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Overeating vs Binge Eating: Understanding the Difference

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Overeating vs binge eating – what’s the difference? You might have heard these terms used interchangeably. Binge eating and overeating are actually two distinct things, and it’s important to understand the nuances of each. 


When you begin to look at your relationship with food, you might ask yourself, “Am I binge eating or overeating?” This is a great question! It means you want to be aware of your own patterns and behaviours, as well as learn whether you should get help. 


Today, we’ll look at the definitions and distinctions of overeating and binge eating, as well as when it’s time to look for support in finding food freedom.


What is overeating?


Overeating has a pretty simple definition: It is eating more than you need to. 


We all overeat from time to time. It’s just a normal part of being human! In defining overeating vs binge eating, this is one thing they have in common. It happens to all of us now and again. 


You might overeat at a family gathering or holiday. All your favourite foods – the ones you only see once or twice a year, and you want to get as much of them as you can. Even when you’re full, you find room for an extra biscuit or piece of cake. It’s a holiday, after all!


Overeating is when you know you’re full but want “just a little more.” You’re in control of it, and don’t make yourself sick. At worst, you feel a little too full, maybe a little bloated the next day. This is a big distinction when you’re looking at overeating vs binge eating. 


Even in chronic overeating, you feel like you can stop. You might be a chronic overeater, and in that case, the answer is usually getting in touch with your body. You can practise mindful eating to help with this. 


When you mindfully eat, you check in with your body each time you take a bite. How does the food look? Feel? Smell? Taste? Is your stomach still empty, or are you satiated? For people who find themselves overeating frequently by accident, eating mindfully can make a big difference.


But what is the difference between overeating vs binge eating? Let’s define what it means to truly binge.


What is binge eating?


Binge eating is eating a large amount of food in a very short period of time, even if you weren’t hungry.  


People who binge don’t feel in control of their own actions. Some even describe binges as a “blur,” or a trance like state where they hardly remember eating or what they ate. This lack of control leads to people feeling painfully full after a binge.


The symptoms of binge eating can also have a strong emotional component. After a binge, you might feel shame, guilt, regret, or disgust with yourself. 


An occasional binge may invite you to examine your relationship with emotional eating. Emotional eating is using your feelings to deal with food, and one of the common symptoms of binge eating is eating to deal with emotions. 


Bingeing won’t make those feelings go away, so give yourself space to process them in other ways – like talking with a therapist, journaling, or chatting with a friend.


The differences between overeating vs binge eating


As you can see, there are a few big differences in overeating vs binge eating symptoms: control, amount, and emotion. 


When you overeat, it’s usually a deliberate choice. At the very least, overeating is something that you feel you can stop in the middle of – like going to get a big slice of cake at a party and then swapping it for a smaller one. 


In binge eating, you don’t feel like you have control over your actions. You eat significantly more than your body needs, to the point that you feel physically sick. But before you realise that you’re bingeing, it’s already over – and you feel terrible. 


This brings us to another overeating vs binge eating distinction. After overeating, you don’t feel too bad physically or emotionally. You might feel a little uncomfortable physically, but overeating rarely affects us emotionally. 


In binge eating, the binge is usually driven by negative emotions. Negative emotions might drive you to binge, like feeling negatively about your body. Then you also feel negative emotions after the binge, like feeling guilty that you ate so much. 


Binge eating vs overeating have differences, but they can both be signs of disordered eating. Only binge eating can be classed as an eating disorder, though. Disordered eating and eating disorder are two more terms that frequently get interchanged, so let’s go over them together. 


What is disordered eating?


Disordered eating is a descriptive phrase, not a diagnosis. This phrase is just used to note (for yourself or your mental health professional) that you have some unhealthy views on food. Overeating vs binge eating comes into play here, too. 


Both overeating and binge eating are disordered eating. These eating patterns don’t give you food because you need it, but for some other reason. Maybe you eat to deal with emotions. Maybe you eat to take care of yourself in the best way you know how. 


There are a whole host of reasons people might fall into a disordered eating pattern. Diet culture is one of them. Roughly 67% of Brits are trying to lose weight all or most of the time. 


This idea that you need to lose weight is incredibly harmful. Diet culture creates havoc on eating habits in all kinds of ways. 


For many people, it leads to “yo-yo” dieting. Yo-yo dieting is a pattern of disordered eating where you’re constantly on and off a diet. Your weight goes up and down, because with each new diet you lose a few kilos, just to gain it right back again.  


