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Understanding Binge Eating | Balance

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

Binge eating is a complex condition with overlapping behaviours seen in both overeaters and emotional eaters. We previously covered the difference between binge eating and overeating here.

Emotional eating is when you find yourself reaching for food to suppress and soothe negative feelings. Some may even feel guilt or shame after eating this way but not all emotional eating is associated with negative emotional consequences. In fact, food as a means of soothing emotion is relatively normal; it’s when food becomes your primary way of coping with your feelings then it is important to reach out for help.

There are four criteria used to diagnose binge eating behaviour;

  1. A sense of loss / lack of control when eating.

  2. Eating a relatively large amount of food in a short period of time (several hours up to a whole twenty four hour period).

  3. Marked psychological distress and feelings of shame, guilt, anger and resentment during and after an episode.

  4. Having these episodes at least once a week for 3 months.

At its core, binge eating is a means of coping with difficult emotions and “escaping” from challenging, often chaotic, circumstances.

It doesn’t make you a “bad” person for having these means of coping; it’s simply a result of your past experiences and influences manifested into unwanted thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

To work towards overcoming these behaviours we have to consider how they started so we can gradually unravel and rework them.

A better understanding of your behaviours also allows us to challenge them more readily, and firmly, when the urges, thoughts and feelings which drive them arise.

Why do we binge eat?

In order to heal your relationship with food and break the binge eating cycle, it is important to understand the root causes of binge eating. Identifying the source of the issue allows us to plan a more effective solution.

Broadly speaking, there are two recognized primary contributors to binge eating behaviour; restriction and the use of binge eating as an emotional coping mechanism. For some people this can eventually lead to habitual binge eating whereas, for others, their binge eating is more sporadic and reactive to events and or experiences in their life.

Dietary restriction and binge eating

Often described as the “primal” urge to binge eat, this is when the more primal parts of our brain interpret restriction as famine and prioritises survival (a safety mechanism built into our brain which we inherited from our ancestors).