The Difference Between Overeating and Binge Eating
The Power of Language
People often over-associate “overeating” with “binge eating,” as if these two are siblings on the family tree of food mismanagement. But these two ways of eating are not even cousins – they’re not even from the same family of eating behaviors. Yet this is a misunderstanding that can significantly hold people back from their physique and health goals.
I see this critical over-association pop up when a client has a weight loss goal, and is doing a fantastic job of improving the quality of their eating, but… the scale gets stuck. When this happens, people often do not realize that excess calories could be the problem, and become overly fearful of increasingly exotic possibilities.
What if it’s my thyroid? What if it’s my hormones? Do I have a metabolic disorder?
What is often happening is not a metabolic problem, but the fact that they are accidentally staying in maintenance mode, all while eating healthfully. Technically, they are “overeating” for their goal.
It’s all relative.
They may not be into the 24th episode of their new Netflix obsession, surrounded by empty chip bags and scraped ice cream pints littering the floor, but perhaps they’re only 200 calories – which is merely one heaping spoon of almond butter – away from creating the caloric deficit required for weight loss.
This can be very frustrating.
However, it’s also extremely common, and while the only antidote to this problem is greater clarity, the suggestion that they’re eating too much (when they’re already eating quite well), can cause people to become more defensive, and less willing to be transparent or precise about their diet.
The problem is that the image that the word “overeating” conjures is not attractive, and is over-equated with binge eating. In reality, overeating could occur with healthful foods in moderate amounts. Overeating can be as simple as eating too many “healthy” snacks throughout the day, as subtle as not measuring olive oil or almond butter, and as easy as not reading labels.
In other words, “overeating” does not mean that you feel really stuffed. It simply means that you’re eating more food than you really need to maintain your weight, or lose weight (if that’s your goal). And sometimes, it’s a really subtle shift that makes all the difference.
The faster we understand what overeating really is, and separate it from the behavior of binge eating, the faster we can create effective and meaningful lifestyle change that gets the scale moving.
What is binge eating?
Binge eating, like alcohol use disorders, is a very specific diagnosis that can only be applied when behaviors meet certain criteria. According to the DSM V, binge eating is characterized by three or more of the following:
- Eating much more rapidly than normal
- Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
- Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
- Eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating
- Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating
You’ll notice that these criteria (of which, again, three or more must be met in order to identify binge eating) encompass behaviors and feelings – not weight.
While binge eating disorder (consistently binge eating) it is often associated with obesity, you do not have to be obese to have BED, and if you have BED, you may not be obese.
This is why it is so important to peel apart overeating and binge eating as two separate ways of eating – it’s not a matter of degree or intensity. It’s not that you feel a little bad when you overeat and really bad when you binge eat – they are truly two totally different ways of relating to food.
Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder – a type of mental illness – and it affects 3.5 percent of women and 2% of men. Furthermore, it is not something – like excess weight – that is solved just by simple nutrition and behavioral strategies. Instead, it requires therapeutic treatment.
Changing the Way We Look at Overeating
Because of the severity of true binge eating, we must change our paradigm about overeating in order to make it an approachable, non-judgmental concept that can be explored freely and openly. We all overeat.
When we acknowledge the inherent innocence of accidentally eating more food than we need (even when we’re trying!), we can successfully strip it of the negative connotations that automatically create defensiveness, and make real progress, instead of spinning our wheels.
But because the word “overeating” – I must admit – does sound inflammatory, let’s use words instead that don’t already have those negative associations. Let’s change the language to “surplus,” “maintenance,” and “deficit.”
This is why I am so passionate about educating clients about the many aspects of nutrition and weight management strategies, instead of classing foods into “good” or “bad” foods.
Most people think that the main problem with black-and-white thinking is that you could become neurotic about avoiding the foods that you perceive as “bad.” This does happen, but in some ways, I’m more concerned about the converse. I think what many people miss is that the logic works both ways – people often do not regulate or moderate their behaviors with “good” foods with the same attention that they would “bad” foods, under the mistaken impression that quality is vastly more important than quantity.
In reality, both matter. Quality is incredibly important for health and long-term weight loss maintenance, but for weight loss, quantity always wins. On a daily and weekly basis, you are either at a surplus, or in maintenance mode, or in a deficit. Being in a deficit, however you approach it and whatever strategies you choose to use, is the only way to see the scale go down.
While I personally think it is better to create the deficit through consuming high-fiber, high-nutrient, and protein-rich foods than it is through – say – living on coffee and cigarettes, getting into a deficit, however you do it, is the only way to get the scale unstuck.
Here are four strategies – if you need them – to improve your relationship with “healthy” foods, in order to create the caloric deficit required to lose weight:
- Measure and portion-control foods like nuts, nut butters, olive oil, and cheese. These foods are surprisingly rich in very small servings, and it is easy to overeat them without even realizing it. I promise – when you are trying to lose weight, especially if you are a petite woman, an unmindful extra handful of nuts each day could be the difference between continued progress and plateau.
- Make sure that you are not excessively snacking. Even “healthy” snacks add up. I do not implement nutrition bars into my “everyday” diet because of this. An extra 200 calories here, an extra 200 calories there – even if they’re from sources as innocent as an RX Bar and an apple with peanut butter – can push up your caloric total right over the top.
- Watch out for health halos. These are foods that are marketed as especially healthy, using trendy packaging and phrases like “organic” “gluten-free,” and “sugar-free.” It is easy to eat these foods without taking them seriously as sources of calories. However, many gluten-free and organic treats pack a caloric wallop – again, sometimes just enough to raise your caloric intake beyond weight loss. Sometimes, these products are simply an exact copy of a rival commercial product, with sexier packaging.
- Finally, use the strategy of a food log. Tracking is an extremely sharp and precise tool for improving your awareness about your eating, especially if you use an actual calorie counter like MyFitnessPal. It is educational and quite accurate – and remember that it’s not compulsory that you do it forever. Sometimes, it’s just a helpful mental re-set.
When acknowledging a possible surplus doesn’t elicit defensiveness, but instead invites humble curiosity and a spirit of investigation and willingness, change is just around the corner, and you can accomplish any goal you set.
Need help setting these kinds of structured goals? Shoot me an inquiry e-mail with the subject line “Group Coaching,” because I am starting up another group in the next few weeks! I’m only opening up 10 spots so that it’s a nice cozy group with individual attention, so get that e-mail to me by May 4!
Finally, if you are troubled by what you think could be binge eating behaviors, you can visit this site or call their helpline – 1-800-931-2237 – to get information and support.
Follow-Up Questions from Last Week
If you want to jump into this free healthy living project, all you have to do is start today by shooting me an e-mail to let me know you’re “in!” I e-mail strategies to my mailing list at the beginning of each week. If you would like to be on this list, please scroll down and sign up!
Last week in “Alcohol Use and Health: Healthy Guidelines,” we explored what a healthy relationship with alcohol looks like, and how adult beverages can be incorporated moderately into your active lifestyle.
Answer the following questions about your experiences with last week’s post:
- Question 1: What was your reaction to the CDC’s guidelines?
- Question 2: Do you want to change your approach to enjoying alcohol, having read the post?
- Question 3: What strategies do you feel most comfortable using?
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