May 2016

I often hear the question: “Is overeating the same as binge eating?”

This is an understandable query, given that “overeating” and “binging” are terms that you hear frequently in the media or in casual day-to-day conversations. It’s common to use these terms interchangeably, however, mental health professionals define them differently.

Overeating is a behavior that everyone does from time to time. Binge eating is quite different. People who engage in frequent binge eating can struggle with isolation, depression and low self-worth. Additionally, their pattern of eating may have a negative effect on relationships, sleep or productivity at work.

People who regularly engage in binge eating could meet criteria for binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder currently impacts an estimated 2.8% of American adults, more than double the number of cases of anorexia and bulimia combined. It can lead to a variety of psychological effects (anxiety, depression, alcohol or drug use) and medical complications (high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease) in both men and women. To help you determine if your eating is actually binge eating (and not just overeating), here are some questions to ask:

Do you consume amounts of food that you or others might describe as excessive? Everyone overeats once in a while. For example, there are many cultural events where food is central to the celebration and large amounts or servings are frequently consumed by those participating. Binge eating episodes contain quantities of food that are larger than what others might eat in the same setting or period of time. For those with binge eating disorder, the consumption of unusually large amounts of food happens at least once a week (often times, even more).

Do you experience a loss of control while eating? This is the most distinct characteristic of binge eating. Some people describe feeling “zoned-out” or unable to stop eating once they’ve started. People may be aware of feeling disgusted during a binge eating episode, but they cannot interrupt their own actions. In a typical episode of overeating, the choices about what and how much to eat are conscious decisions.

Do you eat faster than normal? Binge eating episodes are often distinguished by consuming food more quickly than usual. This urgency around eating can lead to large quantities of food being consumed in a fairly short period of time. In comparison, overeating may occur at any speed, but is not necessarily rapid.

To clarify, people who engage in binge eating can also have times when they are eating in a “normal” way, having small eating episodes throughout the day (constant snacking), or have overeating episodes. They may not binge eat when there are other people around, or they may only binge eat in particular places or at certain times of day.

Do you experience physical pain? Sometime binge eating leads to fullness that is physically uncomfortable or painful. Overeating generally stops before the body gets to that point.

Do you eat in secrecy? Often binge eating happens alone or in secret. One may hide food or purchase it directly before the binge eating episode occurs. The secrecy is usually related to strong feelings of embarrassment. People go to great lengths to hide this behavior from others. This deception can contribute to significant issues in relationships and feelings of guilt. Alternatively, overeating can happen while dining out or in the company of others.

How do you feel after the binge episode? Feelings of disgust, depression and guilt after binge eating are common. Those who overeat may experience some guilt, but rarely the high levels of mental anguish commonly seen among those who binge eat. Both types of eating can cause increased stress and may require professional help.

Answering “yes” to two or more of these questions could be indicative of a serious situation that requires proper help and support. The best way to determine if you have binge eating disorder and to receive treatment is to be evaluated by a mental health professional.

Luckily, we have a number of different treatments that are very effective in decreasing or eradicating the binge eating episodes all together. These treatments lead to behavior change that will improve mood and relationships, and move you closer to your life goals.

Kate Craigen, Ph.D. is the clinical director of binge eating and bariatric support services at Walden Behavioral Care. Walden offers a full system of specialized care for individuals and families impacted by all types of eating disorders. Dr. Craigen can be reached at