As Registered Dietitians specializing in eating disorders, we frequently are asked what the difference is between binge eating and emotional eating. Individuals often refer to themselves as “an emotional eater” like it is an admission of crime.
We understand the shame and confusion that can arise after eating compulsively or in response to big feelings and how that can cause someone to feel beyond help.
In understanding the definitions and truth behind both emotional eating and binge eating, we hope you can find the support you need in your relationship with food. And remember, our Jumpstart to Intuitive Eating Course can help lay the foundation for starting on an Intuitive Eating journey.
the difference between binge eating and emotional eating
While emotions are often present during binge eating, an individual has to meet certain criteria laid out by the DSM-V (the psychiatric illness manual used by mental health professionals) for a diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder (BED).
Those criteria are:
- Eating, in a discrete period of time, an amount of food that is definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time under the same circumstances.
- A sense of lack of control over eating during the episode.
Along with these two things, binge eating episodes are also characterized by any three of the following:
- Eating more rapidly than usual
- Eating until uncomfortably full
- Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
- Eating alone due to feelings of embarrassment with eating
- Feelings of guilt and shame after the episode
Binge eating is often a response to restrictive eating and diet mentality. It’s the body’s way of trying to protect against deprivation (so, it’s not a matter of poor “self control”). Contrary to popular belief, BED is more common than anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa combined.Treatment for BED includes a plan for adequately meeting energy needs, challenging food rules and/or fear foods, and developing coping skills to respond to negative emotions that can lead to a binge.
Though binge eating disorder is a diagnosable, dangerous condition that can impede one’s quality of life, it is very much treatable! It’s also important to know that there doesn’t need to be a diagnosis in order for their quality of life to suffer. We believe that no one should have to suffer with the emotional and physical effects of a disrupted relationship with food. We are here to help.
The reality is that as humans with taste buds, we can’t detach all feelings from food. Eating is meant to be an enjoyable experience and there is nothing wrong with deriving pleasure from food. Whether it brings up fond memories or we find it relaxing to want to eat a bowl of ice cream at the end of a day, food soothes. Sometimes, it is totally appropriate to eat even if we aren’t hungry.
There are many situations where this could be a healthy approach to eating, even if that reason is to comfort ourselves. However, if food is our ONLY tool to cope with our negative emotions, we can run into some problems. The key is to know that it's OKAY to use food as a coping mechanism, while also building up our toolbox with other helpful strategies for relieving negative emotions. Self-care looks different for everyone, but it is imperative that we make an intentional effort to process our emotions in a way that feels supportive and compassionate.
best next steps
Whether you feel that you resonate with binge eating or emotional eating (or both)! Our team is here to help. We offer both 1:1 nutrition counseling or self-paced Intuitive Eating support to meet you exactly where you are at in your journey to a more peaceful relationship with food.
Contact us today to learn more!