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What Causes Compulsive “Overeating”?

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Compulsive “overeating” is an eating disorder that’s typically characterized by several common behaviors and causes. The behaviors include: (3)

  • Habitual overeating
  • Overeating to relieve a negative emotional state
  • Overeating despite adverse consequences

Compulsive overeating occurs when a habit progresses to the point where the person can no longer stop the behavior with their thoughts or control their drives. (3)  Causes may include: (4)

  • Stress
  • Food restriction
  • The presence of palatable foods
  • Environmental conditioning
What Causes Compulsive “Overeating”?

Biological Factors of Compulsive “Overeating”

Biological factors for compulsive “overeating” causes include the following:

  • Foods that are eaten
  • Genetics
  • Brain changes 

Foods That are Eaten – Do They Contribute to Compulsive “Overeating” Causes?

One of the big questions doctors and scientists have asked is whether or not food can cause addictive-type behaviors. 

Yet, it’s almost as if researchers are afraid to take certain foods and test them to see if they cause addiction or “overeating”. For example, testing the seed oils such as corn oil, soy oil, vegetable oil, and canola oil, and hydrogenated fats – all foods that food ‘purists’ believe are harmful might uncover the real causes of compulsive “overeating”. And what about sugar, artificial sweeteners, and artificial preservatives? 

However, what would be the effect of this type of research once it is released to the public? Would the scientist lose his or her job because the powerful food industry wants the information suppressed? 

These types of concerns have become even more likely, as one follows different things that are happening in the world and history. Wars were fought over sugar. Sugar was at the heart of slavery. In the 18th century, sugar was the target of progressives, and today we fight it because of obesity. And like Big Tobacco, the industry of Big Sugar has access to power and gives to both political parties. History has already shown us how the sugar industry tried to snuff out research that sugar was causing harm to our health. (5)

Refined Sugars and Fats – Compulsive “Overeating” Causes? 

Excess sugar consumption also is associated with other health problems such as nutritional deficiencies, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and inflammatory disease. Sugar is clearly implicated in addictive behaviors and poor health outcomes. 

In the last decade, sugar has been found to affect one’s behavior and is thought to be as addictive as cocaine, if not greater. (6) 

But what is it that sugar does to the body biologically to create this? 

Australian researchers reported in 2016 that foods high in refined sugars and fats are addictive and that some forms of obesity can be treated as a food addiction. They stated that this idea is “supported by a growing body of neuroscience research demonstrating chronic consumption of energy-dense foods causes changes in the brain’s reward pathway that are central to the development and maintenance of drug addiction.” (7)

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health reported in 2018 that, to no surprise, sugar is delicious and feels rewarding to consume, but overconsumption can create intense caloric swings, as well as train the behaviors of using food to cope with negative emotions, or feelings (8).

Stanford University and University of Michigan researchers found that sugar can in fact create unhealthy insulin spikes and crashes, similar to those found in the brain during addiction. This pattern of eating can lead to overeating, or a lack of mindful eating, when the body and brain seek out a dopamine rush. The same swing in insulin levels were not experienced when examining people consuming health fast as they were when consuming sugar. (9).

Fat

French researchers found that humans naturally have a preference for foods high in fat. They stated in their 2008 research report which appeared in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences that the sense of taste plays significant roles in the spontaneous preference for fatty foods. If it tastes good, that’s a good reason to eat it. They suggest that there is a “fatty taste” that could contribute to overeating of fat and thus to the risk of getting obese. (10)

Compulsive “Overeating” Causes Related to Genetics

Is compulsive “overeating” due to genetic causes? 

Canadian researchers reported in 2015 in the journal, Current Psychiatry Reports that pathological eating behaviors “may be the result of addictive appetitive behavior and loss of ability to regulate the consumption of highly processed foods containing refined carbohydrates, fats, salt, and caffeine.” 

They continued, “There are genetic similarities underlying substance addiction phenotypes and overeating compulsions seen in those with binge eating disorder. These findings are substantiated by neuroimaging studies on reward processing and clinical criteria for diagnosis based on addiction phenotypes.” (11)

Brain Changes Related to Compulsive “Overeating” Causes

Dysfunctions in systems within neural circuitry that involve the basal ganglia, the extended amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex are already said to be a cause of compulsive “overeating” behaviors. (3)

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Signs and Symptoms of Compulsive “Overeating”
Compulsive “overeating” is often confused with binge eating disorder (BED), the most common eating disorder...

