- Binge eating is defined as eating a larger-than-normal portion of food in a sitting, while emotional eating involves overeating to cope with emotions.
- Emotional eating can be a symptom of binge eating disorder, and it is essential to seek evaluation if you frequently rely on food to cope with your emotions.
- There are multiple treatment options for binge eating and emotional eating, including psychotherapy and nutrition counseling.
Binge eating and emotional eating are terms commonly used to describe overeating, but there are important distinctions between them. Binge eating is when a person eats very large portions of food in a short period of time while feeling a lack of control or compulsion to finish all of the food. When binge eating happens frequently, it’s diagnosed as an eating disorder called binge eating disorder (BED).
Emotional eating is when a person overeats to cope with their emotions. While emotional eating can be a risk factor for binge eating disorder, it’s different from binge eating because it does not involve a lack of control.
Read more to learn about the differences and similarities between binge eating and emotional eating and how to treat both concerns.
Binge Eating vs. Emotional Eating
Though binge eating and emotional eating are often used interchangeably in conversation, they are considered different because of the motivators and behaviors linked to eating.
Binge eating occurs when a person eats a larger-than-normal amount of food within two hours. The eating episode is associated with feeling a lack of control or difficulty stopping. The person typically feels distressed about their binge eating episodes.
Binge eating usually involves highly palatable foods like pizza, desserts, and ice cream, since these foods are comforting and enjoyable to many people.
Per the DSM-V, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the following characteristics are typically involved in a binge eating episode:
- Eating very quickly.
- Feeling uncomfortably full afterward.
- Not feeling physical hunger beforehand.
- Eating in isolation out of embarrassment.
- Feeling upset and guilty afterward.
If binge eating occurs at least one day per week for at least three months, it is known as binge eating disorder (BED), which is the most common eating disorder. BED exists on a spectrum. While some people might have mild BED, with up to three binge eating episodes per week, others may have extreme BED, with over 14 episodes in a week.
Regardless of severity, it is important to seek treatment if you are diagnosed with BED or suspect you have BED. Nourish connects you virtually to registered dietitians who are experts in treating binge eating disorder. Consider scheduling an insurance-covered appointment to get the care you need.
Emotional eating occurs when a person overeats in response to emotions rather than hunger. It can happen with positive emotions, such as happiness, but emotional eating is usually associated with negative emotions, like stress, depression, boredom, or grief.
An important characteristic of emotional eating is that it usually happens in the absence of physical hunger. People who regularly experience emotional eating often have a low awareness of their hunger and fullness cues or struggle to regulate their emotions.
In the case of negative emotions, emotional eating is used as a coping mechanism. There is an increase in dopamine, a chemical in the brain that promotes feelings of well-being, after eating highly palatable foods, which is why some people are drawn to eating while experiencing emotional discomfort.
Emotional eating is not always a bad thing. When it happens occasionally, it’s considered part of normal eating. Most people experience eating out of stress or boredom from time to time, like enjoying a dessert after a stressful day even though they aren’t feeling hungry.
Emotional eating becomes serious when it occurs frequently and becomes one of your only coping mechanisms for uncomfortable emotions. In the long term, emotional eating is associated with depression and weight gain.
Further, since emotional eating overlaps with many characteristics of binge eating, there is also a concern for the presence of an eating disorder. When emotional eating occurs often but does not meet the criteria for binge eating disorder, it can be considered a form of disordered eating.
Similarities and Differences
Emotional eating and binge eating overlap in many areas, which can make it confusing to understand the difference between the two. Both are defined as eating past the point of fullness, and occur when not physically hungry. It may be helpful to think of these two eating patterns as being on a spectrum of overeating.
Studies show that binge eating episodes are commonly triggered by negative emotions in people with BED, showing there is a relationship between the two. Emotional eating is often considered to be a symptom or a risk factor for binge eating disorder.
Emotional eating and binge eating are both associated with chronic restrictive dieting. This is because when there is a calorie deficit, the body responds by slowing the metabolism and increasing a person's drive to eat in order to prevent “starvation.” Research on calorie-restricted diets shows that losing 10% of your body weight can result in these metabolic changes. From a psychological standpoint, restrictive dieting can drive a person to seek out food that has been restricted or off-limits.
