The Differences Between Binge Eating and Overeating

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Do you know the difference between binge eating and overeating? If you occasionally overeat and the habit is becoming more frequent, you may be concerned that your habit has turned into unhealthy binging. Here we explain how to differentiate between the two.

What Is Binge Eating?

Binge eating disorder (BED) is a serious but treatable condition that involves recurrent episodes of consuming large quantities of food. BED was formally added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013. 

What constitutes a binge? This word is often used to describe an episode of heavy drinking. However, it can mean something different when the substance that is overconsumed is food. In some instances, the habit of binging can be classified as binge eating disorder (BED).

Binge eating disorder consists of persistent and reoccurring episodes of eating large quantities of food. In addition to eating large food in excess and to the point of discomfort, the condition is also characterized by feeling out of control when eating and a sense of shame or guilt over the behavior. According to the American Psychiatric Association, to be diagnosed as binge eating disorder, binge eating episodes must occur is at least once per week for three months.

Episodes of overeating that are classified as binge eating can significantly and negatively impact your health and well-being. So it is important to identify the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder and get help if necessary.

Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder

How do you know if your overeating is just an occasional overindulgence or a serious binging issue? Some health experts may consider isolated episodes of binge eating to be normal. But if a habit of binge eating starts to have a significant impact on your life, it should be cause for concern.

Learn about the diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder to help you determine if your overeating might be considered a disorder.

The two main symptoms of the condition are:

  • Eating a larger than normal amount of food over a short period of time 
  • Feeling that this eating behavior is out of control

The binge-eating episodes are also marked by three or more of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling uncomfortably full
  • Eating faster than normal
  • Eating when not hungry
  • Feelings of disgust, guilt, or sadness
  • Eating alone out of embarrassment

In order to be diagnosed with the condition, people must also experience marked distress, not engage in compensatory behaviors such as purging, and experience at least one binge eating episode once a week for three months.

What Is Overeating?

It is also important to distinguish between binge eating and overeating. In a general sense, binge eating differs from "normal" overeating in several ways:

  • Food is consumed more rapidly
  • Control over the amount of food consumed is lost
  • Feelings of disgust, regret, or guilt are experienced after the episode
  • Eating may occur alone due to embarrassment over the amount of food consumed

Those who have a binge eating disorder may say they feel a loss of control over what and how much they eat during an episode of overeating. Some binge eaters say they feel driven to eat as if it were a compulsion that cannot be ignored.

Some binge eaters may hide food in odd places or even steal food from others. People may also eat alone due to feelings of embarrassment or shame over how much they eat.

There are no set guidelines for how much food is too much to be considered "normal" overeating. If you overeat on one or multiple occasions, you may want to ask yourself a few questions.

  • Are you eating an amount of food larger than what most people would eat under the same circumstances and in the same amount of time?
  • How do you feel after you overeat?

The feelings binge eaters experience during and after overeating range from intense pleasure to disgust.

Another key difference between overeating and binge eating: A sense of disgust does not make a binge eater stop eating. An overeater will likely listen to that voice and stop eating.

An example of overeating would be getting up to get seconds during a holiday meal. An example of binge eating would be eating a large amount of food in a short amount of time and feeling as if you were out of control.

In general, binge eaters tend to eat more often than those who experience the occasional bout of overeating. Note that continually snacking throughout the day (grazing) is not considered binge eating.

How to Get Help

If you feel that your eating habits are unhealthy and/or if your eating is causing marked distress, there is good news. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy are proven to be effective treatments for binge eating disorder. Some medications may also be a valuable part of treatment.

Ask your doctor for advice or look for professional help in your community. By finding a qualified counselor, such as a licensed clinical social worker or psychologist, you will take an important step toward gaining control of the eating disorder.

To find a qualified counselor in your area, visit the American Psychological Association website.

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  1. National Eating Disorders Association. New in the DSM-5: binge eating disorder. Updated 2013.

  2. APA. What are eating disorders?. Updated January 2017.