By Robin Fein Wright, L.C.S.W.

To people with type 2 diabetes who also struggle with compulsive eating– please know you are not alone. According to the Walden Eating Disorders Treatment Program, “Studies estimate that 12% of patients with Type 2 Diabetes also suffer from BED (Binge Eating Disorder).” Given that 9.3% of the population has diabetes, this is a dual diagnosis that affects millions of people in the U.S.

What is Compulsive Eating?

Compulsive eating is considered an emotionally triggered behavior, usually a response to an uncomfortable feeling, not to physical hunger. Here are definitions of emotional eating from WebMD:

-Something stressful happens to you and you immediately want to eat
-An overwhelmingly urge to eat comes over you (physical hunger usually builds more slowly)
-You strongly desire one particular food like chocolate or ice cream rather than a variety of foods

This kind of eating makes many people feel like they have no control over what they eat. There is guilt and shame over the quantities of food consumed. Many compulsive eaters prefer to eat alone because it’s more of a solitary act than a social one. People who eat compulsively often don’t pay close attention to the act of eating and can eat almost automatically because it is emotionally driven. It is hard to read hunger signals to know when to stop eating because the behavior is not driven by physical hunger.

Another factor in developing compulsive eating is body dissatisfaction. Compulsive eating is part of a behavioral cycle that begins with an effort to be restrictive in order to lose weight. According to Michelle May, MD, it is the “eat, repent, repeat” cycle. If you restrict food, you hit a breaking point and then binge on “forbidden foods,” then feel guilt and shame, and the restriction begins again. If you use food as a coping tool and then you make it off limits– that is a recipe for continual frustration and disappointment.

Challenges of Emotional Eating for PWDs

The challenge for the person with diabetes is that the ideal approach for treating compulsive eating can conflict a bit with the typical recommendation for managing diabetes. For people with type 2 diabetes, healthy eating and weight management are cornerstones for managing the progression of the condition. We have been told endless times that to improve our diabetes, we must be focused on our weight and keep a careful watch on consumption of sugar and carbohydrates. For compulsive eating, this emphasis on control and therapeutic “restriction” can have an opposite effect. The more we are told to be in control, the more we can be triggered into being out of control. To address compulsive eating, the treatment approach is to normalize foods. A food is not bad or forbidden (in diet lingo, there is no “cheating”). The effort is to create a balanced diet and to nourish yourself with all kinds of food. So what should a person with diabetes do?

Healing Your Relationship With Food

Here are ideas to create a foundation for reframing food as a friend, not an adversary and to give you more control over compulsive eating.

Eat enough. Make sure that you’re eating throughout the day. Fuel your body with nutritious food and eat smaller, balanced meals and snacks to avoid getting overly hungry. Getting too hungry should be avoided because it can drop your blood sugar and make you feel deprived and lead to impulse eating.

Plan ahead. Set up a plan of eating each day so that you are eating at regular intervals. If you follow a reasonable schedule with foods you like, it makes decision making about food less stressful.

Experiment! Try different nutritious foods and recipes to avoid boredom or feeling derived. Healthier food can be extremely satisfying but it can take some planning ahead and a little preparation.

Slow down. Slow down when eating so you have time to really taste your food and enjoy it. Make it pleasurable!

Get off the roller coaster. Often, when we eat compulsively we want to hide it and use it as a way to avoid diabetes altogether. We stop testing our blood sugar, neglect self-care and skip medications. It is REALLY important to move past black and white thinking. If you’ve over-indulged, all is not lost. Don’t quit taking your medications, and just try to return to healthy routines as soon as you can. Let go of the guilt or judgment of yourself as a failure… tomorrow is a new day.

Check in with your body. When you feel like eating, pause and ask yourself “Am I hungry?” If we eat for emotional reasons, we need to stop and tune into our bodies to cultivate awareness of hunger and satiety cues. If you’re not physically hungry, can you pause and not follow the impulse to eat? Are there other things that you could do instead? Make a list of activities that you find pleasurable or comforting that you could do instead of eating– for example, going for a walk, calling a friend, reading a book or magazine.

Avoid depriving yourself. Feeling deprived or overly restricted is a huge trigger to eating compulsively. Work with a diabetes educator to figure out how to incorporate your favorite foods into your meal plan. With the right size portion and a well-balanced plate, you can eat still eat the foods you love.

Find support. Dealing with diabetes and food issues is much easier with the support and encouragement of other people. Often emotional eating occurs because we don’t have a safe place to talk about our feelings and so eat in order to stuff them down. Finding a therapist who you can talk to about what you’re feeling may help this a lot.

Practice compassion. Lastly, try to stay focused on loving and accepting yourself just as you are. Remind yourself that no one is perfect, and having diabetes is not easy. Recognize the areas where you are successful (perhaps you’re consistent with your exercise routine or you take your medications without fail) and don’t give up on trying to improve the areas where you want to grow.

