What is the difference between emotional eating and binge eating?

What is the difference between emotional eating and binge eating?

It’s common for people struggling with their relationship with food to attach labels to themselves. Whilst there is no shame in declaring yourself a ‘binge eater’, it is often a very subjective statement. What one person considers to be a binge could be considerably different to another person and the context around the eating event may be very different.  So, what is the difference between emotional eating and binge eating?

Emotionally overeating after receiving some bad news might be considered relatively ‘normal’ as an isolated event. Compared to someone who is consistently very restrictive in their eating Monday to Friday and then feels out of control and compulsively eats large quantities of food at the weekend.

I thought it would therefore be helpful to explain how emotional eating and binge eating are intertwined but also clarify what distinguishes them.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is when we eat in response to an emotional trigger, these can be both positive and negative emotions. We eat in celebration of birthdays, promotions, birthdays and retirements. We also eat to commiserate relationship breakdowns, a difficult period at work or the loss of a loved one.

Our relationship with food is formed from the moment we are born. Consider how you were first comforted as a baby when you cried, on your mother’s breast or by the bottle with warm milk containing naturally occurring sugars. And as you progressed through childhood, how were your birthdays or academic achievements celebrated?  Perhaps you were rewarded for good behaviour with sweets, or denied them as punishment?

When we stop and reflect on how deeply engrained our associations with food are and that they’re mostly on an unconscious level. We can see how challenging it can be to both recognise but also overcome our struggles with food. 

Food cravings often hit when a person is experiencing negative emotions such as stress.  Food may provide comfort against stress and negative emotional states by releasing dopamine and serotonin into the brain. These are chemicals that regulate mood and make people feel happy and calmer.

Emotional eating is completely normal and not a character defect. But if you would like a technique to reduce your emotional eating, check out my blog on the HALT technique.

If, however food is solely relied upon to cope with stress and to self-soothe, it might be beneficial to seek further support. Emotional eating can sometimes be considered a precursor or symptom of an eating disorder.

When does emotional eating become an eating disorder?

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) was first formally recognised as an eating disorder in 2013. Since then there has been much greater awareness and understanding of this serious issue.

It might surprise you to know that BED is actually the most common eating disorder. With sufferers outnumbering both anorexia and bulimia combined.

Binge eating disorder often begins with dissatisfaction with a person’s weight, and the binge eating episodes are triggered by their attempts to diet or publicly restrict the food they eat. After binge eating episodes have become routine, the person feels out of control and unable to stop eating during the binge episodes. Emotional eating does not necessarily mean that a person has a binge eating disorder. However, emotional eating combined with the following symptoms could be a sign of a binge-eating disorder.

Symptoms of a binge-eating disorder

  • Frequent and repeated binge eating episodes during which much larger amounts of food are eaten – usually twice a week for several months
  • Eating past the point of being full or eating when not hungry
  • Eating much more quickly than normal during the binge-eating episodes
  • Eating past the point of being full or feeling pain
  • A feeling of loss of control during the binge eating episode
  • Eating secretly or hiding food to be eaten in secret
  • Feeling ashamed or embarrassed during or after binge-eating episodes
  • Feelings of shame or embarrassment surrounding the binge-eating episodes.

When a person who might occasionally eat too much when feeling down or stressed begins to feel the compulsion to binge-eat regularly, it’s a clear sign that a binge-eating disorder is possible. 

Suffice it to say, there is definitely an overlap between emotional eating and binge eating.  It’s very important to recognise, diagnose and treat binge eating disorder (BED)

If you are concerned about your relationship with food and would like support overcoming these issues, check out my 1:1 Food Freedom Therapy packages.

MORE HERE: BLOG: Do I have binge eating disorder?, PODCAST: How to overcome binge eating: Part 1

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