Binge Eating & Emotional Eating

Eating for reasons other than hunger

We've all had the experience of reaching for the pint of ice cream during the stress of finals or immersed ourselves in whatever our own "comfort foods" are, because frankly, food is a mood altering substance.  And it is perfectly ok to have these experiences every once in a while. HOWEVER, if you identify with the following situations too often, it might be a different story: 

  • I use food as a reward, friend, love, and support. 
  • I eat when I'm sad, bored, frustrated, lonely or angry.
  • I eat to forget about my problems and seek food for comfort. 
  • I find myself insatiable and can't seem to stop eating even after eating a lot of food in a short amount of time. 

Emotional Eating: one of the three types of binge eating

How is binge eating and emotional eating different from each other?  Although putting a label on the eating problem is not the main point, differentiating these often help people gain a better understanding of their underlying eating issues.  

The way I see it is emotional eating as a type of binge eating.  

The loose definition of binge eating is "consuming usually large amounts of food and feeling unable to stop eating."  Often times, there is a trigger for when this happens, but you may or may not be aware of what your trigger is. 

TYPE 1: YOUR TRIGGERs are uncomfortable FEELINGS

Yes, the classic "emotional eating".  Eating, not in response to physiological hunger, but emotional hunger.  Feelings and food have become inseparable. 

What are your feelings that trigger this emotional hunger?  Is it sadness, guilt, frustration, loneliness, anger or something else?  Such feelings can be uncomfortable, and you may have found food to give you a short-term comfort or relief.  However, there is no way food can make us feel better in the long run; instead it can make us feel guiltier and angrier.   Studies show that the associated guilt from emotional eating overpowers any emotional support you receive.  Then is it really worth it?

In the words of nutrition and health researcher Linda Bacon, PhD:

What this means is that if you feel driven to eat for emotional reasons, you don’t have an eating problem. You have a care-taking problem. You have a need to be taken care of, but that need is not food.

Type 2: Your trigger is to "check out" and "avoid" problems 

This is eating to "check out" and "forget about my problems" kind of eating and often go hand-in-hand with emotional eating.  The difference from the feelings-driven emotional eating is that here there is often a concrete problem that can be identified as a consistent stressor in your life as supposed to eating as a result of various "fleeting emotions."

Are you suffering from a traumatic life event such as an accident, a death in family, a divorce/break-up, unemployment or anything else that you are trying to "eat away" in order to not think about it?


Type 3: Your trigger is deprivation

Essentially, this happens in a cycle of under-eating and overeating.

This type is a little different from the other two types in that feelings are NOT the primary trigger.  However, I often see that there are still emotional aspects involved.  Of course!  Because "not eating enough" itself can trigger emotions, which can ultimately lead to using food to cope with these feelings as well! 

When you restrict yourself from food in a way that you're not even meeting the minimum amount of energy your body needs to keep up with its normal bodily functions, your body (especially your brain), will perceive this as an "emergency situation" and make you more and more preoccupied on food.  This is your survival mechanism kicking in!  However, when you start eating at a "starving" level, it is very easy to overeat and go way past the "comfortably full" level.  Hence the cycle of under-eating and overeating.  

So, what do you do about it?

The first step is to identify what your triggers and patterns are.  Without the awareness of why and how your binge eating or emotional eating is happening, it will be impossible to break away from this vicious cycle.

This may mean having to take a long and hard look at many aspects of your life.  Our eating behaviors don't exist in isolation.  They exist in the context of our lives.

After identifying what your triggers and patterns are, you must learn to cope with your emotions and problems without using food.

Also, most importantly, you must learn to make sure you are not depriving yourself from the needed foods and nutrients so that you don't fall into the type 3 category.  Being able to adequately nourish your body and brain is an absolute essential part of overcoming binge eating/emotional eating. 

This can be an overwhelming process that takes time, effort and guidance.  You can book a free 15 minute phone consult with me if you'd like to find out more about working with me through this process.