Mindful Eating Programs and Training

Mindful Eating Programs and Training

What is the difference between emotional eating and binge eating?

Michelle May

Comfort food

There is a lot of information out there about emotional eating, and binge eating articles have become more common since Binge Eating Disorder was formally recognized in 2013. The focus of this article will be the answer to a question I get a lot in my work: What is the difference between emotional eating and binge eating?

Your Perceptions

The question about the differences between emotional eating and binge eating is relevant to me because we host a Mindful Eating Retreat for Emotional Eating and Binge Eating every year.”

So, I posted a question on our Facebook page: “Are you more likely to participate in a ‘M

indful Eating for Binge Eating Retreat’ or a ‘Mindful Eating for Emotional Eating Retreat’ if the content and format are exactly the same? Why?”

We received over 40 thoughtful and insightful responses that helped us understand more about your perceptions and needs.

Your answers were split almost exactly down the middle between the two titles for a variety of reasons. But your comments were the most revealing, because they showed us that not only is there a lot of overlap, there is also a lot of confusion.

For example, a user named Jeff commented: “Tough one! For me personally they used to go hand in hand – sort of a which came first? The chicken or the egg?”

What is Emotional Eating?

People often ask, “What is emotional eating?” Quite simply, emotional eating is exactly what it sounds like—using food to regulate emotions. In other words, attempting to manage your mood with food.

Emotional connections to food are normal; as human being, we connect food to so many of life’s significant moments. We eat to socialize, express love, have fun, soothe a hurt, and reward ourselves for a job well done.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! Emotional eating is normal! It only becomes a problem when it evolves into the primary way you cope with or avoid your feelings.

Maybe you’ve noticed you reach for food when you’re feeling

  • Stressed
  • Bored
  • Lonely
  • Angry
  • Sad

When your habit is to use food to numb feelings. instead of paying attention to what these emotions are trying to tell you about your underlying needs, those needs go unmet.

Until those unmet needs are addressed, they will continue to manifest as emotional eating!

What is Binge Eating?

In response to our Facebook poll, JoAnne posted, “I think emotional eating leads to binge eating for me.”

It’s true that emotional eating can sometimes lead to binge eating. But binge eating is not “just” overeating.

In fact, binge eating is defined as eating a significantly larger amount of food than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances. During a binge, a person feels out of control or feels that they can’t stop eating. Some describe it as a trance-like state.

Shereen posted, “I binge eat so I don’t have to feel the emotions.” Indeed, for many people, binge eating is a way to escape or disconnect from thoughts or feelings that seem intolerable.

Deanna posted, call it “‘binge eating’ because I’m not necessarily emotional when doing it. Very unemotional actually. Concentrated on how much I can eat. Not why.”

As compared to emotional eating, which Pat posted is “more familiar and more folks can relate,” binge eating causes a significant disruption in a person’s life. After a binge, there are strong feelings of disgust, shame, depression, or guilt. People who binge might find themselves distracted by thoughts of food frequently.

Katie pointed out that calling it ‘binge eating,’ “raises awareness to it being a real eating disorder.”

She has a point; the criteria for the diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder has been added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Binge-Repent-Repeat Cycle

People with Binge Eating Disorder often make repeated attempts at dieting to try to stop their bingeing. Of course, this almost never works and in fact, usually compounds the problem. We call this the binge-repent-repeat cycle.

Suffice it to say, there is definitely overlap as well as lack of clarity around emotional eating and binge eating. It is very important to recognize, diagnose, and treat binge eating disorder (BED). If you think you might binge eat, take the Binge Eating Scale here.

So back to the original question I asked on Facebook; this wasn’t a hypothetical question since our retreat is highly effective for both binge eating and emotional eating.

There were many other wise and helpful insights. For example, several people mentioned that although they don’t usually binge, emotional eating has created a lot of problems for them and they’d be interested in a retreat that addresses those issues. Others mentioned that the term “binge eating” may have some stigma attached to it, while one person posted that specifying binge eating would create a safer atmosphere for those who struggle with BED.

After reading all your responses, we decided to call our retreat the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Retreat for Emotional Eating and Binge Eating. It is a mouthful (no pun intended!) but more accurately describes the issues we address!

During this intensive retreat, we have fun, interactive workshops based on the Mindful Eating Cycle. We have guided mindful eating experiences and mindful movement opportunities.

And this is very important: we also offer small group therapy sessions conducted by a psychologist, Dr. Kari Anderson, my co-author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating. These therapeutic sessions help you learn to identify and manage your emotions, make connections between your emotions and your needs, and learn to manage problematic thought patterns.

Of course we also include plenty of time for connection and rejuvenation. And those who have worked with me, already know that since both Kari and I struggled with emotional eating and binge eating, we like to have a lot of fun and laughter while we work together to heal. (That’s for Ida who posted, “a good helping of humour would even go further.”)

So, if you struggle with emotional eating, binge eating, or both, the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Retreat for Emotional Eating and Binge Eating may be the turning point you’ve been hoping for!

(If you’d like to be notified about upcoming retreats, fill out the form in the right sidebar on this retreat page.)

Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you:

A common but often unrecognized trigger for overeating.

Why do I keep struggling with the same eating issues?

What if I still struggle with my eating?

(This article was updated from a previously published article.)

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5 thoughts on “What is the difference between emotional eating and binge eating?”

  1. M. judith Block

    I’d go with emotional eating instead of binge eating, Less stigmatizing. While all binge eaters are emotional eaters, I think not all emotional eaters binge, so you will cover a larger population.

  2. I know this thread is kinda old, but I wanted to add that I think emotional eating is focused on certain foods [chocolate when craving love; dairy when feeling depressed; nuts when craving fun; breads, rice and pasta for comfort; salty snacks when having stress, anger or anxiety; high fat foods when feeling empty; etc.], but when one has a binge, it doesn’t matter what kind of food is around, as long as you can ‘stuff your face’ to numb yourself.

    1. Thanks for your comment Eliza. You are absolutely right; a binge is not about the food. It is typically an attempt to escape thoughts and feelings; the food is just the method.

  3. I would also go with emotional eating. I believe that both emotional eating and binge eating are engaged in an attempt to escape emotions that do not feel good.

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