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What is the difference between binge eating, overeating and emotional eating?

Updated: Oct 10, 2022

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Our relationship with food is complex and personal but with all these different phrases - binge eating, overeating and emotional eating - flying around, how are we supposed to know what they all actually mean? Let’s break this down so that you can identify what might be going on for you.

Why do we eat emotionally?

As humans, we don’t always eat just to combat hunger and fulfil our nutritional needs. From the moment we are born, food is used as a way to soothe and comfort us. Food and eating are woven into almost every celebration and social event you can think of: cake on your birthday, apple pie at your grandma’s, mince pies at Christmas and chocolate at Easter.

This isn’t inherently bad. Food can be a catalyst for connectedness and in this way, we all eat emotionally! Emotional eating is just that, eating in response to sadness, tiredness, stress or even happiness. Intuitive eating aims to allow you to find a sustainable way of eating that is flexible and guess what… includes emotional eating!

Food, such as pancakes and avocado toast, in the emotional eating context.

Binge eating vs. overeating vs. emotional eating

It's important to distinguish between normal emotional eating, overeating, and binge eating to improve your level of self-awareness. It can be helpful to think of this as a continuum with overcontrol of food choices at one end and binge eating at the other.

As discussed, eating for emotional reasons is a normal, healthy coping mechanism, when used in conjunction with other strategies to meet your emotional needs.

The infographic below illustrates the continuum of different food choices. Where do you think your food choices fall on the continuum?

An infographic presenting the continuum of food choices: overcontrol, flexible eating, emotional eating, overeating, and binge-eating

What is emotional eating?

When emotional eating (or any kind of eating) starts to cause negative physical or mental side effects, such as regularly feeling uncomfortably full or experiencing excessive guilt, it now falls outside of "flexible eating".

While we have established that emotional eating is not inherently bad, if it is your only way of coping with your emotions, it is likely to start causing issues in your daily life. You deserve to have more tools in your emotional toolbox and this is something you can build up to help you find other ways of coping with your feelings.

Emotional eating can look similar to a binge with you sneaking chocolate in the middle of the night, but it will not include the same volume of food as binge eating. Emotional eating can also look like consistent overeating spread throughout the day.

Below is a statement from someone who experiences emotional overeating:

"Often, I overeat when I am stressed. When deadlines start to pile up at work or the to-do list at home gets too long, I turn to food as comfort. I can go through packets and packets of biscuits while sitting at my desk, and mealtimes are the only time I properly have time to stop and relax. Sometimes, what I’m eating that day is what I look forward to most. I know I'm overeating and I don't feel good, but I don't know how to stop it when I have so much going on."

What is binge eating?

While binge eating can be a way to deal with emotions, compared to emotional eating, binge eating can be triggered by other factors too. The biggest difference between binge eating and other forms of eating is that it occurs in a discrete time frame which can be called a ‘binge eating episode’.

Here’s the definition of binge eating: The consumption of large quantities of food in a short period of time accompanied by a sense of loss of control and marked distress.

Below is a statement from someone who experiences binge eating:

"The build-up to a binge often starts off innocently enough. I will start fantasising about the foods that are “off-limits”. Imagining how it tastes. Maybe even looking up pictures of it. Putting aside time to truly enjoy it, usually alone. Then, I start thinking that if I am allowing myself this food, then I could have some other yummy foods too. Really treat myself. The excitement heightens at this point. Even the process of shopping for these foods is thrilling.

When I start eating, it feels amazing. However, this doesn't last long. I feel the need to finish the food to “get it out of the house”. I frequently eat past feeling sick and past the enjoyable stage. Almost in a trance. Once I have finished, I am filled with regret and start to think about how I am going to make up for this “lapse in willpower”."

To summarise, the key differences between emotional overeating and binge eating are the volume of food, the situation, and the reasons for reaching towards food. Binge eating typically involves more food consumed in a short time frame and feeling out of control.

It can be helpful to discuss any eating concerns with a professional so that they can help you understand your food choices in the context of your life.

Let’s bring it back to you

Can you identify where you might be on the scale of food choices? Do you resonate with any of the categories or do you feel like you swing between them, never reaching stability?

Do you recognise yourself in either of the food experiences described above? No matter where you are on the continuum, if your relationship with food or your body is affecting your wellbeing, self-confidence, or ability to join social situations in any way, then it is worth identifying how you would like things to be different.

And that's the great thing, things CAN be different! This isn't “just how you are” and you aren't “broken”.

Binge eating, emotional eating, and yo-yo dieting can all be overcome and food can become just another part of your day. What would you do if you freed up all that brain space spent obsessing over food and your body, and the time spent trying to control them?

If you would like support in understanding your eating patterns or guidance on how to start healing your relationship with food, Nuna’s Nutrition offers group coaching and 1-1 support to women who struggle with emotional and binge eating.

Click here to learn more about Nuna and here to learn more about Nuna's Nutrition services.

Make sure to also follow me on Instagram @nunas.nutrition where I share more on breaking free from binge eating and stepping into a happier and healthier version of you!

Disclaimer: This blog post is for general use only and is not intended to provide personal medical advice. If you have concerns or questions about your individual health, please seek help from a healthcare provider. Nuna’s Nutrition does not accept any liability for losses or injuries caused by users' reliance on information from this site.

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