How Much Food is Binge Eating?
Whenever I speak to clients about binge eating, overeating, or even just eating in general - it usually brings up questions like “what even is a binge!?” and “am I binging or just eating...normally?”
I totally get why they’re confused. We use the word binge so freely in everyday language - like binge-watching Netflix or someone telling you they totally binged over the weekend. The problem with this is it’s pretty hard to know what someone else’s version of a “binge” is, and because we live in a diet culture, I often meet/see people who are “binge eating” who are just eating a pretty normal amount of food.
Like I said, it’s confusing. So in this article, I’m going to break down what people like me - disordered eating nutrition professionals - classify as binge eating, and what maybe isn’t binge eating but is still deserving of support. This article is in no way meant to say that if you’re not binging in the narrow standards that suggest a “binging problem”, that you’re not able to get support. Anyone who’s eating or thoughts about food are getting in the way of them living a full life are completely deserving of support.
We are not baby birds, let’s not eat like them
I find it super interesting to hear about people’s expectations of how they should eat. I often meet people - a lot of the time those who were socialised as women - who think their meals should be tiny and look more like a snack. Laura Thomas, a ground breaker in Intuitive Eating and disordered eating describes this like “eating like a baby bird” - which I think is so effective and accurate to how my clients view eating.
“Overeating” is not a character flaw
Firstly, overeating is normal. People eat big meals, people become overfull at dinners, people eat loads of chocolate they “don’t need.” But what sets people with normal vs disordered relationship to foods apart is that those with normal eating tend to move on and not be consumed with guilt, shame, and self-loathing. Overeating also isn’t something that interferes with their life and takes up huge amounts of their time and energy.
Binge eating and more “clinical” disordered eating, like binge eating disorder, is often described as a drain on life, it consumes energy and keeps driving binging in a never ending cycle. When a binge is over, there’s often a feeling of emptiness left inside. If you binge eat, you know how isolating it is; you think you’re the only person in the world who feels this way, and binge eating rarely happens around other people.
But even if you sometimes overeat because a meal tastes great, or you accept dessert even when you know you’re stuffed, or you binge eating every night and it feels like there’s no way out of the cycle - you’re not a failure, you’re not a terrible person.
Overeating vs binge eating
I’m often asked a few questions about this:
Do I just overeat?
Do I actually have a problem with food?
There are people binging more than me, right?
I overeat and binge eating - are they even different?
It’s important to differentiate between overeating and binge eating - or more specifically, between overeating and the more “clinical” binge eating disorder.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) outlines mental health disorders (including eating disorders) and contains diagnostic criteria's, and outlines the effective assessment and treatment of each for clinicians. In the most recent addiction, published in 2013, Binge Eating Disorder (BED) was added. It’s pretty wild now to people in the field that BED was only just added less than 10 years ago, since now it’s one of the most prevalent eating disorders.
The DSM-5 outlines binge eating disorder as: Eating an amount of food in a specific window (e.g. in a 2-hour period) that other people would not eat in a similar period of time and circumstance. There is a lack of control during eating, and binge eating is associated with: Eating much more rapidly than normal, eating until uncomfortably full, eating alone due to embarrassment, feeling disgusted by oneself, feeling guilty or depressed afterward, distress regarding binge eating. Binge eating is not followed by compensatory behaviours like bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa, e.g., restriction or purging.
As you can see, it’s pretty detailed, but actually not all that definitive. I like to define binge eating as: Eating more food than feels comfortable, with a feeling of being out of control, and it causes you distress. I also would like to flag that people with binge eating disorder do often “compensate” by restriction aka doing on a new diet or trying to be “good”, which the DSM-5 doesn’t hold space for.
Even if you don’t meet the clinical criteria...
I want to stress: If you don’t meet the criteria, that’s ok. These criteria's have their purpose, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t worthy of support. Not everyone is going to fit into the diagnostic criteria, because everyone is unique.
Access to a service to receive a diagnosis for an eating disorder in the UK isn’t actually all that common! So there’s so many people out there who could meet the clinical criteria for BED but they might never receive a diagnosis.
In a future article I will outline the first steps to overcome binge eating.
Depending on your needs, I may be able to support you with 1-1 work. Get in touch here if you want to have a (free) chat.