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The Difference Between Emotional Eating and Binge-Eating

Emotional Eating is something we all do, when we are stressed, tired or angry, but also when we are happy, relieved or celebrating. Emotional Eating is a very common response to celebrate, commiserate or comfort ourselves with food. So, Emotional Eating is a response to feelings, and we are all susceptible to reaching for food when we feel a certain way.

Binge eating disorder is something completely different. And the problem is that the phrase emotional eating is used when the real issue is actually binge eating disorder. So what’s the difference? And why is it important to know where each category of eating sits on the spectrum of eating and disordered eating?

If you prefer audio, you can listen to this blog on YouTube.

The History of Binge Eating Disorder

Let’s talk about the official diagnosis criteria for Binge Eating, that comes from the DSM V, which is a giant book published by the American Psychiatric Association, and it has every single sort of mental health disorder that you can think of and a lot more that you would never think of in it.

I’m not a big one for official diagnosis, but I do think that it’s important for you to understand what binge eating is because it is a real issue, but it has only recently come into the DSM V. It was entered as a specific eating disorder in its own right in 2013.  Before that, lumped into a category called Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, or EDNOS, which is essentially anything that wasn’t anorexia or bulimia.

It is important to understand that tiny little bit of history of the diagnosis because binge eating is relatively new as a diagnosis. And what that actually means is a lot of doctors are still not really aware of  binge eating disorder as an eating disorder in its own right. So binge eating disorder often gets misdiagnosed, or the symptoms of it are treated, but not the underlying problem.

What is Binge Eating

So what is binge eating? It is:

– eating far more quickly than normal;

– eating until you’re uncomfortably full;

– eating large amounts of foods, when you’re not actually hungry for food;

and/or

– eating alone or secret eating and that might include night eating.

Now the key criteria here because again, we could all do that, we could all eat far more quickly than normal, we could all eat until we are uncomfortably full, think about Thanksgiving dinner or your Christmas dinner or Hanukkah or a party celebration, a buffet… 

We can all eat large amounts of food when we are actually not hungry for food, too. 

And sometimes we eat alone, sometimes we enjoy a secret treat or guilty pleasure, like buying something when you are out in the car, eating it then disposing of the wrappers in a bin nobody ever finds out about it.

However, the key criteria with binge eating disorder is :

– experiencing significant feelings of shame, disgust, guilt, frustration, and anger or hatred of self

… after the event. So this is actually the key to a diagnosis.

Binge Eating Diagnosis

People with binge eating disorder often will be serial dieters or yo-yo dieters, and you can appreciate on one level this makes sense because binge eating disorder is not that well known or understood by either doctors or by those working in weight loss.

A lot of clients who are struggling with the side effects of binge eating will look for help from their doctor or a weight loss or diet program.

Several very common issues that you will struggle with if you are binge eating are:


– anxiety

– low mood

– gut issues.

But if you go to your doctor, you’re usually going to say to the doctor,  “I think I’m suffering from anxiety”, or “I think I have IBS, and I’m feeling very low at the moment.” And they will prescribe a medication for that particular symptom. But you almost never tell them, that you’re regularly binge eating. So, the real underlying problem does not get addressed, and doctors, in my opinion, don’t ask the right questions to find out this information. They don’t  know what they don’t know.

As a doctor, if you see a certain type of patient coming, and they are reporting that they are struggling with anxiety or low mood or gut issues, one of the first questions I would ask them is “do you ever eat for emotional reasons? Do you regularly restrict your food or diet?”  Then, alongside any medication you might prescribe, you can suggest the client also goes to see somebody who can help them actually resolve the underlying issue, which is the binge eating disorder. 

If your focus is on weight gain, then of course, that’s another obvious consequence of binge eating, and you’re looking for help in the form of dieting or weight loss programs. BUT you’re never going to get the correct psychological support you need to properly resolve binge eating on a diet or weight loss program.  Fitness instructors, personal trainers, weight loss group facilitators, and even most Health, Nutrition or Wellness Coaches are  not trained in disordered eating.

I recommend you to go to somebody who has a professional qualification in eating disorders, or binge eating disorder in particular. If you’re struggling with deep underlying feelings of shame and guilt, if you know your emotional eating started a long time ago in response to a difficult event or trauma in your life, and you know that you also need to work on how you feel about yourself and manage difficult emotions – that is binge eating disorder and that needs to be addressed in a completely different, specific psychological way. 

Bulimia - Binge Eating with Purging or 'Compensatory Behaviors'

Binge Eaters will often try and compensate for binge eating by restriction or dieting. But keep in mind that binge eating disorder don’t include purging.  You might use some kind of compensatory behaviors for weight gain like dieting or exercisebut if you’re doing any form of purging – vomiting, using laxatives, using any other form of drug or medication, or compulsive over-exercising then that’s Bulimia, and that’s a different diagnosis.

Bulimia also differs from Binge Eating Disorder because it has a mortality rate associated with it – up to 10% of Bulimia sufferers can die as a direct result of their purging behaviors – vomiting, laxative abuse and using medications or drugs to compensate all carry the risk of electrolyte imbalance. When that happens, it puts your heart at risk. So the most common cause of death in Bulimia sufferers is a heart attack. Scary stuff.

How Does Binge Eating Start

Binge Eating is a form of comfort eating, but it is linked to a deep discomfort or inability to process strong or difficult feelings. And usually this is something that was learned a long time ago, very often in childhood So the purpose of being-eating is distraction, numbing, burying uncomfortable feelings under food or a safe way of discharging anger. 

There’s often a very deep underlying message of unworthiness. So clients tend to feel undeserving of love or happiness. And again, that’s often linked to history of trauma in childhood. So that feeling that you don’t deserve love, or you don’t deserve to be happy is often an unconscious driver of the binge eating behavior. Because essentially, if you’re swinging between constant restriction and binge eating, you’re punishing yourself all the time, you’re either under feeding or under nourishing yourself by depriving yourself of food, and then you’re punishing yourself by eating food that isn’t nutritious, and that is causing you harm – whether that’s physical harm in the form of your gut or other health issues, or emotional harm, because you feel completely crap about yourself afterwards – feeling shame, guilt, remorse, disappointment and anger towards yourself.

The majority of our clients with binge eating disorder are between 35 and 55, and an awful lot are in their 40s and 50s. But binge-eating can start in childhood, and the oldest client I’ve ever had coming in for the very first time was 68 the first time she contacted me. So it can affect anyone, at any age, and it can be a problem for decades if it’s not correctly treated.

Free 7 Day Eating Freely Challenge

I am giving you a shameless plug here for my free seven-day challenge.


The reason why I’m doing this at the end of this particular blog is because you may suspect or know that you’re struggling with binge eating disorder. And my seven-day challenge is going to help you do a deep dive into all the different aspects of binge eating disorder and understanding where it’s impacting you in your life and the various different levels of support that you need to successfully overcome it.

So:

– if you’re cycling in and out of weight loss programs

– going back to your doctor again and again with various health issues associated with binge eating

and

– you haven’t yet tried to specifically tackle the underlying binge eating disorder…

… my seven-day challenge  is a very good place to start to get a really good picture of what’s going on, and what you can do about it in order to start helping yourself resolve long-standing, binge eating disorder and get on with your life.

You’ll find the link for the seven-day challenge below, which I know will give you an excellent insight into what the real problem is and what the real work is you need to do in order to successfully resolve this. 

I hope you found this helpful.