By Danielle Johnson, RDN, CDN
What is emotional eating? It can be positive, for example, eating a special meal to celebrate an engagement or cake to celebrate a birthday. Emotional eating can also be negative, like eating for relief, distraction, numbness. Unfortunately, emotional eating is most often referred to in a negative way. When eating for emotional reasons, people tend to reach for foods that are nutrient poor (not containing a lot of nutrients) leading to guilt after eating. Signs and symptoms include, but are not limited to, eating without physical hunger, eating more than what’s comfortable, eating to feel better, eating as a reward, eating to feel safe, and feeling powerless/out of control around food.
What is overeating? Eating more than the body can utilize for energy or pushing past fullness. A few examples could include having a second helping at dinner when full or having dessert on a holiday when not hungry. Overeating tends to be normal and could be mindless or mindful.
What is binge eating? Binge episodes that occur at least once a week for three months, loss of control over the amount eaten, marked distress over these episodes, and usually involve consumption of 1,000 calories or more. Signs and symptoms include eating until uncomfortably full, eating more rapidly than usual, feeling depressed/guilty/disgusted with self, eating alone due to embarrassment, eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry.
The main difference between the three is that binge eating is a defined eating disorder. Emotional eating and overeating are normal when not performed regularly, but frequently engaging in this type of eating behavior may be a sign of disordered eating and could potentially lead to binge eating or other eating disorders down the road. It’s common for people to say “I binged” when they overeat, but upon analyzing what was eaten it may be nowhere near a true binge. Regardless of whether the incident qualifies as a binge, emotional eating or overeating it’s helpful not to identify oneself as a “binger” as most people carry a negative connotation and self judgement with that identity.
If you feel there is something wrong with your eating habits it is important to speak with a nutrition and mental health professional to help you normalize eating patterns and manage emotions and stress.
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
Eating Disorder Hope
Danielle Johnson, RDN, CDN registered dietitian. She works in the Bariatric Center of Excellence at Mather Hospital where she specializes in surgical weight loss and medical weight management.