The Differences Between Overeating & Binge-Eating Disorder

An Overeating Scenario

It’s a cold winter day, and outside is a nor’easter  It seems that almost everywhere is closed for business. You are home with an unexpected day off. Breakfast is hot and more elaborate than usual because you have more time. Eggs with cheese, sausage, pancakes, toast, and fruit fill your plate. You eat everything and are completely satisfied with your breakfast treats. After a leisurely morning of getting household odds and ends done you realize it’s lunch time. Lunch is a ham and cheese sandwich with chips, a pickle, carrots, yogurt, maybe a glass of chocolate milk.  Mmm…it’s been a while since you had chocolate milk. That hit the spot. A little while later, you have a hot chocolate with whipped cream and a few cookies. Why not, right? It’s just that kind of day. After watching a show or two you recall that you have brownie mix in the cabinet and warm brownies sound great. After making up a batch you have three or four. Dinner time comes and you decide you don’t feel like cooking. You call your friend, roommate, partner, or mother and ask that they grab a pizza on their way home. You enjoy several pieces of pizza and have a brownie sundae for dessert.

This was a day of overeating. Overeating could be defined simply as consuming more food than your body needs in any particular period. In the example day above I would call this “normalized overeating.” It is over eating in the context of an otherwise normal and controlled environment.

A Binge-Eating Scenario

The same cold winter, snow day; you are anxious that today threw off your plans. Your clothes, your lunch, and your healthy snacks were all ready to go. It takes a lot of effort to be this prepared for the day and you feel like it was all a waste now. You decide you can just get some work done from home. Determined not to let this day be unproductive you grab your usual cup of coffee and your lap top and work from home while the TV is on in the background. A few times throughout the day you get up and grab a diet coke and maybe a few handfuls of pretzels or crackers. Before you know it, its dinner time and you are starving. You call the local Chinese delivery place, relieved they are open. You order a few meals, perhaps pretending they are for other people as well as yourself. The food arrives and you eat it frantically barely catching your breath between bites. It’s just so good. You get full but because it won’t be nearly as good reheated and you just can’t stop, might as well finish it. After the three meals you need something sweet to chase down the salty dinner. A half gallon of ice cream does the trick. Panic sets in when you look at the clock. You realize your friend, roommate, partner, or mother will be home any minute.

You hide the evidence of your binge and start cooking macaroni and cheese with broccoli because it was your turn to make dinner. You sit and have dinner with your dining companion as if nothing out of the ordinary took place.

Defining Binge-Eating Disorder

If an occurrence like this happened once a week (or more) and had been happening for three months (or longer), it could be indicative of binge-eating disorder (BED). BED is defined as eating more food in a certain period and in a chaotic manner than most people would under the same circumstances. BED is eating past the point of fullness, possibly eating when not hungry, and feeling shame or guilt or other negative emotions after. Many people overeat. BED is not the same as overeating. It is a mental illness, like all eating disorders and recovery from BED is possible.

 About the author:

Kelly Stellato, MS, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian working in Walden Behavioral Care’s Partial Hospitalization Programs in both Northampton, MA and South Windsor, CT as well as in the BED Intensive Outpatient Program in Northampton. Kelly has been with Walden since 2008 and looks forward to helping people achieve peace with food through medical nutrition therapy.

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