Binge eating and emotional eating are similar because:
- They involve overeating when not physically hungry.
- Habits like eating highly palatable foods and having a fast pace of eating can occur with both.
- Both can be triggered by restrictive dieting.
- They are associated with an increased risk of eating disorders.
While emotional eating is often a characteristic of binge eating, it can occur outside of the context of binge eating. The key difference between the two is that emotional eating does not involve feeling a lack of control during the episode.
When emotional eating starts taking on more characteristics of binge eating, like feeling a lack of control and intense guilt and shame after the eating episode, it can turn into a binge eating disorder. An evaluation is warranted if the individual starts experiencing these episodes more frequently.
The differences between emotional eating and binge eating include:
- Emotional eating does not usually involve feeling a lack of control.
- Intense feelings of guilt and embarrassment following the event are more common with binge eating.
- High frequency of episodes is more closely related to binge eating disorder.
Is Emotional Eating an Eating Disorder?
Emotional eating is associated with an increased risk of binge eating disorder as well as other eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. While emotional eating can be a risk factor or a symptom of binge eating disorder, the DSM-V does not classify emotional eating on its own as an eating disorder.
If you are unsure whether or not your eating habits, including emotional eating, qualify as an eating disorder, talk to your doctor about being screened.
Treatment options for binge eating and emotional eating are similar. Treatment for binge eating disorder is typically multidisciplinary, including nutrition therapy and psychotherapy. Whether you are diagnosed with an eating disorder or struggle with emotional eating, these treatments can be valuable.
Research shows that people with binge eating disorder tend to have atypical eating patterns. For example, restricting food in the morning and eating large amounts in the evening is common. Restrictive dieting is associated with an increased frequency of binge episodes among people with binge eating disorder. Therefore, a key component of nutrition therapy is to eat regular balanced meals throughout the day and avoid restrictive dieting.
Mindful eating nutrition interventions have been shown to be beneficial for reducing emotional eating episodes. Strategies like checking in with your hunger and fullness on a scale of one to ten and being aware of your current emotional state can help reduce the frequency of emotional eating.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy commonly used for treating binge eating disorder. It focuses on exploring the underlying causes of the binge eating episodes and targeting poor body image and self-esteem.
Another type of therapy proven effective for treating BED is dialectic-behavioral therapy (DBT). Sessions focus on teaching the person how to regulate emotions and manage stress through the use of mindfulness techniques and learning how to respond to emotions without using food. Research shows dialectic-behavioral therapy is useful for treating emotional eating as well.
Learning healthy coping mechanisms for managing negative emotions is key to treating emotional and binge eating. Therapy might also focus on underlying mental health concerns that may be impacting a person’s eating habits, such as anxiety and depression.
If you struggle with emotional eating or binge eating or have been diagnosed with binge eating disorder, consider scheduling an appointment with a Registered Dietitian through Nourish.
You’ll learn strategies for eating mindfully and nourishing your body without feeling out of control around food.
With 100% virtual visits that are covered by insurance, it couldn’t be easier to get the high-quality care that you deserve. If you display behaviors consistent with binge eating disorder, take this short binge eating disorder quiz to learn about the next steps to take.
Frequently Asked Questions
Unlike eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia, a person with binge eating disorder does not engage in compensatory purging behaviors after a binge episode.
Compensatory purging behaviors are behaviors that people use to “undo” the binge and prevent weight gain. They may include forcing yourself to vomit after a binge, abusing laxatives or excessive exercise.
Many people mistakenly believe that binge eating disorder is simply due to a lack of willpower. This can lead people with binge eating disorder to seek help at weight loss clinics.
Weight loss or weight management programs can often worsen binge eating disorder because the methods used to lose weight (such as restricting food intake, weighing yourself, and limiting certain food groups) may trigger binge eating.
Binge eating disorder is challenging, but the proper treatment makes recovery possible.
The binge eating disorder quiz is for anyone who suspects they have binge eating disorder. The quiz is designed to help you see whether your behaviors align with the criteria for binge eating disorder. This quiz cannot be used to diagnose binge eating disorder, but it may help you gain insight into your eating behaviors and relationship with food.
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