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Binge Eating Disorder vs. Food Addiction: What’s the Difference?

It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate the terms “binge eating” and “food addiction” – especially when these words are used interchangeably and thrown around on social media.

Everyone indulges in their favorite foods from time to time – and maybe even feels guilt or shame afterward for doing so. However, if these behaviors and emotions become a pattern, it may be a sign you’re experiencing disordered eating habits or an eating disorder. With the web of misinformation flooding social media, it can be confusing and difficult for those struggling to reach out for help.

To avoid being caught “self-diagnosing” via social media, we’re here to clear up any confusion surrounding food addiction and binge eating disorder – including what each of these terms means, how they differ from one another, and what you can do if you’re struggling.

What is Food Addiction?

The most common analogy for food addiction is comparing it to drug and alcohol addiction. While ongoing research is still studying the basis of food addiction and its outcomes, current studies find that certain highly palatable foods can trigger the brain’s reward and pleasure systems in a similar manner to drugs and alcohol.

For this reason, the concept of food addiction is based on the criteria for substance abuse disorder. The most common foods people with food addiction become fixated on include increased levels of fat, sugar, and salt. These foods release more dopamine in the brain – the “feel good” chemical that often results in more intense cravings.

Individuals with a food addiction can also develop a chemical dependency on food which can be similar to a drug addict who seeks a sense of euphoria by abusing their substance of choice. 

However, many people choose not to identify with the label “food addict,” as it perpetuates the stigma of addiction – which is a problem within itself. As a result, binge eating or binge eating disorder is more commonly used instead, which has led to their current frequent interchangeability.

What is Binge Eating Disorder?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5), one classifies as having binge eating disorder when they have recurring episodes of binge eating. An episode of binge eating includes both:

  • Eating a significantly large amount of food in a relatively small window of time
  • Feeling a lack of control over eating during the episode

In addition, episodes of binge eating are typically classified with 3 or more of the following symptoms:

  • Eating more rapidly than usual
  • Eating until the point of uncomfortable fullness
  • Eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry
  • Eating in isolation due to embarrassment over what one is eating
  • Feeling disgusting, depressed, or guilty after an episode of eating

Another criterion the DSM-5 has for binge eating disorder is that binge eating episodes must occur at least 1 day a week for 3 months or more. Within this 3-month period, the binge eating episodes cannot be correlated with any other eating disorder behaviors (e.g., restricting, purging, etc.) associated with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. 

Food Addiction vs. Binge Eating Disorder

On the surface, food addiction and binge eating disorder can seem very similar – and they do have some overlapping symptoms. However, it’s important to note a key difference, which is that binge eating disorder is recognized by the DSM as a diagnosable mental illness.

Since binge eating disorder is a classified mental disorder, it often arises due to a combination of environmental, biological, emotional, and social factors. Therefore, someone who is struggling with binge eating disorder is often dealing with a complex range of symptoms that may or may not pertain to the actual food.

On the other hand, food addiction is much more symptom-focused. Unlike drug and alcohol abuse, we need food to survive, so it’s understandable why food addiction isn’t classified in the DSM as a diagnosable addiction.

While food addiction is not currently recognized in the DSM, many professionals are currently working to classify these compulsive behaviors and cravings as an addiction if severe enough.

It’s important to note that many people report they have a food addiction when, in reality, their symptoms align with binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder is the most common type of eating disorder, affecting more people than both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa combined. 

Unfortunately, many people with binge eating disorders are left undiagnosed and untreated, leading them to believe they have an addiction to food.

Identifying Food Addiction and Binge Eating Symptoms

Since food is such an integral, necessary part of all of our lives, you may be feeling confused about what a “normal” relationship with food even looks like. When trying to identify whether you have a problem with compulsive overeating, it’s critical to examine any behavioral changes you may have.

Common behavioral changes associated with binge eating disorder include:

  • Feeling sluggish or lethargic
  • Eating as a response to stress
  • Hiding binge episodes from others
  • Avoiding eating in social situations
  • Hoarding or stashing food for later
  • Eating too fast to notice when you’re full
  • Obsessive thinking about food and cravings

Not sure if you or a loved one has an eating disorder? Take our eating disorder screener to learn more. 

Take Charge of Your Relationship With Food

Although the signs and symptoms of food addiction and binge eating disorder overlap, it’s important to recognize the differences between the two – the main one being that binge eating disorder is a diagnosable mental illness.

However, no matter if you’re dealing with food addiction, binge eating, or another form of disordered eating, you still deserve support and guidance to help you regain a healthy relationship with food.

VERY provides personalized, virtual eating disorder care for individuals with all types of eating disorders. Schedule a consultation to learn how VERY can help you get started on your recovery journey.