Binge Eating vs Emotional Eating—What’s the Difference?

Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the U.S. So how do you know if you have it? And what is the difference between binge eating and emotional eating?

Before exploring labels, take a minute to remind yourself that an eating disorder is a way to describe a set of behaviors. What matters most is that if an issue in your life is causing you anxiety or distress—whether it’s your relationship with food, other people, or yourself—it’s worth paying attention to, regardless of what you call it. 

Some facts about binge eating disorder:

  • Binge eating disorder (BED) is widespread. It is estimated that 3.5% of women and 2.0% of men have had binge eating disorder during their lives (in a study of English-speaking Americans).
  • The median age of onset for binge eating disorder is 21 years old, but it can occur at any age.
  • People of any weight or size can have binge eating disorder. There is a misconception that people in smaller bodies or thinner people couldn’t have binge eating disorder, but that is not true.
  • Long-term effects of binge eating disorder include risk of heart disease, gastrointestinal dysfunction, diabetes, and more.

When a person eats even though they are not experiencing physical hunger, the trigger may be out of habit or excitement—like always eating popcorn at the movie theater, or wanting to try every flavor of cupcake at the party. If you overeat, you may experience physical discomfort from fullness and/or guilt for eating more than your body wanted, but the negative emotions usually end there.

Binge eating carries with it more of a sense of “rule-breaking.” It tends to happen due to a restrictive diet or mindset—having rules about food that you then “break” during your binge.

After the binge, you typically experience shame. What does that look like? While someone who occasionally emotionally eats may say to themselves “I can’t believe I ate that whole tub of ice cream,” a person with binge eating disorder would be more likely to say to themselves, “I can’t believe I ate that whole tub of ice cream. I’m a worthless person. I can’t do anything right.”

In other words, a person with an eating disorder believes that their self-worth is tied to their ability to control food and their body.

What does recovery look like?

If you believe you are struggling with binge eating, reach out for support. A therapist who is experienced in helping people heal from eating disorders will be able to provide you with the support and tools you need to move in the direction of recovery.

Your therapist will help you gain a greater understanding of the thought and behavior patterns that are getting in the way of you living your life the way you want. Techniques, tools, and approaches they may use include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), intuitive eating, food logs, and more.

It’s important to remember that even in recovery from binge eating disorder, you will still emotionally eat. The goal is to embrace intuitive eating and release yourself from the binge–restrict cycle. Healing is possible. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.


Ready to take the next step in your healing journey? Get in touch for a free intake session.