarmed: when you intermittently eat that little bit too much on social occasions, or if you spend the occasional day parked in front of Netflix pigging out, it’s unlikely that you’re suffering from an eating disorder. Over-eating on occasion is normal. Eating as a response to both negative and positive emotional stimuli is also normal. Our cultural child-raising behaviours mean that we’re programmed to feel nurtured, comforted, and rewarded with food from a very early age.

So how, then, can you spot a compulsive over-eater? Compulsive over-eating is defined by a set of common behavioural, physical, and emotional symptoms.

Behavioural Symptoms

  • Inability to stop eating or to control what you’re eating
  • Eating large amounts of food in a short period of time
  • Eating to the point of feeling uncomfortable
  • Hiding or stock-piling high calorie food to eat in secret
  • Eating normally in company, but excessively when alone

Emotional Symptoms

  • Feeling negative emotions that are only relieved by eating
  • Feeling embarrassed by how much you’re eating
  • Feeling ‘numb’ or ‘taken over’ during a binge
  • Feeling consumed by guilt, disgust, or depression after over-eating

Physical Symptoms

  • Binge consumption
  • Involuntary vomiting
  • Frequent excretion
  • Irregular periods
  • Bloating
  • Heartburn

These symptoms tend to occur a minimum of three times per week in women suffering from compulsive over-eating disorders.

Often those suffering from these disorders hide their symptoms from friends and family. Women who compulsively over-eat are often a healthy or ‘normal’ weight. The causes of compulsive over-eating disorders don’t make diagnosis any simpler: causational influences are a web of social, cultural, psychological, and biological risk factors unique to the individual. The good news? There are a number of warning signs that can help identify a compulsive over-eater including:

  • Finding collections of empty wrappers and food packages
  • Noticing a rapid depletion in the cupboard and refrigerator
  • Finding hidden stashes of high-calorie foods

Recovery from compulsive over-eating is both possible and probable. Overcoming an eating disorder isn’t impossible, but it is difficult. The key to recovery is to develop a healthier relationship with food. It’s important that your relationship is based on nutrition, not emotion.

Recovery Tip: Mindfulness. Lift the ‘numbness’ that occurs when you binge. Mindful eating works by making you present and aware of what you’re consuming, and how much. Slow down and savour the flavours and textures. Pay attention to how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, and how full you’re becoming.

Recovery Tip: Urge Surfing. Think of your urge to binge as a wave that will pass over you: crest, break, and disperse. Take meditative time to observe the urge as it progresses. When you don’t push yourself to battle, judge, or ignore it, you’ll find that it passes faster than you expect.

Recovery Tip: Distraction. Use external elements to distract your attention from the urge. Take a walk, call a friend, watch a movie, read a book: anything to catch your attention until the urge passes.

Recovery Tip: Record. One of the best ways to identify your triggers and binge patterns is to keep a mood diary. Note the things that triggered the binge, how they made you feel, what you ate, how you felt as you were eating, and how you felt once the binge had passed.

It’s vital that women suffering from compulsive over-eating disorders are given support and access to treatment. If you, or someone you know, is suffering from this or another eating disorder, we encourage you to seek help from a friend, family member, or health professional.

Written & published by Maddie Brymner