Emotional Eating vs Binge Eating

Emotional Eating vs Binge Eating

(and why it matters to know the difference)


The words we use hold a lot of power. Words have the power to move us to tears (like poetry or song lyrics) insight rage or violence (such as hate speech or racial slurs) or even empower us to change our behavior (affirmations or motivational quotes).  

That being said, I want to share some insight on two common phrases that are thrown around, but possibly misunderstood. Emotional eating and binge eating.


Emotional eating

First off, this can be a good thing. I would even go as far to say it IS a good thing. Food is meant to be pleasurable. We are designed to like it. It comforts us from the time we are born and nearly every day for the rest of our lives. Show me someone who never emotionally eats and I will most likely see a cyborg, or at the very least, a sad sad human.

Secondly, there is no shame in enjoying food. Even foods that have no nutritional or obvious benefit in our life. For example, I like to eat “fun foods” when I go to Disneyland. I don’t NEED a scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream on the best waffle cone you ever tasted, but I sure do like it. It feeds my soul. It uplifts my overall experience. THAT is emotional eating. (Thanksgiving is another great example. The foods we eat hold sentimental and cultural significance. We typically don’t have pumpkin pie and entire turkeys any other days of the year, if at all, and we eat those foods with gusto and love in our hearts) So BRAVO for emotional eating. It is a simple pleasure of life that we all can enjoy.

Lastly, there is a point in which emotional eating can become troublesome. If eating/food becomes our ONLY mechanism to self soothe, or if we ALWAYS turn to food when we are lonely, bored, sad, or even happy. It is smart to have as many 'tools in our tool belt' as possible to help us cope with hard times (and even good times!) and food can easily become the cheapest, easiest, and most delicious option available. I wrote more on that subject here, “Sugar isn’t evil, it’s easy”.


Binge eating

Binge eating is simply a reaction to deprivation. That deprivation can come from one of two places (often times both).

Physical: Classic dieting (counting calories, points, or carbs), ‘white-knuckling-it’ removal of an entire food group (paleo or vegan for example), unintentionally skipping meals (being too busy to eat or forgetting to pack snacks), or even nobler ideas like cleanses, detoxes, and various “programs or plans”.

This type of restriction can be called “gasping for food”. We can all control how long we hold our breath, some of us for longer than others. But eventually our bodies will FORCE us to breathe. We cannot control this impulse (unless you are David Blaine). And when we do breathe again, it is a GASP for air. We don’t casually pick up our calm in-and-out breathing like we are in a yoga class. No. We GASP FOR AIR. Same goes it with eating. When we physically restrict, for even “healthy” reasons, we will gasp for food. It is also called primal hunger. And we have all been there haven’t we?? (Even David Blaine gasps for air after an hour of holding his breath underwater... seriously that guy is amazing)


Emotional: This type of restriction is more insidious and hard to change. Emotional restriction comes from the deep seeded beliefs we hold around our food choices, our body, and our self-worth. A great way to know if you are emotionally restricting around food is if you start a sentence with “I shouldn’t”.

“I shouldn’t be eating bread but I can’t help myself!”

“I know I shouldn’t eat after 4pm (or 7pm or whatever PM).”

“I shouldn’t eat so much sugar.”

It works in reverse too. If you are starting your sentences with “I should” you may also hold some rigid guidelines about food, consciously or subconsciously.

“I should be eating more fruits and vegetables.”

“I should be drinking a green smoothie or protein shake every day.”

“I should be gluten free/dairy free/paleo.”


Binge eating happens in direct proportion for how hard and long you restrict. Even if you start PHYSCIALLY allowing more foods back into your life you may STILL be emotionally restricting by judging yourself for eating those foods, feeling guilt,  and then compensating in other ways (like over-exercising, taking supplements to help “curb appetite or boost metabolism” or starting the cycle again by cutting back your foods, again!).


Here is the take away: Emotional eating is enjoyable. Binge eating isn’t.


Emotional eating can QUICKLY turn into binge eating if you harbor judgement about your food or your body. Let’s use the Disneyland example from earlier. Say I eat the ice cream cone and it’s marvelous.

I can either:

Take a selfie, share it with friends (share it on Instagram if I am feeling sassy), look at it later and think “man that was such a good ice cream cone”!!

OR I can start to feel like I “ruined” my day. I might as well eat anything I want for the rest of the day because I already blew it. I will start back on my “clean eating” plan tomorrow.

See the difference.


One last note. Neither one is necessarily determined by the AMOUNT or TYPE of food you eat. You can emotionally eat a large Italian meal, even feeling stuffed afterwards. Or you can emotionally one piece of chocolate from a box in the break room. Both are enjoyable.

BUT binge eating tends to be bigger amounts and eaten in a quicker, more panicked, fashion. This is because eating until you are sick and literally want to throw up (or are “afraid” of getting caught) is NOT enjoyable. Once eating becomes un-enjoyable you are in binge eating territory. And the type of food doesn’t matter either. I have binged on saltine crackers and rotisserie chickens.

Hope this helps to clear up some common misconceptions and empowers you to take a hard look at your beliefs around food and your body. This post is entirely thanks to my mentor, Isabel Foxen Duke, and the amazing program she offers. If you want to watch her FREE video training series, click here for her website.