breaking down the difference between these two different types of eating behaviors + providing advice & resources to help you deal with both.
In our society, which is heavily ruled by diet culture, we’re often told that any episode eating in abundance or binge eating is due to unsolved emotional issues.
In actuality, binge eating and emotional eating are two different scenarios, brought on by distinct circumstances. While there are instances where the two may overlap, it’s ultimately important to understand the very real differences between the two in order to appropriately address each.
What It Is:
Emotional eating, as you might have guessed, is the act of eating in response to an emotion. This could be sadness, boredom, happiness, you name it.
Diet culture loves to shame individuals for emotional eating making them out to feel weak, glutinous or greedy. In reality, emotional eating is a very normal behavior. As we’ve talked about, everyone eats for reasons other than biological hunger now and then. It’s part of being human. We eat because we feel bored, to help soothe a difficult emotion, to celebrate, to socialize, to partake in tradition, etc.
When we place shame or guilt on the very normal behavior of emotional eating (as diet culture often directs us to do), that’s when things go awry. It’s not just dieters (or restrained eaters) who partake in emotional eating. Non-dieters (or unrestrained eaters), partake in emotional eating too. The difference is that unrestrained eaters don’t attach guilt or shame to the activity. They may be feeling bored, grab a snack, eat it and move on.
Normalizing the act of emotional eating will not cause you to gain endless amount of weight or put your health at risk. In fact, it’ll likely keep you from going on a spiral of eating fueled by guilt and shame (this is the moment when emotional eating and binge eating overlap). And, because mental health is so important to our overall well-being, it will likely improve your health because you’re doing something that is self-soothing. Despite what diet culture wants you to believe, emotional eating is not a deep dark secret only you hold. Everyone eats for emotional reasons from time to time (I absolutely do). Being able to do so and not berate yourself for it or have it turn into a never-ending cycle of eating & restriction, is key to a positive relationship with food.
How to Approach It:
In many respects, the key to addressing emotional eating, is to accept that it occurs. Make it a non-event, realize that everyone does it and it’s an incredibly normal behavior. If you find it’s occurring very frequently, rather than berating yourself for it, use it as a learning experience. Each time it happens, it’s providing you valuable insight into what needs you might have that are unmet. Maybe you find you’re eating more when you feel lonely, so making more of an effort to see friends, family or loved ones may help. Maybe you find it happens when you’re exhausted and so going to bed 30 minutes earlier every night might help. The idea is not to work to prevent or stop the behavior as much as it is to understand and learn from it.
In an instance where someone experiences a trauma or a very difficult life circumstance and has found food to be their one and only coping mechanism, there’s still no need to shame the behavior. That individual is doing the best that they can to cope with something incredibly challenging.
If you feel this describes your situation with emotional eating, I would encourage you, when you feel ready, to seek therapy or explore other forms of self-soothing you can add to your routine. Above all, be gentle with yourself, know that you are doing the best to care for yourself in a hard situation and that if eating is helping you right now, that’s okay. There will be a day when you feel a little better, a little stronger and you can work to incorporate other strategies, or seek additional support at that point.
What It Is:
Binge Eating, on the other hand, is often driven by what health coach, Isabel Foxen Duke, refers to as “psychobiological” responses to restriction, dieting or deprivation. As Isabel puts it, “no amount of “warm baths” or “calling a friend instead” will keep you from binge eating for very long if you’re still struggling with diet-mentality or restriction.”
The reason most people eat to a point of discomfort is not because they’re emotionally damaged, but rather because they are undernourished, restricted or deprived.
Deprivation can arise from a number of circumstances, it not just actively being on a diet. It might be that you’re simply thinking about going on a diet. It might be due to lack of access to food. It could be your own food rules or guilt you’ve associated with eating certain types of foods. All of these situations create a feeling of deprivation, and where there’s deprivation, there’s usually binge eating.
Not only do we have strong psychological reactions to restriction, but there are very real biological reactions as well (hence Isabel Foxen Duke’s “psychobiological” description). As we’ve talked about time and time again, our bodies are set up for survival – trying to shrink the size of our bodies through restriction backfires big time for the majority of us (and even those who are successful at doing this suffer).
In her book, Anti-Diet, Registered Dietitian Christy Harrison describes what she calls the “Restriction Pendulum.” This pendulum, she describes, is most people’s natural reaction when exposed to deprivation. As with all pendulums, if you swing far enough to one side (the restriction side), there is a natural swing back in the other direction (binge eating). Because pendulums don’t swing from one side to say, the middle, you’re not likely to experience a scenario where you’re able to restrict, and then casually munch on those foods you’ve restricted in a mild manner. Rather than berating ourselves for visiting the binge eating side of this pendulum, we should be grateful for it. The pendulum swing to the binge eating side mean our bodies are working properly – it is what allows us to survive following periods of restriction.
How To Approach It:
One of the most important things to do when you’re stuck in a restrict/binge cycle is to remove restriction. Again, this doesn’t just mean getting off your diet, but removing the possibility of another diet in the future. Removing the even the thought in your mind that certain foods should be off limits or thought of as “good” or “bad.” This helps remove the psychological component that drives binge eating. If you need help doing this, check out my Non-Restrictive Nutrition Guide.
Once you’ve made a pact with yourself to remove those food rules and restrictions from your life for good, the second step is making sure you’re getting enough food. This is where you’ll tackle the biological component. Our bodies rely on us for consistent fuel. When we diet and restrict, our bodies can’t tell the difference between that and a true famine. In this situation, they’re programmed to increase the amount of hormones and neurotransmitters that drive us to eat. With such high levels of these signals, you can see how it becomes very difficult to avoid a binge.
Keeping your body well-fueled is paramount in helping you recover from the trauma of deprivation, allowing your body to trust you again and ultimately stabilizing your eating behavior. The goal should be nothing other than working to reassure your body and your brain that you won’t be deprived again. As with any trauma, it takes time for both your body and brain to learn to trust that. But eventually, with enough consistent fuel, it will get there.
I hope this has been helpful! As always, please let me know if you have any other questions in the comments!