Given that I have a course on emotional eating, I sometimes get asked about the difference between emotional and binge eating.
I also observe that when people are searching for help in these areas, both terms can be used interchangeably, suggesting that there is a bit of confusion in this area.
Because of this, I thought it was worth discussing what I perceive to be the differences, and there are differences. They are different behaviors and need to be treated in different ways.
To be clear, this is my own take on it based on my experience. My area of expertise is emotional eating, so the description of emotional eating that I share here is taken from the teachings in the course, Overcome Emotional Eating. I have had a little help from Beat, one of the UK’s eating disorder charities, to describe binge eating.
Firstly, I think it’s worth pointing out that we are all driven to eat for both physical and emotional reasons.
Emotional eating is one of many, perfectly normal coping strategies that we use to help us to manage our emotions or to provide emotional reward.
Let’s face it, eating can be a pleasurable thing to do. The act of eating fires up reward centres in the brain and we use food to express love, to connect with others and to celebrate.
Using food as a source of comfort or reward occasionally is a normal and healthy thing to do. It’s important to recognise this. When we think of emotional eating as a bad thing, or a behaviour that we should avoid we can get caught up in a diet mentality which can lead to damaging behaviour around food.
When you find yourself using food to hide from feelings regularly, rather than paying attention to those feelings and addressing what is happening underneath the surface, this is when it can show up as problematic emotional eating.
Sometimes, we can get stuck in a cycle of behaviour with food if we find that it is one of the only methods we have to cope with our feelings. Regularly turning to food when we are stressed out, bored or seeking to reward ourselves can end up causing us discomfort and creating more negative feelings.
If you have a tendency to turn to food regularly this way, that’s when it’s good to know that you can do something about it.
Binge eating, on the other hand, tends to be episodes of compulsive overeating or eating large amounts of food and feeling unable to stop or out of control.
The eating disorder charity, Beat, describes binge eating disorder as:
“A serious illness where people experience a loss of control and eat large quantities of food over a short period of time on a regular basis. Sufferers find it difficult to stop during a binge even if they want to, and some people with binge eating disorder have described feeling disconnected from what they’re doing during a binge, or even struggling to remember what they’ve eaten afterwards“.
Binge eating can often be a reaction to attempts to control food intake.
If you are restricting carbs for example or are having a ‘bad day’ on a diet, you might find that you can’t hold back and have an episode of eating uncontrollably.
If you are concerned that you might be experiencing patterns of binge eating, then the Beat website, has a list if symptoms that you can check against and find further help if you need it.
If you think that you are turning to food as a source of comfort, reward or to avoid stress regularly, then you might want to take a look at my course, Overcome Emotional Eating. I help you to explore your habits in a safe way and we go deep on the role that your mind plays in your relationship with food so that you understand it and can create positive behaviour changes.