Women who come to the Women’s Center for Binge and Emotional Eating often ask us: “Am I a binge eater or an emotional eater?” and “How do I know if this is normal or an eating disorder?”.
The answer to the question is not clear cut. Binge and emotional eating aren’t necessarily separate and distinct, but rather the same process on a continuum.
Eating emotionally is okay
The truth is, most of us eat emotionally. We have times in our daily lives when we reach for that special something to eat and it gives us comfort. It helps us relax, de-stress and take the day’s woes away. That’s common, normal and okay.
Yes, that’s right, IT’S OKAY to eat emotionally.
And when our participants realize this, the shame-monster shrinks a little.
Why is emotional eating okay?
Because it’s doing a job for us. Our bodies know that we digest better when we’re calm, so as soon as we start eating, the relaxation response is activated (aka parasympathetic response; aka “rest-and digest” response). Breathing gets deeper, heart rate slows, muscles relax, etc. and we’re better off.
At least, for a little while… (here comes the catch).
Remember, this is emotional eating. It’s about soothing a difficult emotion, not about eating for hunger.
It’s one thing to come home after a trying day and call a friend to vent, listen to some peaceful music, take a hot bath, put on lavender lotion, and have a bowl of ice cream.
It’s another thing to come home after another trying day and finish off another quart of ice cream.
All of these examples reduce stress, but if we don’t have a lot of options (or don’t use a lot of options), then it’s all on food, and we overuse it.
So while it’s ok to eat and it does soothe us, the hard reality is that at some point, it doesn’t feel good or taste good anymore.
That’s why it’s important to pay attention to how else we’re coping with difficult emotions, as well as how much we’re eating, and how often we use eating as a coping strategy – (that’s the catch!).
If we aren’t paying attention and we continue eating, we’re actually creating a new stressor, which can look like shame or self-loathing. And now we have a whole new difficult emotion to cope with, and it starts the cycle over again.
Think of emotional eating as a continuum
At one end is Emotional Eating (which is normal and ok).
As we lose touch with the “hows” discussed above (how often, how much and how else), we move up the continuum into Emotional Overeating and eventually to Binge Eating and Binge Eating Disorder.
The DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition), which is the guide providers use to make clinical diagnoses, provides a clear definition of binge eating disorder with specific criteria for diagnosis. For example, the main criteria include eating a large amount of food in a short period of time, having a lack of control over eating, as well as several other criteria that need to be met in order for a clinical diagnosis.
When we meet with women here at the Center, we’ll often suggest that it may be worthwhile considering some further support for emotional overeating or binge eating, especially if they feel they are losing control of their “hows” and are moving up this continuum.
So if you’re still left uncertain about where your eating process is, try taking this self-scoring quiz.
Feel free to contact our staff if you’d like more information about emotional eating, binge eating, available resources, or to inquire about our unique, specialized treatment.