Compulsive Eating Disorder: Definition & Causes

Instructor: Ian Lord

Ian has an MBA and is a real estate investor, former health professions educator, and Air Force veteran.

In this lesson we will review the definition of a compulsive eating disorder to differentiate it from other eating disorders and identify some of its potential causes.

Compulsive Eating Disorder

Paula is a nurse practitioner with a 21 year old patient named Jenny who is concerned about having an eating disorder. The patient describes episodes of being unable to stop herself from eating large amounts of food. This appears to be a case of compulsive eating disorder. Let's take a look at how Paula defines this disorder for the patient and considers some of the potential causes.


Compulsive eating disorder, also known as binge eating disorder, is defined as a person regularly consuming far more food than what would be considered normal or appropriate for a meal. It is the most common eating disorder in the United States. Patients like Jenny are unable to stop themselves once they begin eating and often feel a sense of shame about their eating habits. These patients do not attempt to purge the food from their digestive system through vomiting or taking laxatives, as happens in patients with bulimia. Specific criteria for diagnosis can be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (DSM-5).

Causes of Compulsive Eating

Unfortunately, it's not known exactly what causes compulsive eating disorder. Certain patterns have been observed by healthcare providers which might lead to it. Jenny's age, gender, and family history identify a number of potential causes.

Like other eating disorders, there may be a genetic component. Jenny is more likely to have an eating disorder since she has a parent and sibling who have already been diagnosed with eating disorders.

The disorder is more common in women, but men can have it too. Interestingly, compulsive eating disorder tends to appear at different life stages in each gender. Women typically develop compulsive eating disorder as young adults. Men tend to start exhibiting compulsive eating disorder in middle age.

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