How To Curb Compulsive Eating

Posted by Lynda on February 26th, 2013 (Diet, Fact Sheets, Health)

Sydney dietitian Lynda Hamilton explains how to identify an unhealthy relationship with food, and what can be done to curb compulsive eating.


Compulsive eating is defined as eating without regard to the physical signs of hunger and satiety.   In fact it means being so out of touch with the body that these mechanisms are suppressed.

A compulsive eater feels out of control about what they eat.  It can come and go in waves or it can be a constant battle  – but it usually achieved through a cycle of deprivation and binging.

For many compulsive eaters, their relationship with food often symbolises the way they feel about themselves.  They might feel rebellious, angry, inconsistent, out of control or that they want to punish themselves.   Often self-dislike is merged into the compulsive eating habits and this becomes a conveyor belt for uncomfortable emotional issues.

And here begins the confrontation with food. The food we eat, how we eat and how we feel about food are all a reflection of who we are – so food is imbued with layers and layers of meaning.  Often the act and consequences of overeating can overtake and distract from having to deal with the original emotion which caused the binge in the first place.

Sign of Compulsive Eating

You probably know in your heart of hearts already if you are a compulsive eater.  But if you are unsure, ask yourself if you do any of the following regularly.

– Compulsive eating is motivated by emotional factors. Do you eat because you are truly hungry or because you are angry, frustrated, miserable or lonely?

– Do you stop eating when you feel full?  Can you identify the feeling of being satisfied, or do you eat until you feel bloated, uncomfortable and disgusted with yourself?

– Do you feel out of control when you eat?   Either emotionally, physically or both?

How to Curb Compulsive Eating

The first steps to breaking the negative compulsive eating cycle is become aware of why you eat and what you eat.  The next step is to then change the way you think and feel about food.

1. Keep a food diary
By keeping a food diary we can discover the signs of hunger and what we are really hungry for.  Try not to think of any particular foods as ‘ bad foods’ because this only leads to restriction.  This is not a diet, so forget about dieting and focus on what your body is telling you it needs.  Now that you are not ‘dieting’ any more you have a free range over any food you like – so start opening yourself up to the possibility of enjoying them without overeating or binging on them.

You need to be honest with yourself though in the food diary.  You cannot change any bad habits until you acknowledge them and take steps to understand why you are doing them.   So keep an honest food diary for a week, and see if you can start to see patterns emerging in your eating habits and emotional state.  You can download and print out a food diary from the Diet Fact Sheet page of my website.

2. Learn to really taste food
Be honest with yourself and eat what you really want – but now really taste it and see if you can stop when you feel satisfied.   Start to question yourself  – although you can have this particular food, do you really want it?  If so, is a regular portion of this food enough to satisfy you?  Have you had enough?  If you keep eating it will it leave you feeling bloated and increase feelings of self-loathing?  Start scaling your hunger and satiety using the Hunger & Satiety Scale which you can download from my website,

3. You are entitled to food
In our culture there is so much pressure to deny ourselves food and become slimmer often compulsive eaters feel nervous about exposing themselves of their desire to eat – often they feel so much guilt it becomes easier to eat in private.   But because there is now so much anxiety around food the compulsive eater isn’t really selecting the food they really want anyway.

Break the taboo.  Remember that you are entitled to food, and you do not need to feel guilty about it.  Every food is ok  – so ask yourself if you are using this food to self-harm in some way, rather than enjoying it for what it is and eating enough of it to feel satisfied.

4. Learn to trust yourself again, but accept this will take practice
Build up confidence as you learn to trust yourself again, begin to really taste food again and experience feelings of hunger and satisfaction after eating.

As you begin to understand your real food needs you will become more confident – but this new found freedom with food can in itself bring challenges too.  For many people with eating problems, guilt, physical discomfort, self loathing and disrespect often accompany eating experiences and what we are trying to do here is to break this negative chain of thought behaviours and turn eating experiences into an enjoyable time.  But this takes practice and old habits can rear their persistent head when you least expect it.

If this happens, the key is to recognise the binge and try to understand it, so ask yourself the following questions:

– Now that you’re having a binge accept it , don’t fight it. What type of food have you eaten, how does it make you feel? Are you tasting it, enjoying it? If not then what food would you enjoy?

– Identify the feeling that led to the state?  What was so terrible about that feeling? What emotional state do you wish to change by eating?

– Try to identify the emotion and leave it ‘to sit isolated’.  Remember that eating or overeating is not going to change that emotional state.  It will still be there, probably along with some guilt.

– Focus on your feelings, even if only for a minute or two.  Try to understand the real cause of them, and not mask them by over-eating and turning that emotion into something else.

Do not let a blip dishearten you.  Keep trusting in yourself and being honest with yourself and you will overcome compulsive eating and replace it with a healthy relationship with food once and for all.

By Lynda Hamilton, Sydney Dietitian at Hamilton Dietetics

If you would like help with compulsive eating, or would like to speak to a dietitian about preventing or managing specific health conditions, creating a weight loss or weight management programme or anything else related to diet and nutrition, get in touch with Lynda at Hamilton Dietetics.


Written by Lynda

Lynda Hamilton is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Accredited Nutritionist BSc, BHSc (N&D) and member of Dietitian Association Australia (APD).

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