Overcoming Emotional Eating

Do you binge eat or emotionally eat? Learn about treatment for binge eating disorder (BED) and other related eating disorders.

Did you know that April was Emotional Eating Awareness Month? Although it’s not classified as an eating disorder, emotional eating (sometimes known as stress eating) is a type of disordered eating that can cause significant emotional distress and disruption in life.

Sometimes, emotional overeating is confused with binge eating. The primary difference between the two concerns the amount of food eaten.

Do you emotionally eat or binge eat?

Emotional eating is eating in response to your emotions — rather than eating because you feel hungry.

Binge eating disorder is an actual eating disorder characterized by:

  • Eating much larger than normal amounts of food
  • Feeling a sense of loss of control

Both of these features are considered “essential” to diagnosis of binge eating disorder.

In binge eating disorder, binges must occur at least three times per week within three months. Note that binge eating disorder is different than bulimia; there are no purging behaviors after binge eating like there are with bulimia.

Overeating may not be a problem

Overeating is distinct from emotional eating and binge eating. Overeating is eating larger amounts of food than normal, but without the sense of loss of control and not in response to your emotions.

Here is a common example of overeating that many can relate to: you might eat to the point of uncomfortable fullness at Thanksgiving because the foods are so special and delicious. Or, you may have a habit of mindless eating, even when you are not hungry, due to food stashes that you keep at your office.

As you can see in these examples, emotions do not always drive overeating and the amounts eaten are mildly to moderately more than needed.

Know when to seek help for overeating

I want to point out that some emotional eating is normal, and reflects the nurturing aspect of eating. The problem of emotional eating is one of degree:

If you turn to food as a primary response to your emotions, without having other ways to address and work through emotions, that’s when it can become a problem.

While it is OK to enjoy some self-soothing from foods once in a while, eating may be serving to distract you from, or numb, your emotions. Like with all eating problems, treatment will require you to address the relationship between your emotions and eating. 

Recovery, therefore, requires emotional work and other related strategies like these:

It is important to note that treatment of binge eating disorder generally requires more direct treatment of eating behaviors through specific structure and exposure strategies.

Also, a nutrition assessment, reviewing one’s eating intake and meal patterns, is a critical component of evaluating one’s weight and should precede any treatment recommendations.

Obesity is not an eating disorder

It is important to clarify that obesity is not an eating disorder. Obesity may result from overconsumption, due to overeating, emotional eating or binge eating, but eating disorders are defined by certain eating behaviors, not by weight. The exception to this is for anorexia nervosa. An essential for diagnosis of anorexia nervosa is body weight at 85 percent or less than what is expected.

The goal: Eat based on your own personal hunger and fullness cues!

Dieting for weight loss, or significant restrained eating, can exacerbate all eating problems. The ultimate goal for all affected by disordered eating and eating disorders is flexible, self-regulated eating from physical hunger and fullness cues.

- Lisa Geraud MA, MS, RD, LMFT

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