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Binge Eating vs. Emotional Eating: What’s the Difference?

binge eating Jul 08, 2021
Open box of half eaten donuts


These days, as a Binge Eating Therapist, I talk a lot about both binge eating and emotional eating. But even just a short few years ago, despite the fact that I was doing both on an almost weekly basis, I had no idea they even existed.

I‘d never heard of the term binge eating, and my idea of emotional eating consisted of eating a pint of ice cream after a break-up like you see in the movies.

I didn’t know that when I used to get stressed and overwhelmed at work — so much so that I’d call in sick from work for 3 days at a time just so I could stay in bed watching tv-shows and stuffing myself with food — well, that was a form of emotional eating. Honestly, all those years I just assumed that I sucked at sticking to a diet.

Back in those days, my life consisted of a revolving door of diets and extreme workout routines. Hence, whenever I had these intermittent periods of lying around in bed while eating large amounts of food, I just put it down to the fact that I didn’t have enough willpower and I’d just have to try a bit harder next time.

It wasn’t until I had completely exhausted every single diet out there, only to find that nothing worked — or at least not long term — that I started to ask myself: “OK, what the hell is going on here?”

It’s at that point that I realised that maybe this 20-year long battle with food and weight had nothing to do with a lack of willpower, or even a lack of knowledge, since I honestly could have been a nutritionist by that point with all the in-depth research I’d done over the years.

“Maybe it’s emotional.”

The moment I had this insight, things started to shift very quickly. I finally had a name, a diagnosis, something that I could type in Google.

The more I read about binge eating and emotional eating, the more I realised that this thing I had been doing in secret for all these years was actually much more common than I thought.

That discovery in and of itself was freeing. “There are other people out there that will sneak into the kitchen and secretly eat half a jar of peanut butter with a spoon. Cool, I’m not alone!”

There’s so much power in being able to put a name onto something, which is why I’ll start by defining binge eating and emotional eating separately before I explain the difference between the two.

 

Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is when we use food as a coping mechanism to escape uncomfortable and painful emotions — and it’s much more common than you might think because, let’s be honest, not many of us were ever taught how to properly handle our emotions.

Most of us were taught to repress or escape any painful feelings, and we do this either by using substances like food, drugs or alcohol, or by scrolling through Instagram for 3 hours or ordering 7 pairs of shoes that we don’t need. There are lots of different ways we distract ourselves from our emotions, and emotional eating is one of them.

But for those of us for whom emotional eating is our main coping mechanism, it’s nearly always a sign that we experienced some form of emotional distress at an early age and had to find a way to self-soothe.

In those early childhood years, there weren’t that many options. We’re too young to turn to drugs or alcohol, there’s no gambling or retail therapy — it’s pretty much just food, TV and toys. Thus, if emotional eating is the thing that brings you the most comfort whenever you are upset, overwhelmed or anxious today, it’s very likely that this is actually a strategy you adopted many years ago.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you had an unhappy childhood or experienced intense trauma. It just means that at some point you felt unloved, unworthy, powerless or hopeless, and there was no one there to comfort you, which forced you to find creative ways to self-soothe. And emotional eating is a fantastic way to do that.

But while emotional eating is an excellent tool when we don’t know how else to handle our emotions, it’s a temporary one. It only kicks the problem further down the road. While it temporarily allows us to escape those uncomfortable feelings, when that last bite of food crosses our lips, the feelings are still there. At which point we’ve either got to eat more, or finally face the shadow.

 

Binge Eating

Most people define binge eating as eating a large quantity of food. But the thing is… define large.

For some people, a large quantity of food is half a jar of peanut butter. For others, it’s a family size pizza, a litre of ice cream, a bag of M&M’s and 24 chicken nuggets. Everything is relative.

I like to define binge eating slightly differently. To me, what characterises binge eating is the feeling of being completely out of control around food.

You want to stop eating, but you can’t. You just have to keep eating more, and more, and more, and you feel completely powerless over food.

It’s not so much about the quantity of food as it is about that feeling of not being able to stop. Sometimes eating half a jar of peanut butter can feel out of control, and sometimes the family size pizza and the litre of ice cream can feel out of control. The desperation of not being able to stop is the same.

To anyone who has never had an issue with food, this will sound absolutely ridiculous. They’d be like “just stop eating, duh”. Hence, I just want to take a moment to validate that if you struggle with binge eating, and you have experienced that feeling before of not being able to stop eating and feeling completely out of control around food, you are not alone.

It’s a thing. It happens.

More importantly, there’s a solution to it. You are not doomed to struggle with this forever.

But to understand how to heal it, we first need to understand why it happens.

 

 

First of all, binge eating can be a reaction from the body in response to physical deprivation.

When we’re not eating enough food for our needs and our body isn’t able to extract enough energy or nutrients — which can easily happen when we’re dieting and restricting portion sizes or food groups — our body will then force us to eat more in order to make up for these deficiencies. To get its nutritional needs met, it completely overrides any lingering willpower we may have and triggers a binge response.

Our body only cares about our survival, it doesn’t think twice about our aesthetic goals. If we’re on a diet and we’re not eating enough, the body will say “Screw this, let’s eat!”, and it will specifically favour heavy carbs and fatty foods because those can quickly replenish our energy stores. If you’ve ever wondered why we never binge on broccoli, this is why.

The second reason why we binge is to numb out.

I call this the ‘food coma’.

When we’re stressed, our body partially shuts down our digestion system so that it can divert resources to more essential parts of our body — which was extremely useful 1000 years ago when we were running away from a tiger, but not so useful these days when the stress is mainly caused by our email inbox.

For this reason, our body can only digest food when we’re in a relaxed state (hence the name rest-and-digest), and our mind knows this.

Thus, when our mind realises that we’re stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, it goes: “Aha! Remember the last time she ate a bunch of food? That really helped her relax. Let’s do that again!” and it will start sending us intense hunger signals so that we’ll eat, and eat, and eat so much food that our body has no other choice but to start digesting — which will switch off the stress response, and finally allow us to relax.

 

Binge Eating vs. Emotional Eating

Now that you understand the definitions of binge eating and emotional eating and some of the underlying reasons why they happen, you can see that, essentially, sometimes binge eating is emotional eating, and sometimes emotional eating can be binge eating.

Not all binge eating is emotional eating, because there’s the case where binge eating happens in response to physical deprivation.

And not all emotional eating is binge eating, because there are times where we may consciously use food to numb our feelings yet it doesn’t feel out of control.

At the end of the day though, whether it’s binge eating, emotional eating, overeating or food addiction, it all comes down to the same thing: a disconnection from one’s own needs.

When we uncover what those needs are and learn to meet them in more supportive ways, our struggles with food dissolve.

 

If you know someone who may be struggling with this, please take a few moments to forward them this article. Being able to put a name onto it may be the exact thing they need to break the diet/binge cycle and start their healing journey, just like it did for me a few years ago.

 

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