Differences Between Binge Eating and Stress Eating

August 25th 2016

On the surface, stress eating and binge eating might look the same. However, new research confirms that there are some important distinctions to make between the two.

According to a study recently reported by the Daily Mail, binge eating is rooted in a neurological issue, namely that the pleasure center in the brains of those who binge eat have been numbed. This means, much like any addiction, "a healthy amount of food will not be enough to stimulate pleasure." While you can't see the neural circuits studied in this research, there are other, simpler ways to see how stress and binge eating differ.

Unhealthy eatingKasia Bialasiewicz -

Stress eating is when you turn to food for comfort.

According to the Mayo Clinic, emotional eating (also known as stress eating) is "a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness."

From major trauma to daily hassles, certain events lead to negative feelings, which then trigger stress eating, according to the Mayo Clinic. Such triggers include relationship conflicts, work stress, and financial problems.

With emotional eating, people do not necessarily enjoy their food, but eating may instead serve as a distraction from a nerve-wracking presentation at work or an overwhelming medical bill. If you think you stress eat, the Mayo Clinic makes some recommendations, such as keeping a food diary, managing your stress, and seeking support from a professional.

Binge eating, on the other hand, is a serious eating disorder.

Some symptoms of binge eating, such as eating even when you're not hungry, feeling guilty about your eating, and frequently dieting to lose weight, overlap with stress eating behavior. But binge eating is marked by severe episodes of "eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific amount of time, such as over a 2-hour period," perhaps rapidly and to the point of being uncomfortably full, Mayo Clinic notes.

If you suffer from binge eating, it's recommended that you seek out professional help from a doctor immediately. As the Mayo Clinic reports, "Binge-eating disorder usually doesn't get better by itself, and it may get worse if left untreated."

Still confused about the distinction? Thankfully there's recent research that helps draw a clearer line.

The major difference has to do with control.

As Psychology Today reports, a 2012 study found that the key distinction between the two is feeling a loss of control, which signifies binge eating rather than stress eating.

In order to measure the loss of control felt while eating, the researchers asked participants to carry a palmtop computer with them and log their emotions and eating several times a day over the course of a week. Psychology Today noted the results:

"The obese people with binge eating disorder consumed more calories each time they ate compared to the obese people without the disorder....They found that after taking into account how much people ate and also controlling for negative moods, obese people with binge eating experienced a greater loss of control over their eating compared to obese people without binge eating."

The researchers recognized their loss of control as "feeling 'driven' or 'compelled to eat,' feeling 'unable to stop eating once eating had started,' or feeling 'unable to prevent the episode from occurring.'” While the study focused on obese adults, its findings could help adults of any weight recognize whether or not they have this serious condition and motivate them to seek help.

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