Breaking Down Emotional Overeating vs. Binge Eating: Understanding the Risks and Differences
Many women can understand the experience of eating for comfort rather than eating when they are hungry. Emotional eating usually happens when they are feeling stressed, depressed, or afraid.
Some people eat less when they are upset, while others eat more when they are stressed. Sometimes, when we need to comfort ourselves and relax, we reach for a special food that makes us feel happier and more relaxed. This is because eating food we enjoy can release a chemical called dopamine, which makes us feel calmer and happier and this effect can be stronger in some people than others (1) . However, relying too much on emotional eating to cope with stress can become a problem, similar to an addiction. If emotional eating starts affecting your self-esteem, physical health, or emotional well-being, then it is a problem that should be addressed (2).
It's normal to occasionally have a biscuit or some chocolate to soothe ourselves, but if food becomes the only way we cope with unwanted thoughts or emotions, or if we eat beyond the point of enjoyment, we may have an unhealthy relationship with food or an eating disorder. Furthermore, emotional eating usually does not involve feelings of body dysmorphia, which is when a person has an extremely negative view of their body or sees it in a distorted way. They may not be satisfied with their body's appearance, but they have a relatively accurate understanding of their body shape and weight. Someone with body image dysmorphia might intellectually know that they are at a healthy weight or partially acknowledge other people's concerns about being underweight, but when they look in the mirror or assess their body in other ways, they perceive themselves as much larger.
When it comes to emotional eating and eating disorders, it's important to understand that they are not solely about food or body size. The underlying factors that contribute to these issues vary greatly from person to person, but some common ones include:
- Difficulty with emotional regulation, using food to cope with anxiety, boredom, stress, or unwanted thoughts.
- Having a negative body image and becoming excessively focused on body weight and shape.
- Insufficient or imbalanced nutrition, which can play a role in triggering emotional eating.
- Feeling a strong attraction to highly palatable foods and struggling when exposed to them, such as encountering tempting foods in stores or advertisements.
- Developing an unhealthy relationship with exercise, either feeling disconnected from physical activity and avoiding it altogether or developing an addictive relationship with exercise.
- Experiencing high levels of stress and/or inadequate sleep, which can contribute to emotional eating patterns.
These factors contribute to emotional eating and eating disorders in different ways for different individuals.
Binge eating occurs when a person consumes a large amount of food in a short period of time, often in secret due to intense feelings of shame. This type of eating often involves indulging in "comfort foods" like pizza, biscuits, chips, or crisps, which are commonly referred to as "junk food." However, I have come across cases where women engage in binge eating with foods that are perceived as healthy, but this typically happens if they usually restrict themselves from such foods. Therefore, binge eating can happen even with foods like breakfast cereals, pasta, and nuts.
Unfortunately, many people who struggle with binge eating find themselves trapped in a harmful cycle. After a binge episode, they often experience overwhelming guilt and shame, which can then trigger further episodes of binge eating. This pattern becomes a dangerous condition known as Binge Eating Disorder (BED).
Women who have PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) are at a higher risk for developing disordered eating patterns. Research has shown that women with PCOS are nearly four times more likely to meet the criteria for an eating disorder compared to women without PCOS (3). In fact, close to 40% of women with PCOS experience clinically significant binge eating (4). While binge eating can be present in various eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is the most prevalent among women with PCOS (5).
Binge-eating disorder often starts when a person becomes dissatisfied with their weight, and the episodes of binge eating are triggered by their attempts to go on a diet or restrict their food intake publicly (6). Once binge eating episodes become a regular occurrence, the person feels a sense of being out of control and unable to stop eating during these episodes. It's important to note that emotional eating alone does not necessarily indicate a binge-eating disorder. However, when emotional eating is accompanied by the following symptoms, it could be a sign of a binge-eating disorder (7):
- Eating in secret or hiding food to be consumed privately
- Continuing to eat even when feeling physically full or eating when not hungry, sometimes to the point of experiencing discomfort
- Consuming food much faster than usual
- Feeling ashamed or embarrassed in relation to the binge eating episodes
- Experiencing a loss of control during the binge eating episode
When someone who occasionally eats too much when they're feeling down or stressed starts feeling an urge to regularly binge-eat, it's a clear indication that they might have binge eating disorder. Emotional eating itself isn't an eating disorder, but it can be a sign that a person is at risk and could be a symptom of an eating disorder that requires professional treatment. Even if emotional eating doesn't become more frequent or severe, it can still lead to low self-esteem, weight gain, and health issues like insulin resistance and high cholesterol. So, it's important not to wait until you think you have a full-blown binge eating disorder before seeking help.
If someone who occasionally eats too much when feeling down or stressed starts to have a strong urge to binge eat regularly, it could be a sign of binge eating disorder. Emotional eating itself is not an eating disorder, but it can indicate a risk for one and contribute to low self-esteem, weight gain, and metabolic health issues. It's important to seek help, even before thinking you have a binge eating disorder. Problematic emotional eating and binge eating are common among women who have tried to lose weight for a long time, often due to societal and healthcare pressures. It's important to address these eating difficulties first before focusing on gradual and sustainable weight loss.
Problematic emotional eating and binge eating are all too common among women who have been trying to lose weight for a while. The pressure to slim down often comes from both society and healthcare professionals, which can make this issue particularly upsetting. When women are dealing with significant emotional eating or binge eating, it's essential to offer them support to tackle these difficulties head-on. Only then can they take meaningful steps towards making lifestyle and nutrition changes that lead to gradual and sustainable weight loss.
If you are struggling with emotional eating or you think you have a problem with binge eating, check out the Be Good With Food Programme and contact me to see how we can work together to support you restore your relationship with food and achieve your health goals.
- Eisenstein SA, Bischoff AN, Gredysa DM, Antenor-Dorsey JA, Koller JM, Al-Lozi A, Pepino MY, Klein S, Perlmutter JS, Moerlein SM, Black KJ, Hershey T. Emotional Eating Phenotype is Associated with Central Dopamine D2 Receptor Binding Independent of Body Mass Index. Sci Rep. 2015 Jun 12;5:11283. doi: 10.1038/srep11283. PMID: 26066863; PMCID: PMC4464302.
- Konttinen H. Emotional eating and obesity in adults: the role of depression, sleep and genes. Proc Nutr Soc. 2020 Aug;79(3):283-289. doi: 10.1017/S0029665120000166. Epub 2020 Mar 26. PMID: 32213213.
- Lee, Iris et al. “Increased Odds Of Disordered Eating In Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: A Systematic Review And Meta-Analysis”. Eating And Weight Disorders – Studies On Anorexia, Bulimia And Obesity, vol 24, no. 5, 2018, pp. 787-797. Springer Science And Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s40519-018-0533-y
- Jeanes, Y. M., et al. “Binge Eating Behaviours and Food Cravings in Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.” Appetite, vol. 109, 2017, pp. 24–32. Crossref, doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.11.010.
- Bernadett M, Szemán-N A. [Prevalence of eating disorders among women with polycystic ovary syndrome]. Psychiatr Hung. 2016;31(2):136-45.
- Lewer M, Bauer A, Hartmann AS, Vocks S. Different Facets of Body Image Disturbance in Binge Eating Disorder: A Review. Nutrients. 2017 Nov 28;9(12):1294. doi: 10.3390/nu9121294. PMID: 29182531; PMCID: PMC5748745.
- American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. 5th edn. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Publishing