Healing your relationship with food IS possible with patience and the willingness to be compassionate towards yourself. It will take time, but the journey is worth it.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue.  Please share any suggestions or approaches that have worked for you in the comments so that we can continue the conversation and help one another.


  1. Trish

    04/03/2017 at 11:55 AM

    I’m have difficulty disciplining my eating with my diabetes ,I do feel alone, knowing very well I’m not, I have been hinting of starting up a support group ,almost like 12 step groups . Thank you the information that helps

    • Andrea

      04/12/2017 at 6:37 PM

      I’m I’m in the same boat. Lately, everyday at some point, I crave something like ice cream or cake. I usually end up with crackers. When I give in, i know the glucose will go up. I am on the upper end of prediabetes. I try to walk as much as I can. I just have so many cravings lately!

  2. Leanne

    04/03/2017 at 4:31 PM

    I found this article very helpful. I am struggling. I am angry and frustrated with my diagnosis. I am very much an emotional eater and rather hidebound. My problem is not with sugar but with all the salty snacks that I used to self soothe and still crave. This article hit more than a few nerves for me and made me think that I need to wake up and open up to a new way of thinking. I don’t want to. But to feel this desperate and horrible and deflated and not do anything to make it better is more than a little stupid. Your articles help.

  3. Mary Prine

    04/03/2017 at 8:08 PM

    This article describes me perfectly. Type 2 and compulsive eating, at times. I had gallbladder surgey done in Jan, didn’t have much of any desire to eat, but March brought my beast out, and then some. Not eating good, eating bad sweets too. Help

    • Andrea

      04/12/2017 at 6:42 PM

      I hope you are feeling better since you wrote this. I have been struggling too. Every day I say that I will only eat protein, fruits and veggies. The cravings set in and I try not to give in. Being full with healthy food helps.
      Hope your gallbladder troubles are mending well.

  4. Gerri Culotta

    04/04/2017 at 10:46 AM

    I have Type 2 Diabetes, under control. But I also have Celiac, I only eat their bread, their cookies and other bake goods seem very sweet. Is there anything to help this situation.

  5. Pingback: Emotional Eating and Type 2 Diabetes - Diabetes - What To Know

  6. Angel

    04/06/2017 at 11:23 AM

    I just feel so out of control all the time. I find lately all I think about is food.

  7. Cindy

    04/12/2017 at 5:14 PM

    I have just read your article and this is scary because I do all the things listed. My eating habits have become so poor over the last year that I feel like I just don’t care any more. I always tell myself to eat whatever I want. I am a widow and I use to enjoy cooking but now it is a struggle for me. Food choices are my enemy, I can never make up my mind as to what I want to eat, so planning goes out the window.
    I take something out of the freezer and when time to cook decide not interested. My taste buds are not cooperating! Any suggestions would be helpful?

  8. Sandra Vaughn

    04/12/2017 at 6:00 PM

    I also fight with my dibetes I do great eating fruit because it’s natural sugar then I hear you have to watch that to Its like a win ,loss thing then I get bored and eat a dounut and I no that’s just my excuse but I don’t no what else to do

  9. Sue

    04/13/2017 at 6:43 AM

    This article describes me to a T. I have had a love affair with food for 40 years. Food had always been used to help any situation Happy, sad, glad, and mad.
    I feel enough shame about my weight and the thought of no favorites on top of that is a struggle.
    I have a perfect opportunity to be successful and I am trying very hard not make sure it is not one more fail to add to my long list when it comes to food. This group is the best.
    Thank you,

  10. Joan Hahn

    04/13/2017 at 10:07 PM

    I have both BED and type 2 diabetes. I would welcome hearing from people with similar issues. I go days without checking my blood sugar. I have been in therapy forever. I am working on changing the language I use. I am not a failure, I am a work in progress. At times I am able to live in the moment and stop to ask myself if I am hungry. At other times I just binge on carbs.

  11. Marilyn

    04/14/2017 at 10:40 AM

    This is me to a T. I never miss my medications, but I hate testing my bs. I’m going to print this article and take it to the doctor next month. I want her to actually read what it is like to be a compulsive emotional eater. Thank you so much.

  12. Cindy Litchfield

    04/14/2017 at 4:13 PM

    I go to Overeaters Anonymous (like AA but for food) meetings. I find them very helpful.

  13. Romena Ramnarain

    04/14/2017 at 6:51 PM

    I am very glad you send this I punish with the food this helps please send me more

  14. Nancy

    04/16/2017 at 10:07 PM

    Maybe I am missing the point of compulsive and emotional eating. The focus of the article deals with food issues rather than emotional issues. I believe if one’s emotional issues are taken care of to a reasonable and manageable level, the food issues would be minimal. Am I am missing the point? Maybe I need to re-read the article.



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