Eat Empowered, Emotional Eating, Weight Loss

Emotional Eating vs. Eating Disorders: How to Tell the Difference


This post is part of an important series on Emotional Eating. Not sure what that means? Emotional eating can be much more subtle than you realize, and if you’re having trouble figuring out your food issues, it may be at the root of them. If you’re a wellness professional (or are just trying to live your healthiest life!), you’ve GOT to understand emotional eating, as it’s likely at the root of many of your clients’ issues. Get informed, here!

Almost all of us confront a bout of emotional eating once in a while. Some of us seriously struggle with it and need help learning to prevent it.

But while emotional eating can affect your weight and overall health and happiness in major ways, it’s not as serious as being diagnosed with an eating disorder.

The trouble is: It can be hard to distinguish between a case of emotional eating left to snowball for too long and a disorder that requires immediate medical attention—whether you’re concerned for yourself, a friend or a client.

So, we tapped expert Julie Friedman, PhD, the national senior director of Binge Eating Treatment and Recovery at the Eating Recovery Center to weigh in on the topic. The center helps people all over the world recover from disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder via multidisciplinary treatment teams (because we all know eating behaviors are about so much more than food!).

RELATED: 5 Common Myths About Eating Disorders

Here, we ask Dr. Friedman a few simple questions that will help you decide when it’s right to tackle emotional eating on your own and when an eating disorder needs to be treated by medical professionals.

Q&A: Emotional Eating vs. Eating Disorders

How does “emotional eating” differ from a diagnosed eating disorder?

Eating disorders typically impact functioning to a greater degree than emotional eating, often with medical consequences. [Anorexia Nervosa, for example, involves extreme self-starvation and excessive weight loss and can lead to osteoporosis or heart failure.] And there is greater distress with eating disorders vs. emotional eating.

RELATED: How I Learned to Deal With Food Bullying and You Can Too

Do most eating disorders involve an emotional component?

Absolutely! 85 percent of those who meet criteria for an eating disorder also meet criteria for a mood and/or anxiety disorder. There is an affective component in all eating disorders, as the eating disordered behaviors also serve to manage and regulate affect, thereby temporarily improving mood or lessening distress.

Could emotional eating lead to a more serious eating disorder if not dealt with?

Yes, emotional eating often progresses to a subclinical or even clinically significant eating disorder as the behavior is reinforcing—meaning people get a reward AND relief from engaging in the behavior, and so the frequency of the behavior increases.

What are some specific signs people should look for that signal that something is an eating disorder and needs to be treated professionally as opposed to being a symptom of emotional eating?

Eating disordered behaviors to watch out for would be over-focusing on weight and shape, engaging in a lot of talking/thinking about food/eating, feeling out of control around food and guilty when eating or following eating, engaging in secretive behaviors around food (including bingeing, purging, and over-exercising), appearing preoccupied with eating or refusing to eat certain foods or food groups, and noticeable weight changes, most notably in Anorexia Nervosa.

If you’re interested in learning more about emotional eating, check out our four-part video course on Emotional Eating, now!   

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