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 there is a bit of confusion or difficulty in identifying symptoms.
Because of this, I thought it was worth discussing what I perceive to be the differences in a short article.
To be clear, this is my take on the differences based on my experience and understanding. My area of expertise is emotional eating, so the description of emotional eating that I share here is based upon my teachings in the course. I have had a little help from Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, 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 provide emotional reward.
Let’s face it, eating can be an enjoyable 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 soothe pain.
Using food as a source of comfort or reward is a normal and healthy thing to do. It is 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 that 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. We might 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.
That is when it’s good to know that you have an opportunity to 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, describe binge eating disorder as:
“A serious mental 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 have concerns that you, or someone you love, might be struggling with binge eating then Beat or the National Centre for Eating Disorders are useful resources to help you to gain a better understanding and put you in touch with knowledgeable professionals.