Compulsive eating refers to a phenomenon where an individual has an unhealthy relationship with food. Although obesity is not classified as a mental disorder, there is a strong association between some disorders and obesity. One such disorder is Binge Eating Disorder as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Edition. The characteristics of binge eating are recurrent episodes of excessive food consumption or binge eating, where individuals consume more food than they planned to, which is accompanied by feeling a lack of control. Often individuals will have difficulty refraining from eating or stopping eating once they have started, or eat more rapidly than normal. These episodes typically last for two hours, and individuals often continue eating even once they are full or no longer hungry.

Another important aspect of compulsive eating is that this kind of behaviour causes marked distress in the individual who often experiences feelings of guilt, remorse, and shame. These feelings often lead individuals to binge eat in private, and avoid social engagements.

Binge eating usually begins in adolescence, which is generally followed by the start of dieting. Although not all individuals who suffer with Binge Eating Disorder are obese, the disorder does causes significant distress and can lead to health and emotional problems. There are usually significant underlying emotional issues that lead to the development and maintenance of compulsive eating.

It is important to recognize that there is help available for those who do struggle with binge eating. The following can be seen as tools to assist with managing the binge-eating episodes:

It can be helpful to pay attention to what happened prior to the binge eating episode (e.g. an argument, feeling angered, lonely etc). Try make the connections between situations and your mood – and the periods of binge eating Try plan and structure your meals ahead of time, It may be useful to keep a food diary Keep yourself busy with other activities like exercise, gardening, etc. If you feel you need support or help contact a mental health professional with experience relating to eating disorders.

Written by: Nikki Themistocleous.Nikki is a registered clinical psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg and a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of South Africa.

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