Psychology & food: what is a compulsive eater?

Remember, we already told you about the different types of eaters: internal, external, restricted, and intuitive. Each one having a separate profile. However, compulsive eating is a particular phenomenon that can affect any type of eater. As “serious” as it is!

What is a compulsive eater?

Isabelle Siac. It’s the same as compulsive gamblers, it’s when you can’t stop eating that the urge is stronger. Does that necessarily lead to eating a lot? A little. The impulse being, by definition, unpredictable, it does not necessarily occur when we are hungry, nor on recommended foods.

How does eating compulsivity manifest?

IS. When the compulsive eater passes by a bakery, or a supermarket, it is as if there was a chocolate cake waving at him and saying “Come and eat me, you will see how good it is”. These are flashers that light up, connecting with the drive and excitement about eating.

As with those who have guilty pleasures, compulsive eaters have foods that particularly excite them.

How to differentiate compulsion from gluttony?

IS. Gluttony is not related to irrepressible impulse, gluttony is liking different things, it is not focused on anything in particular. To be greedy is to love eating. The compulsion focuses on one type of food. There are people who have compulsions with meat, others with cakes or certain sweets.

What can be the harmful consequences on health?

IS. You can be a compulsive eater without necessarily being bulimic. Bulimia is a pathology that is marked out in symptomatic terms: it is “binge eating” which consists of eating a lot in a limited time.
Compulsive eating, in general, results in what is called hyperphagia, that is, eating too much overall, which can lead to weight gain, etc.

There are also people who manage it by vomiting or periods of restriction. But in this case, we are more in the order of pathology, of an eating disorder. Eating compulsion does not systematically lead to an eating disorder (EBD). Unfortunately, it can be a gateway to TCA.

What are the causes of this addiction to food or a type of food?

IS. Eating compulsion is always associated with an emotion. We are not all born equal. There are people who have a particular relationship with speaking, with eating. It is their childish side that remains. Eating reassures them, makes them feel good. There are people for whom the compulsion is for a particular food because it is associated with an emotion from their childhood. Not necessarily lack. On the contrary, it can be a very positive memory. Like the story of the madeleine: every time you eat it, it feels good, it reassures.
In terms of psychological mechanisms, overeating fills an inner void, while compulsivity reactives childhood emotions. The compulsion can be positive, and is not systematically pathological. It meets a need. We are not compulsive for the sake of being compulsive!

Lack is another type of compulsion, it fills a void, it’s not of the same order. It has harmful consequences when it fills a void. It’s like filling a bottomless well. There, it becomes pathological. What needs to be addressed is this feeling of inner emptiness. Those who manage to stop are more or less “normal” binge eaters, and those who cannot are binge eaters.

When you are a compulsive eater, do you only have one type of compulsion?

IS. The eating compulsion is often accompanied by other compulsions: alcohol, cigarettes, shopping, etc. The concrete filling acts as an emotional filling, the person having great difficulty letting himself be emotionally nourished. Her terror of emotional dependence “shifts” onto objects that she can totally control. But dependence is thus maintained: as long as the compulsion fulfills this function (satisfying the emotional lack with things that we can control), it cannot cease. It’s the spiral of addiction.

Tell us more about the emptiness within.

IS. The fear of inner emptiness refers to a difficulty in self-awareness (innate or acquired): the body must be active (digest, play sports, work, etc.) for us to feel like we exist. As a result, the “real” sensations of the body (hunger, fatigue, weariness, etc.) are all the more poorly perceived: because basically we do not recognize them, and the strategies put in place to exist crush them.

I come back to intuitive eating: just as hunger and satiety are regulators that must be disturbed as little as possible, listening to the butterflies in your stomach is better than stifling them.

How to control these crises?

IS. There are some who practice a sport and exert themselves to compensate. There are some who are careful and know what food excites them, so they try to control themselves. For example, bread is a food that is very prone to binge eating. You eat a little bit, it’s super good and there it is, I think of the famous phrase “foutu pour foutu” and I stick the baguette.

There are people who are born with a particular excitement about food, we see this even in babies. There are babies who are big eaters and others who aren’t so interested. There are also environments that are very harmful. For example, some parents pay too much attention to what their children eat. But children who are raised with a kind of hyper-vigilance are prone to compulsive eating and eating disorders, because they are over-invested. Food becomes too important a thing. There is a ban, so it’s even more exciting.

Who to turn to, what treatment?

IS. I recommend behavioral and cognitive therapies: we have not yet done better in terms of eating disorders. And diets, in this case, are of no use. There are people who can have a completely healthy diet, with three meals a day, and completely go crazy between meals or have big aperitifs.
Compulsion is a mixture of behavior, ideas, and associated emotions. It obviously never has anything to do with hunger, it’s really an emotional need.

How to change your relationship with food?

IS. You have to treat both the symptom and what’s underneath it. Treat the symptom by helping people find strategies to limit the compulsion. Everyone can find strategies but there is no one strategy that works for everyone.

And then you have to treat the underlying issue, or it’s more of a positive nature and at that point, it’s easier and helps calm things down. But if it is to fill the void, we will instead turn to psychotherapy work.

I’ll give you an example of a strategy: I have a patient who couldn’t help but buy a specific variety of candy when she went shopping at the supermarket. As she felt guilty, she put them in the back of her cupboard when she came home – if she managed not to eat them. But when it was in her closet, it was even more exciting and she couldn’t hold on. I suggested that he try leaving the bag exposed on the table to see what it would do. Implied, you can take it whenever you want, the package will not fly away. In the compulsion, there is this completely unconscious state “I have to eat it right away, otherwise it will go away, and I won’t have any more.” Finally, by having it constantly under her nose and telling herself that she could eat it whenever she wanted, it was spectacular, but it stopped her compulsion. It was finished !

I have another patient who called a friend or her mother when she felt the compulsion coming. She even had a code with her mother, she would send a message and her mother would call her back straight away, it would distract her attention.

A prejudice to no longer have regarding compulsion?

IS. Eating compulsion has nothing to do with the image we often have of it. It can concern everyone. This is not the image of the single person who eats without being able to stop. Eating compulsion, everything related to food, orality, these are archaic behaviors that resonate with the little child in us.

Find all of Isabelle Siac’s advice on her site

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