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What's the Difference Between Binge-Eating Disorder & Just Eating Too Much?

Laura Bogart's work has appeared in Salon, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Tin House, SPIN, Indiewire, GOOD, and Refinery 29 (among other publications). She has also worked in health care communications.

When does overeating turn into binge eating?

Food is so much more than nourishment; it’s inextricable from our emotional lives — that cool rush of comfort from a scoop of half-melted rocky road that we enjoy on the boardwalk during a much-earned summer vacation; that savory fullness from the fresh-baked bread that warms our bodies after our partners leave us; and at its core, it’s that chicken soup our grandfathers made us when we stayed home with a fever.

So, it’s understandable that when the mood moves us, we might overindulge. Though the cultural static around food — which is quick to categorize anything from eggs to avocado toast as “bad” or “good” or best of all, a “superfood” within a single news cycle — would have us believe that any overindulgence or emotional attachment to food is tantamount to binge eating.

More: 5 Things You Need to Know About Eating Disorders & Your Heart

“Just about everyone has overeaten at some point,” Dr. Adrienne Youdim, associate professor of medicine at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine and assistant professor of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center tells SheKnows.

Youdim says that overeating doesn’t really have a clear medical definition. It’s “when you simply eat to the point of feeling full.” For context, think Thanksgiving dinner — when the siren song of cornbread and stuffing seduces us into loosening our belts.

“On the other hand, binge eating disorder is a clinical diagnosis,” she says. Youdim adds that there are clear criteria for a BED diagnosis, which includes eating to an uncomfortable, sick-feeling fullness in a truncated period.

“Usually, this [behavior] is associated with feelings of guilt, discomfort or lack of control,” she says. Often, people in the midst of a binge will experience a kind of fugue state — they’re not fully present or aware of all that they are eating.

MoreEating Disorders Are a Mental Illness, Not a Choice

Though it’s certainly not common to stress-eat away that impending presentation (after all, Double Stuf Oreos will not criticize the margins of our PowerPoints) or the pain of a lost love, people who have BED don’t just “eat away the pain” every now and again. Instead, they use food as a kind of self-mollifying force against conditions like depression, anxiety or PTSD — often overeating in sustained patterns when they aren’t even hungry, glutting the body to quiet the mind.

According to registered dietitian Libby Parker, owner of Not Your Average Nutritionist LLC and a nutritionist who specializes in counseling patients with eating disorders, “To be diagnosed with BED, one must binge eat at least once per week for at least three months and show ‘marked distress regarding [the] binge,’” without taking compensatory measures like purging or overexercising. Parker likens the BED sufferer’s use of food to the alcoholic’s zeal for drink; it will quell a momentary ache, but leave a greater hurt come morning.

MoreEating Disorder Diagnoses Are Up for Women in Their 40s and 50s

Recovering from BED is a long road, one best traveled in the company of a professional treatment team like a therapist, medical doctor and nutritionist who are well-equipped to help people sort through the underlying emotional issues without opening the refrigerator door. Working with a registered dietitian can help anyone with BED appreciate a mindful, balanced approach to food that doesn’t hinge on shame.

If you think that you or a loved one might be suffering from BED, contact the National Eating Disorders Association for more information.

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