Emotional Eating and Binge Eating: Is there a Difference?

I want to talk to you about food. “Food, Glorious Food!” Or is it? Food is a source of vital nourishment and can be enjoyed for comfort and for pleasure, but sometimes unhealthy relationships develop with food, for example with eating disorders, such as binge eating.

Binge Eating is a type of eating disorder which is driven by both physical and psychological factors. It can be categorised as frequent and uncontrollable episodes of eating a very large amount of food – more than your average person would – and feeling unable to stop. Bingeing often happens in secret, and after a binge, feelings of shame can follow. Bingeing can occur when we don’t eat regularly enough, and this why many of us begin to binge after we start a weight-loss diet. Bingeing can also be used as a way of coping with difficult emotions.

When a person consumes so much food that they feel uncomfortably full, with a painful, distended stomach, it can provide a sense of release or relief from the difficult emotions one is trying to mask. The focus temporarily shifts from emotional pain to physical pain – a welcome distraction for people struggling to cope with certain stressors.

You know, consuming food should be a pleasurable experience. Food is intricately linked to festivals and celebrations in our culture. We sit down with each other, we ‘break bread’ and connect with one another. Christmas is a great example of this – people coming together for a celebration where food is one of the main focal points. And we, as humans, will be sharing emotions, because, well, that’s what we do!

So, where do you draw the line between binge eating and normal ‘emotional eating’?

Emotional eating isn’t wrong

Some of you may be thinking, “how about when I turn to a big bag of doughnuts when I suffer a break up, or when I order in a huge pizza after a really long day – isn’t that me using food to cope with difficult emotions?”

Sure, you’re turning to food to soothe yourself, but sometimes eating for comfort is perfectly normal. Consider the foods from your childhood that evoke positive memories. They do so because they are associated with positive experiences and feelings of pleasure.

The danger lies when you use food excessively or as your sole coping mechanism – when every time you face difficult emotions, you turn to food as a way to cope. This is when you move into eating disorder territory.

So, while regular binge eating does not offer a healthy relationship with food, using food as just one of a range of methods that we use to self-soothe (i.e. emotional eating), is perfectly normal, and should not be demonised.

I wrote an interesting post about rewarding your kids with food, which explains the importance of using a range of different ways to reward or distract children in order to avoid them developing an unhealthy relationship with food.

Crucially, it’s about teaching children a variety of ways to self-soothe and reward themselves, to help ensure good psychological health into adulthood.

For example, rewards and treats could be anything from a trip to the movies, some valuable one-to-one time, a coveted video game or a new comic. Self-soothing techniques could include breathing, counting to ten, connecting and cuddling and talking it through. Never underestimate the power of a good cuddle or a good talk. Children need to understand that painful or difficult feelings need not be dangerous, and with time, they will pass.

How big is your toolbox of coping mechanisms?

We are human. We have emotions and sometimes we choose to eat to comfort ourselves, rather than for nutrition or because we feel hungry. But there’s an important word here – choice. We are choosing to indulge in that tub or ice-cream or deep pan pizza, and next time, you might choose to go for a run or practise a breathing exercise in order to overcome difficult emotions.

In life, we need a toolbox full of different coping strategies. Sure, one of those strategies can be food, but we need to fill the toolbox up with a range of ways in which we can manage these emotions.

Alternative coping strategies

Let me share with you a couple of different things that are in my own coping mechanism toolbox. This is not an exhaustive list, but when I’m faced with difficult emotions, I choose from any of the following:

  • I head out for a walk
  • I get my nails done
  • I take a yoga class
  • I practise breathing exercises
  • I enjoy comfort food.

Yes, comfort food is in my list – and that’s ok, because it’s one of many different strategies that I can choose from.

What if food is my only coping mechanism?

If you’re reading this and feel as though food is your default or ‘go to’ every time you are faced with difficult emotions, then I’m glad you’re here, because I can help you.

If you have established a healthy eating plan and you still find yourself regularly eating large amounts every time you come up against difficult emotions, please take a look at my post from last year on How to do a Binge Postponement Trial. With a good, strong list of alternative coping strategies already mapped out, what a Binge Postponement Trial offers is multiple opportunities to delay the urge to binge. It will help to give you a sense of control and teaches you that bingeing doesn’t have to be inevitable.

Remember, there should be enjoyment in food. But when food is your only coping strategy and you are exclusively using food as the way to deal with the stressors in your life, I would encourage you to reach out for some professional help.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder and would like to find out how we at Altum Health can help you, please click here to get in touch.

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