Overeating Vs Binge Eating

Woman Sitting on a Ledge

Overeating is consuming excess calories in comparison to the amount of energy that your body expends. It may be an occasional episode or a habit due to psychological or emotional reasons, such as anxiety, stress, depression or even boredom. Regardless of the reason, overeating can cause weight gain and various health complications, including obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease. It is, therefore, critical that you control your food portions.

Your brain takes approximately 10 to 15 minutes to transmit a signal to your stomach to inform you that you are full. Eating more food beyond this point is overeating. To determine whether you are overeating, you need to establish the correct daily intake of calories that you need. Your daily calorie intake depends on your gender, age, weight, level of physical activity, and metabolism.

Binge eating is when you frequently eat a significantly large amount of food, in a shorter time than a majority of people would in similar circumstances. Feelings of loss of control often mark these episodes of excessive eating. You may also experience embarrassment, guilt, and disgust, which may cause you to binge secretly as a way of concealing the behaviour. Recurrent bingeing often leads to physical and emotional distress.

Differences Between Overeating and Binge Eating

For many people, overeating sometimes occurs, such as eating an extra serving of a delicious meal even when you are already full. You may also eat beyond satiety during special holidays or celebratory occasions. Excess food, in one instance, will not cause obesity, but you may experience pain, discomfort, and sleep interruption.

Although the expectation is that the symptoms would discourage you from overeating, your body releases dopamine in response to the overeating. Dopamine is a pleasure chemical that causes you to eat more. Even with the discomfort of overeating, you feel the urge to continue eating. This response is a critical aspect of how binge eating and addiction to food starts.

Binge eating primarily involves consuming large food amounts within a short time. Although it is not necessarily an eating disorder or an indicator of food addiction, binge eating is one symptom of Bulimia Nervosa or Binge Eating Disorder. Because binge eating has the potential to develop into a severe eating disorder, it is necessary to distinguish overeating from binge eating.

There is no specific guideline or limit on the amount of food that constitutes regular overeating or binge eating. The critical features in differentiating the two are your feelings and the amount of food you consume. If you overeat on a series of occasions, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the food portion you eat more substantial than what a reasonable person would consume, in the same period, under similar circumstances?
  • What are your feelings after overeating?
  • Do you feel out of control?

The three primary differences are:

1. Overeating is the enjoyment of extra food without experiencing negative emotions. If you are binge eating, your feelings will deteriorate from pure pleasure in food to disgust.

2. If you are overeating, you can listen to your inner voice and stop eating. When you are binge eating, you cannot stop eating even after feeling disgusted due to fullness.

3. If you are binge eating, you may eat more food than you eat when you have the occasional overeating episodes. However, snacking continuously throughout the day is not binge eating.

How to Identify a Transition Between Overeating and Binge Eating

If you overindulge on occasion, but it starts happening more frequently, you need to keep track and address it before it transforms into a problem. Occasional overindulgence is typical, but when it starts to alter your life significantly, it becomes a source of concern.

You know you are binge eating if you:

  • Eat on impulse, and you cannot control the amount of food you eat
  • Feel a lot of guilt, disgust or depression after bingeing
  • Eat rapidly without chewing the food properly
  • Eat until you become uncomfortably full
  • Eat a lot of food even when you do not feel physically hungry

When is it Acceptable to Overeat?

If your lifestyle is ordinarily healthy, you can enjoy feasting once in a while. If your diet is usually fit and you get a lot of physical activity, you do not need to fear the occasional overeating. Your body adapts and works harder when it detects an increase in calorie intake and bounces back after a period of overeating.

Even with an emphasis on healthy eating, it is often socially acceptable to overeat during:

  • Long summer barbecue weekends
  • Festivals
  • Holidays
  • Dinner parties
  • Other types of parties

Using a Hunger Scale to differentiate Between Overeating and Binge Eating

The ability to feel hungry or full is inborn. Babies and children do not need a reminder about how much food or milk they need to stay healthy. They eat when hungry and lose interest in eating when they are satisfied. As you grow, this ability diminishes. You learn to ignore or forget it entirely. Fortunately, you can train yourself to feel hunger and satiety using a hunger scale.

A hunger scale is a tool to help you readjust your hunger and fullness signals. It enables you to understand your body’s subtle signs of hunger as well as fullness. If you only eat when you are hungry and stop when you are satisfied but not uncomfortable, you will eat the right food amount. However, the amount may vary depending on other factors such as stress, amount of sleep, and physical activity.

A hunger scale ranges from 0 – 10, where zero is empty while ten is stuffed. While the symptoms of hunger and physical experiences may vary, each point on the hunger scale serves as a reference point when you want to control your eating habits. Below is a description of the points.

1 – Ravenous: You feel painfully hungry and famished. You want to eat anything and everything at once. You are so hungry that you feel lightheaded and dizzy due to low blood sugar levels. Your productivity and levels of energy are low. You may feel unsteady and experience mood swings and low concentration.

2 – Extremely hungry: You feel ravenous and need food immediately. You feel a pit in your stomach and food dominates your thoughts. Your energy levels drop, you are likely to make bad food choices, and you may feel an urge to eat unhealthy foods.

3 – Hungry: You must eat, and if you wait any longer, you may start experiencing unpleasant physical conditions. You need energy, and your stomach begins to growl.

4 – Slightly hungry: You begin thinking about your next meal. You can wait to eat, and if you eat at this point, you will not need much to feel satiated.

5 – Neutral: You are neither full nor hungry. Food is not prominent on your mind.

6 – Somewhat satisfied: Your belly already has food, but you could possibly eat more. If you stop eating, the feed will last you two hours or less.

7 – Satisfied: You are no longer hungry. It might be tempting to eat more because the food is scrumptious or for comfort reasons, but you do not need an extra food portion.

8 – Full and slightly uncomfortable: You have eaten your fill, and you may need to unfasten your clothing around your belly. The last three or four bites can cause you to lose control.

9 – Uncomfortably full: All you can think of is how uncomfortable your stomach feels. You disconnect from conversations and easily zone out.

10 – Stuffed: You feel so stuffed and uncomfortable. You feel nausea, physically sick, extremely cramped, and you start zoning out.

Ideally, you should not let yourself experience either of the extreme ends of the spectrum.

The scale helps in two main ways:

  • Identifying hunger: The objective is to begin eating at point three or four of the range. This point is where your stomach starts signaling that you are hungry. Food is more tasty and appealing, and you can still control your choices about what you want to eat.
  • Identifying fullness: You should stop eating when you reach six on the hunger scale. This point is where you feel satisfied and pleasantly full, although the physical feelings for each person may vary. Generally, your stomach expands when you eat and your hormones signal to your brain that there is a reward for eating. This response explains why you feel good after nourishing yourself.

Overeating lies at points eight and nine of the hunger scale. Although you may be satisfied, you still take a few more bites or servings, which makes you feel slightly uncomfortable. The overeating often happens when you satisfy physical hunger, and it is harmless when the episodes are infrequent.

The best description of binge eating is point 10. Even after you are satisfied, you continue eating until you are physically ill. This behaviour occurs when there is a disruption in your physical and psychological tools for detecting hunger and fullness.

Way Forward

Overeating can quickly transform into binge eating if you do not realign your internal cues of hunger ad satisfaction. If you or your loved one are struggling with overeating or binge eating, contact a competent eating disorder specialist. We will help you to learn how to listen to your body’s natural signals and to respond appropriately.


Dr. Natalie Mulligan graduated from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM). She completed her clinical internship at the Robert Schad Naturopathic Clinic with a focused interest in mental health. Prior to attending CCNM, she completed a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Waterloo.