When you’re trying to break free of disordered eating, the first thing you can do is stop yo-yo dieting. Instead, try eating intuitively and moving joyfully to really care for your body, no matter what size it is.  


So then, what is the difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder?


Eating disorders vs disordered eating


Eating disorders are serious mental health struggles that need to be diagnosed and cared for by a professional. When learning about overeating vs binge eating, it’s important to note that binge eating can develop into an eating disorder much more quickly than overeating.


To be diagnosed, the behaviour has to meet a few of the criteria for eating disorders. It has to be a severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviours, with associated distressing thoughts and emotions. 


What does this mean? Let’s break it down. 


“Severe” means that the behaviour is something intense. “Persistent” means that it doesn’t go away after just one episode, but lasts for weeks, months, or years. 


“Associated distressing thoughts and emotions” is a little simpler to understand. This means you’re thinking negative, critical things about yourself, and feeling negative emotions. 


The second half of the definition is important. A change in eating habits that’s intense and lasts a long time could be a symptom of a physical illness, not a mental one. If this change is connected to your thoughts and feelings, that’s an eating disorder.


Therefore, “am I binge eating or overeating?” may be a less important question than, “is this disordered eating or an eating disorder?”


Asking this question can lead you to get the necessary help, regardless of whether you’re overeating vs binge eating. Getting the help you need as soon as possible can get you back to living a happy life without worrying about food. 


On the other hand, not getting that help may lead to the behaviour escalating and damaging your mind and body further. When untangling overeating vs binge eating, it can be easy to brush off our symptoms at first. 


The problem is that in the same way that grief can develop into a more severe depression, disordered eating may develop into an eating disorder. 


Diagnosing an eating disorder


Like many other mental health diagnoses, we don’t know for sure what causes eating disorders. 


There are a number of factors that might be involved, such as memories, emotions, stress, trauma, the list goes on. Even if we aren’t certain what causes eating disorders, huge improvements have been made in their diagnosis and treatment. 


Diagnosing an eating disorder is as simple now as talking to your GP or mental health professional. Treatment can include therapy, reading binge eating books, joining a support group, or mindfulness practices.


These things can help treat both disordered eating and eating disorders. In the case of overeating vs binge eating, getting treatment as soon as you notice a pattern can help prevent binges from developing into a severe binge eating disorder. 


What is binge eating disorder?


Binge eating disorder is defined as frequent bingeing. “Frequent” in this case means at least once a week, although severe binge eating disorder may involve up to 14 binges in one week. 


To be diagnosed, one or more of the following symptoms also has to be present: 

    • Eating very quickly, especially compared to when you’re around others
    • Eating even if you’re not physically hungry 
    • Eating alone, in secret, or covering up your eating
    • Feeling upset or guilty about your eating habits
    • Feeling like you’re abnormal
    • Feeling a lack of control over your own actions
    • Trying to “fix” a binge by restricting calories or exercising


Overeating vs binge eating part ways here, too. Essentially, binge eating disorder is similar to those “occasional” binges, but happens more frequently and more intensely. Overeating regularly is a problem of a different sort, but it isn’t an eating disorder.


Trying to sort out overeating vs binge eating vs binge eating disorder for yourself can be overwhelming, but there’s a simple way to keep them straight.


If you feel in control of your actions, don’t eat to the point of physical pain, and feel little to no negative emotion afterwards, it’s overeating. 


If you don’t feel in control, eat to the point of physical pain, and feel a degree of negative emotions afterwards, it’s a binge. 


If you don’t feel in control, eat to the point of physical pain, feel severe negative emotions, and it happens frequently, you may have a binge eating disorder. 


Finding food freedom


Looking for help with binge eating vs overeating can be stressful. If you’re wondering, “am I binge eating or overeating? Is something wrong with me?” then I need you to know one thing. At the end of the day, you are wonderful and whole just the way you are. 


I don’t know how you ended up here. Maybe you’re looking for help with what to do after a binge. Maybe you’re worried about a pattern of behaviour that’s starting to impact your life. No matter what it is, you are beautiful and worthy of love, help, and support. 


Finding food & body freedom is possible! Believe it or not, you’re taking the first step towards it just by reading this. Becoming aware of your unhealthy patterns and beliefs around food is more important work than untangling overeating vs binge eating ever will be. 


The more aware you are of your patterns, the easier it becomes to identify triggers and reach out for help. And, if you’re ready for that help, each one of my programmes is designed to give you all the tools you need to reach food & body freedom – no matter where your journey begins. 

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