Environmental Factors of Compulsive “Overeating”

The environmental factors that could be compulsive “overeating” causes include:

  • Psychological, emotional and identity: This category includes stress and what it does to the brain and body, comorbidities, and identity
  • Social, peer pressure, and competition: These categories do not have as much evidence behind them as to what causes compulsive “overeating” at this time.

Psychological / Emotional / Identity 

Stress plays a role in compulsive “overeating” and some researchers are listing it as one of the compulsive overeating causes. It works like this: The HPA axis is connected with the reward pathways in the brain. Stress releases opioids in the brain, which try to protect the body from stress by decreasing the activity in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. 

This then reduces stress. However, stress stimulates the HPA as many highly palatable foods. When either of these two requirements are stimulated repeatedly, the reward pathways are activated. Then over time, changes have occurred in the brain that promote the compulsive nature of overeating. (12)

Stress releases cortisol which influences leptin, insulin, and neuropeptide Y (NPY). The glucocorticoids are antagonized by insulin and leptin. Under chronic stress, the balance is dysregulated and psychiatrists at the University of California say it causes increased food intake and fat accumulation in the viscera. They believe that the obesity epidemic may be worsened by chronic stress, food restriction failures, and the effects these have on increasing the reward value of highly palatable food. (12)

Psychological Comorbidities – Cause of Compulsive “Overeating”?

When answering the question what causes compulsive overeating disorder, considering comorbidity is always part of the process to find the truth. 

In Brazil, doctors ran a cross-sectional, correlational study with 111 patients with heart disease. They checked for the presence of anxiety and depression as well as compulsive eating disorder. Many of the patients – 82% did not have compulsive overeating disorder but 4.5% had severe compulsive eating disorder and the presence of anxiety. Compulsive “overeating” disorder was present in 18% of the patients along with anxiety. (13)

But does this mean that anxiety is one of the causes of compulsive overeating? Probably not by itself, and the Brazilian research emphasized the need to start programs for both mental and physical health simultaneously.

In another study, patients with obsessive compulsive disorder had significantly more disturbed eating attitudes and behavior than healthy subjects. They shared some of the same eating attitudes and behavior common to those with eating disorders. They scored high for drive for thinness, bulimia, body dissatisfaction, ineffectiveness, perfectionism, interpersonal distrust, interoceptive awareness, and maturity fears. (14) 

Personality traits are interrelated to the identity of someone, and how this plays into the picture is not discussed in depth in this research paper.

Again, does this study conclude that comorbidities cause compulsive “overeating”? No, and it’s possible that they are merely something that comorbidities may appear about the same time as the compulsive “overeating” and something that possibly genetic research will provide a clue about in the future.

Social / Peer Pressure and Competition

For about a decade, a certain segment of society has fought against the use of television commercials promoting processed foods. Yale University researchers analyzed published reports that detailed results from 3,292 participants on whether or not cues in the external environment make people react and have an outcome of food craving (which will possibly lead to compulsive overeating). (10) 

Their results showed that exposure to external cues and the experience of craving do significantly influence and contribute to eating behavior and weight gain. Specifically, visual food cues such as pictures and videos were similar to cues of real food exposure and were a stronger influence than smelling food. (15)

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Treatment of Compulsive “Overeating”

Food reward, not hunger is the main driving force behind eating in the modern obesity producing environment. (16) In Canada, mental health experts also argue that “compulsive overeating has compelling similarities to conventional drug addiction.”

There’s evidence that the two disorders have a shared tendency to suffer the same issues. It doesn’t mean that obesity is the same thing as addiction but rather that Binge Eating Disorder is a phenotype well suited to such a conceptualization, and that there is some evidence that supports this idea. There may also be reasons for treating drug dependence and compulsive overeating the same way. (17)

What happens when someone has the disorder is that they start the behavior of compulsive “overeating” in an attempt to numb or nurture feelings that are threatening to them, reports K.D. Miller from Greenbrier Hospital in Covington, Louisiana in the medical journal, Nursing Clinics of North America. (18) 

The person is trying to soothe emotional states with food. Treatment for this usually involves the following:

  • teaching the patient how to respond to internal and biologic causes of hunger and the feeling of being full while simultaneously allowing feelings to surface and be dealt with
  • work on the inner child (identify and deal with unmet needs and correct distortions from childhood)
  • examine the secondary gain from the extra weight
  • learning to nurture the self, physically and emotionally (18)

