overeating – a neglected eating disorder

unhealthy habits and demographic changes are combining to place an unprecedented burden on the health-care system that may not be manageable, the heart and stroke foundation said in its 2010 annual report on canadians’ health.

so says the CBC about an alarming increase in heart disease and the potential for heart disease, adding `most of this is preventable.” the solution is

encouraging canadians to be more physically active, eat a healthy diet and be aware of their risk factors for heart disease.

“we all eat from stress, or because we don’t have time to prepare things,” said cheryl shapiro, a heart patient in toronto who was diagnosed with high blood pressure eight years ago.

she encourages people to read labels. “we don’t realize what we’re putting in our bodies.”

it is difficult to fit in the recommended minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least three times a week, shapiro said, but she does walk her dog regularly.

part of the solution is to create infrastructure to make it easier for people to walk to the store rather than driving everywhere to avoid exercise, abramson said.

“it’s easy to take shortcuts,” abramson said. “but in the long run, those shortcuts will be disastrous for our health.

there was a bit more about this on the radio but the gist was the same. what i found interesting – always find interesting about such news stories – is that obesity and being overweight is almost exclusively seen as a lifestyle choice. the equation of overweight = fat = out of control, unattractive, lazy, weak-willed etc. is not made explicitly but it’s really just three letters away. indeed, when i looked at the first five or six pages of the comments, i saw the word “lazy” six times. neither in the story nor in the comment pages did i see the word “eating disorder” or “addiction”.

i often get the feeling that in the world of psychiatric diagnoses, anorexia is much more noble than overeating. the overly thin person who uses her will power to deny herself a piece of broccoli is so much more appealing in our culture than the slob who sits in front of his TV, gobbling ice cream. of course both are caricatures and tell only a very, very thin slice of reality (for example, you could have two very similar looking people side by side, one of them struggling with undereating, the other with overeating. it doesn’t always show in the body size.)

there is controversy in the psych community over whether overeating is an addiction. i must say that i find NEDIC‘s approach in can i be addicted to food? just as naive as the above article. it ends up saying “once we begin eating in a normal, healthy way again, we won’t have the same desire to eat as much high-calorie, high-carbohydrate food, or foods we think are “bad”.” that sounds really easy, doesn’t it?

now of course “addiction” is just a label, so let’s not split hairs here (although personally i am firmly on the side of gabor mate’s definition of addiction, which would agree with the use of the word in connection with overeating). rather, let’s be clear on this:

there are many people who eat much more than they want to and are unhappy about it. they try and try and try and nothing seems to work. they experience things like this: they cry during binges because they hate that they are eating non-stop. they go to bed night after night with terrible stomach pains because they have eaten too much. they eat out of garbage bins, eat frozen and spoiled food. they go to great pains to hide their eating from others, often ordering nothing but a little salad when they go out with others. they go from macdonald’s to burger king to wendy’s, pretending they are buying for a family. they spend thousands of dollars on diets that work for a while and then go back to bingeing. they commit suicide over the shame they feel over their out-of-control eating.

this is not a little lifestyle problem that will go away with a bit of education and an admonishment to use more willpower. many people who overeat know a lot about nutrition already and know they should exercise more, just like many people who smoke know what their lungs look like. they are deeply unhappy that willpower doesn’t seem to work. my best friend’s mother, an astonishingly intelligent woman, died of lung cancer, greedily sucking on a cigarette just before she went into her last coma. while not every person who is overweight suffers with such intensity, there are nevertheless similarities. overeating, for many, is a disfiguring, depressing, despairing dis-ease that is difficult to fight. i wish that this will be acknowledged more in the coming years. come to think of it, MentalHealthCamp, our second conference on the intersection between social media and mental health, will be a great way to address this.

(this is another post for national eating disorders week)


  1. Hi,

    My name is Heather Jones and I am the assistant editor of Epsychologist.org. I am contacting you today in hopes of developing a relationship with your website; we have seen your site and think your content is great. Epsychologist.org offer a free informational resource to both the general and professional public on several issues..

    I hope you show some interest in building relationship, please contact me at heather.epsychologist.org@gmail.com.

  2. Hi Isabella,

    I like what you say. I don’t see why we can’t be addicted to food the same as anything else.

    I don’t think willpower deals with many serious problems really (well, actually none, but I want to acknowledge room for doubt).
    .-= Evan´s last blog ..Mindfulness and Pain Management =-.

  3. Hi Isabella, you article is very motivating.The trouble with me is that i fail to stick to a plan.Initially i follow it very strictly but slowly slowly i get bored and get back to the old routine.Is there a way to control appetite for food.Some medicine or some other way.I would appreciate your help.Thanks.

  4. take it from a recovering compulsive eater of 30+ years, compulsive overeating is a disease just like alcholism or drug addiction.

    it’s not a matter of willpower. most of us had something(s) happen to us in childhood that led us to food to find our comfort and nurturing.

    the public needs to acknowledge this is a serious addiction and treat it as such.
    .-= love2eatinpa´s last blog ..Chocolatey Snack Share =-.

  5. There are some very strong medications that suppress appetite as a side effect and this side effect can be and is used to control eating compulsiveness. I won’t name them because they are illegal without a prescription but more importantly have the potential to worsen health irreparably. I don’t mean any spammy, unproven and strange methods but rather compounds that every medical students needs to learn about in their first pharmacology course. So for those who are asking for medications, ask your doctor directly, he knows more than you’ll find on the internet.

    Here is my tip about exercising: usually the activity is boring and no willpower can battle that forever. You need either an actual incentive like money is for every professional athlete or a way to make it less boring.

    I have a way to just forget I am currently exercising. Get on your stationary bicycle, set the level to something you can handle without much effort and watch your favorite show, series, some movie. It is important that you are using a DVD so that you won’t be reminded you are currently sweating during the advertisement interruptions.

    Before you know it, an hour will pass, you will burn 500 kcal or more, and you are in a great mood too. Later you could be burning 1000 kcal an hour. A pound of body fat contains approx. 4000 kcal and with this method you will lose it in a matter of 8 or even 4 days. Set some energy quantity you want to expend each day and calculate your own weight loss.

  6. This is a very interesting article and I completely agree with the idea that society treats the undereater as a tragically noble character and the over eater as a lazy slob. I do though believe it is getting better slightly with modern society acknowleding at least in small ways the ideas that binge eating is just as serious as other eating disorders. Even television shows, like intervention to name one, are showing people who need help with over eating just like any other addictions to alcohol or drugs. Great Insight!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.