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Emotional Eating vs. Binge Eating

By Michelle May, M.D.

ANAD locker-poster-2015It is National Eating Disorders Association’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week so this is a perfect time to talk about the difference between emotional eating and binge eating.

I posted a question on our Facebook page: “Are you more likely to participate in a ‘Mindful 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 great responses that helped us understand more about your perceptions and needs. Your answers were split almost down the middle between emotional eating and binge eating, for various reasons. Your comments revealed that there is both a lot of overlap and a lot of confusion. Jeff posted, “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?

Emotional eating is using food to regulate emotions, in other words, attempting to manage your mood with food.

Comfort foodEmotional connections to food are normal; 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 only becomes a problem when it’s the primary way you cope with or avoid your feelings. As Elise posted, “I think emotions are often the root of unhealthy eating behaviors.”

Maybe you’ve noticed that you reach for food when you’re feeling stressed, bored, lonely, mad, or sad. When your habit is to use food instead of paying attention to what these emotions are trying to tell you about your underlying needs, those needs go unmet. And of course, those unmet needs will continue to drive emotional eating!

What is Binge Eating?

JoAnne posted, “I think that emotional eating leads to binge eating for me.” Emotional eating does sometimes leads to binge eating – but binge eating is not “just” overeating. In fact, it 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.”

Although, as Pat posted, “emotional eating is more familiar and more folks can relate,” binge eating causes a significant disruption to 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. They also tend to make repeated attempts at dieting to try to stop their bingeing. That only compounds the problem. We call it the binge-repent-repeat cycle.

Katie pointed out that calling it ‘binge eating,’ “raises awareness to it being a real eating disorder.” Indeed; the diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual less than two years ago.

So, suffice it to say that there is definitely overlap between emotional eating and binge eating but it is also important to recognize and treat binge eating disorder. If you think you might binge eat, take the Binge Eating Scale here.

Emotional Eating vs. Binge 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.

So back to the original question I asked on Facebook:

“Are you more likely to participate in a ‘Mindful Eating for Binge Eating Retreat’ or a ‘Mindful Eating for Emotional Eating Retreat’ if the content and format are exactly the same?” This wasn’t a hypothetical question since we offer a retreat that is highly effective for both binge eating and emotional eating.

We’ve been calling it a Mindful Eating for Binge Eating Retreat but after reading all of your responses, I decided to change the name of our retreat to 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 our 5 day retreat, we have fun 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 to help participants learn to identify and manage their emotions, make connections between their emotions and their needs, and learn to manage problematic thought patterns. Of course we also include plenty of time for connection and relaxation. And those who have worked with me, already know that since I once struggled with these issues, I 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 upcoming Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Retreat for Emotional Eating and Binge Eating may be the turning point you’ve been hoping for!

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

5 Comments

  1. M. judith Block says:

    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. Eliza says:

    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.

  3. Liz says:

    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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