Since one of the compulsive “overeating” causes is food, some researchers have included specific ‘diets’ as part of the treatment. Keto diet proponents have released a recent case series, showing significant reductions or abstaining from addictive-like ultra processed foods and highly refined carbohydrates in a successful treatment approach. (9)

Treatment Based on Personality and Psychological Compulsive “Overeating” Causes

Some treatments outside the psychiatric community already exist. S. Weiner from California State University states, “The same personality factors that place individuals at risk for substance abuse are often found in those with eating disorders. Overeaters Anonymous emphasizes the psychological and spiritual components with its main focus being the commitment to the group. (19) 

At Within Health, we offer virtual care programs for all eating disorders, including compulsive overeating. Our clinical care team works with you to develop the best plan for treatment, and recovery. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help, call us today for first steps.

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Frequently asked questions

Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. Adams RC, Sedgmond J, Maizel, Chambers CD, Lawrence NS. Food addiction: implications for the diagnosis and treatment of overeating. Nutrients 2019 Sep 4;11(9):2086. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31487791/
  2. Moore CF, Panciera JI, Sabino V, Cottone P. Neuropharmacology of compulsive eating. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2018 Mar 19;373(1742):20170024. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29352024/
  3. Foulds Mathes W, Brownley KA, Mo X, Bulik CM. The biology of binge eating. Appetite 2009 Jun;52(3):545-553. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19501749/ 
  4. McKenna, Brian. “Big Sugar” Sweet, White & Deadly. Aug. 30, 2010. https://youtu.be/8hcAjyOFX1M 
  5. Lustig, Robert H., M.D., UCSF Professor of Pediatrics. Sugar: The Bitter Truth. Jul. 30, 2009.https://youtu.be/dBnniua6-oM 
  6. Carter A, Hendrikse, J, Lee N, Yucel M, Verdejo-Garcia A, Andrews AB, Hall W. The neurobiology of “food addiction” and its implications for obesity treatment and policy. Annu Rev Nutr 2016 Jul 17;36:105-28. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27296500/
  7. Freeman CR, Zebra A, Ramirez V, Wiers CE, Volkow ND, Wang, G-J. Impact of sugar on the body, brain, and behavior. Front Biosci (Landmark Ed). 2018 Jun 1;23:2255-2266. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29772560/
  8. Sethi Dalai S, Sinha A, Gearhardt AN. Low carbohydrate ketogenic therapy as a metabolic treatment for binge eating and ultraprocessed food addiction. Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. 2020 Oct;27(5):275-282. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32773576/ 
  9. Gaillard D, Passilly-Degrace P, Besnard P. Molecular mechanisms of fat preference and overeating. Ann NY Acad Sci. 2008 Oct;1141:163-175. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18991957/ 
  10. Carlier N, Marshe VS, Cmorejova J, Davis C, Muller DJ. Genetic similarities between compulsive overeating and addiction phenotypes: a case for “food addiction”? Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2015 Dec;17(12):96. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26478196/ 
  11. Adam TC, Epel ES. Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiol Behav 2007 Jul 24:91(4):449-58. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17543357/
  12. Damares Garcia G, Pomeo DA, Eid LP, Cessarino CB, Pinto MH, Paiva Goncalves LW. Relationship between anxiety, depressive symptoms and compulsive overeating disorder in patients with cardiovascular diseases. Rev Lat Am Enfermagem. 2018 Sep 3;26:e3040. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30183873/
  13. Pigott TA, Altemus M, Rubenstein CS, Hill JI, Bihari K, L’Heureux F, Bernstein S, Murphy DI. Symptoms of eating disorders in patients with obsessive compulsive disorder. Am J Psychiatry 1991 Nov;148(11):1552-7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1928472/ 
  14. Boswell RG, Kober H. Food cue reactivity and craving predict eating and weight gain: a meta-analytic review. Obes Rev. 2016 Feb;17(2):159-177. 
  15. Alsio J, Olszewski PK, Levine AS, Schioth HB. Feed-forward mechanisms: addiction-like behavioral and molecular adaptations in overeating. Front Neuroendocrinol 2012 Apr;33(2):127-39. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22305720/
  16. Davis C, Carter JC. Compulsive overeating as an addiction disorder. A review of theory and evidence. Appetite. 2009 Aug;53(1):1-8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19500625/
  17. Miller KD. Compulsive overeating. Nurs Clin North Am 1991 Sep;26(3):699-705. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1891402/
  18. Weiner, S. The addiction of overeating: self-help groups as treatment models. J Clin Psychol. 1998 Feb;54(2):163-7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9467760/
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