How to recognise emotional eating

There are often two kinds of people in the world: Those who eat to live and those who live to eat. Food is necessary for survival, but for some it can also be a luxury. So much of our lives are consumed with eating. We eat at celebrations, we eat at funerals, we eat while binge-watching Netflix. Food is ingrained in our culture and our lives. For that reason, it is often difficult to recognize an eating addiction or eating disorder. Unlike drugs and alcohol, we need food to live so it can be challenging to maintain a healthy relationship with eating while avoiding going overboard with it.

People may associate binge eating and emotional eating with college kids who have the munchies or people going through a break-up, respectively. However, binge eating disorder was recently listed as mental illness in the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition. A binge eating disorder (BED) doesn’t involve an occasional, over-indulgent Sunday brunch or late-night snacking while cramming for an exam, it’s a serious mental health disorder that can feel overwhelming.

Myths about Binge Eating Disorder

Someone suffering from a BED isn’t eating to satisfy hunger, they binge eat to relieve stress or cope with emotions like sadness, loneliness, or boredom. Occasionally using food to treat yourself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when eating becomes a primary coping mechanism the real problem is never fully addressed. Similar to substance misuse, emotional or binge eating is a temporary fix for the larger problems in your life.

With the addition of binge eating to the DSM-5, the disorder is being recognized for how mentally and physically destructive it can be. Because little is known about BED, it’s important to get the facts straight. Some common myths about binge and emotional eating include:

Binge eaters are overweight

People who suffer from BED can keep their binge-eating underwraps by maintaining a regular fitness regimen, “yo-yo eating” (i.e. weight cycling), dieting fads, and even fasting. Because the number on the scale or the appearance of a person with BED appears to have a normal weight it can be difficult to recognize someone who is suffering from binge or emotional eating.

Purging always comes after bingeing

Purging doesn’t always occur after emotional or binge eating. Someone with BED still binge eats but doesn’t necessarily get rid of it after. This symptom can also be referred to as food addiction and unlike substance addictions is a little harder to treat because we need food to live. BED treatment is constructed differently to create a healthy relationship with food.

It’s difficult to hide a BED

Binging and emotional eating is very easy to hide. Most of the overeating occurs behind closed doors or in isolation. There are also few visible signs that someone has been emotionally eating or binging. In fact, someone affected by BED could be the healthiest person at your office always saying no to sugary treats and bringing their own healthy lunches. Secrecy and seclusion are the foundations of binge eating disorders.

People won’t judge you if you admit to bingeing

The stigma of having an eating disorder can be crippling. Eating large amounts of food and then throwing it up isn’t exactly considered sexy or attractive in a world full of Instagram models and fit celebrities. Binge-drinking and binge-shopping is almost glamorized because they aren’t as “disgusting” as eating a McDonalds meal for four alone in your bedroom. Even though BED is recognized as a legitimate mental health disorder, the stigma surrounding it still prevails. Because of the fear of being stigmatized, many individuals are afraid to admit to others, or themselves, that they may have a problem.

Differences Between Emotional Hunger and Physical Hunger

For people with BED, emotional hunger can feel very real and painful. There’s an emptiness inside of them and they often resort to trying to fill that sadness, stress, or loneliness with food. There are signs to look for that can help you indicate the differences between physical hunger and emotional hunger, emotional hunger can:

  • Occur suddenly (physical hunger is more gradual)
  • Cause specific food cravings, typically junk food or sugary snacks
  • Lead to mindless eating (i.e., eating an entire bag of chips)
  • Leave you unsatisfied
  • Lead to regret, guilt, or shame

In order to control your eating habits, you can find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally. Some alternatives to emotional or binge eating may include:

  • Call someone to relieve feelings of sadness or loneliness
  • Play with a pet
  • Participate in a physical activity like dancing, walking, or playing a team sport
  • Read a good book
  • Watch something that will make you laugh
  • Do an activity or hobby you enjoy

The idea is to do something that makes you feel good and fulfilled so you may not feel the need to binge or emotionally eat. Another alternative to overeating is called mindful eating.

Mindful eating is a practice that develops awareness of eating habits and allows someone to pause between triggers that may cause them to overeat and their actions. Emotional eating is impulsive and before you know what you’ve done, the bag of chips and jar of queso you just bought are gone. If you can take five minutes to pause and reflect on your emotions you may give yourself the opportunity to make a different decision. You can start with one minute and work up to five minutes, and during that time check in with yourself. Ask yourself how you’re feeling, what is happening emotionally. Even if you end up eating after the 1 to 5 minutes, you’ll have a better understanding of why you gave in to the craving.

There are numerous factors that cause a person to develop a BED and those factors can be just as unique as the person is. At the Recovery Village, we offer binge eating disorder treatment for people who struggle with binge or emotional eating disorders. Call and speak to a representative today to learn about the treatment options that can help put you on the path to recovery.

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