Eating is a natural, regular, and essential component of our daily lives. We eat to fuel ourselves, feel pleasure, and enjoy new experiences. As each person seems to have their own eating style and preferences, determining whether one’s relationship with food is dysfunctional may be challenging. Moreover, as humans, our eating behaviors are complex, based on our physical hunger cues, taste preferences, reactions and sensitivities to food, and our emotional state. That being said, when our emotions (whether feeling or disconnecting from them) become a primary factor in our decisions to eat, we may consider the possibility that we are engaging in emotional and/or binge eating behaviors.
Eating and Emotions
Our eating behaviors can be characterized as “emotional eating” if we use food to regulate our mood or emotions. However, I should start off by saying that having an emotional connection or motive to eating is not necessarily something that is wrong or pathological. Different foods naturally have an emotional charge, and eating is a pleasurable experience for most people. For instance, chocolate is known to be a feel-good food, both because it releases pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters (i.e. serotonin and dopamine) and also because it tastes good. We also use food as gestures or symbols – drinking champagne to celebrate a milestone, eating ice cream for comfort while going through a breakup, or cooking dinner for someone to express your love. Without an emotional dimension to eating, the act would become routine and less enjoyable. Imagine eating only to fuel yourself or give yourself energy, but gaining no pleasure. An emotionless connection with food can take a certain joy out of life.
So What’s the Problem with Emotional Eating?
Sure, eating brings up many pleasurable emotions, but how often are you relying on food and eating to feel good? Emotional eating should be addressed when you’re using food regularly to manage your feelings or avoid experiencing them. What are some examples of using food for emotional regulation?
- When you are not physically hungry, but you continue to eat as a way to comfort yourself amidst feeling depressed.
- When you have a deadline, and instead of addressing your work, you keep opening the fridge to eat and numb your feelings of stress.
- When instead of letting yourself feel angry at your partner, you leave for a drive thru to avoid these feelings.
Overall, engaging in emotional eating is something to be addressed when you rely on food to “deal” with your emotions, instead of bring awareness to how you’re feeling, experience your emotions, and address your needs in a way that will actually fulfill them (i.e. crying, talking to a loved one, setting a boundary, etc.). Just like using any other substance to fulfill an emotional need (alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling), the underlying need or emotion you are trying to address through eating will still be unmet.
What is Binge Eating?
The term “binge” is often used loosely in society to refer to overeating, eating foods that you usually consider “off limits,” or eating without being able to stop. Binge eating can have an emotional component (i.e. eating in response to an emotion), but various aspects of a binging are different from those of emotional eating.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) defines a binge as eating an amount of food in a specific window of time (i.e. not throughout the day) that “is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances” (APA, 2013). This might sound confusing, because the definition of a binge can appear subjective, as one person’s idea of a larger amount of food can differ from that of someone else. Binge eating may also involve eating more quickly than normal, eating past a feeling of comfortable fullness, or eating large amounts of food without feeling physical hunger.
Nevertheless, a binge may not necessarily stem from emotions, or at least those in our awareness. The person may find themselves in a trance or dissociated state while eating, not being able to feel or experience their emotions. Another dimension of binge eating that may not necessarily be present in emotional eating is an out-of-control feeling regarding one’s eating – the person feels powerless about being able to stop their eating during a binge episode. Emotional eating can turn into binge eating based on the amounts of food involved, as well as the powerlessness that is associated with a binge. A binge can also be accompanied by its own set of emotions – depression, guilt, self-disgust, shame and embarrassment may result from a binge. Secrecy and isolation may be involved in binge eating as the individual eats alone/away from others because of shame about their behavior. Moreover, a binge appears to have a more addictive or obsessive quality to it compared to emotional eating. The individual might be preoccupied by thoughts of food and eating.
I Binge Occasionally. Do I Have Binge Eating Disorder?
I’m hesitant to go into the details about binge eating disorder, because i want anyone who is struggling with binge eating (whether or not they meet diagnosis criteria) to know that their experience is valid and deserving of help. For informative purposes, I will describe binge eating disorder, and I know that for some who are struggling, having a label for their symptoms can be helpful and validating. Someone may have binge eating disorder if their binge eating episodes bring about marked distress, and if they are frequently engaging in these episodes (i.e. at least once a week for three months). Moreover, binge eating disorder does not include regular episodes of compensatory behaviors (restricting, purging, over exercising). Regardless of what a binge episode or emotional eating experience may look like for you and how often it might occur, if you are distressed about your relationship with food, help is available.
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates a Body Image Group for adults and adolescents with disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you are struggling with compulsive exercise or any other type of disordered eating, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment to repair your relationship with food, body image, and movement.