I have two distinct memories that involve eating. One horrified me, the other brought a sense of being understood.

I, like most others, had a small fridge in my dorm room in college. I was beginning to develop anorexia, but hadn’t a clue at the time. I was eating less and less, and receiving all kinds of accolades for becoming thin.

One afternoon, I ran back to my room, I hadn’t quite reached the stage of anorexia where you mentally and emotionally detach from your body, and I was terribly hungry. The first thing I did was lean down, open the fridge door, and reach for something— anything — that might fill me up. I stuffed it in my mouth, like a dog who hadn’t been fed for days. Then I sensed something. I looked up, and my boyfriend was sitting in a chair in the corner, watching me. And laughing a bit.

Never mind that that was pretty boundary-less behavior on his part. I don’t think I swallowed. I was instantly full of shame — for being seen as so very out of control. He was a nice guy and I’m sure it did look funny.

It only made me want to have more control.

Forward twenty years later. My husband was walking down the hall of our home, and could see me sitting on the den couch. I’d learned I wasn’t pregnant, again, after three years of infertility treatment. I was handling those feelings by polishing off a big bag of Ruffles potato chips. He walked in the room as I was reaching for the bottom of the bag, trying to get the crumbs stuck to my fingers so I could lick them off.

Dried tears were on my face. Some talk show blared on the TV.

All he kindly said, after looking at me and the bag, was, “Do you want another one?”

No shaming. No laughter. Just empathy.

I knew I’d married the right guy.

These two events, one couched in the development of an actual eating disorder, the other — the seeking of comfort through eating — have stuck in my mind for years.

What did eating mean at those times?

It’s important to recognize the difference between an actual eating disorder, such as binge-eating, and plain old comfort eating. The first is a mental illness that tends to begin in adolescence and young adulthood. The two major characteristics of binge eating are: 1)  Eating in a fairly short period of time a much larger amount of food than what most people would eat. And, 2) A lack of control over that eating. It doesn’t feel like a choice. It’s more like a compulsion.

But it can be triggered by emotions. Web MD states: Nearly half of all people with binge eating disorder have a history of depression, although the exact nature of the link is unclear. Many people report that anger, sadness, boredom, anxiety, or other negative emotions can trigger an episode of binge eating. Impulsive behavior and other psychological problems also seem to be more common in people with binge eating disorder.

So what’s the difference?

My friend Dr. Amy Sheinberg, who specializes in eating disorders (and also has a sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious Facebook page), tells us: Each are generally associated with a trigger, but a binge suggests a compulsive need to eat large quantities of food (not necessarily comfort foods, but foods that are generally labeled “red light” foods) in a discrete period of time. Soothing may be a sought-after effect of a binge, but bingeing can also be associated with other effects, including self-punishment. Comfort eating, while not a clinical term, is almost exclusively for self-soothing. Foods chosen are generally associated with past memories that are recalled with fondness. There is no defined pace, and, in fact, the food consumed may be eaten in normal portions.

So it sounds like “comfort eating,” if it happens once in a while, isn’t a problem. Having chocolate meringue pie for breakfast can seem like a great idea if you’re in a funk.

But when does comfort eating become a problem? It’s widely agreed that these are the major reasons.

  • Eating when you’re not hungry.
  • Eating when you’re bored or and lonely.
  • Eating to distract from or avoid painful emotions.
  • Eating because you don’t know how to comfort yourself in other way but food.
  • Eating because you’re ashamed of or even hate your body.

If you’re struggling, turning to food too often to put you in a different emotional space, these reasons lead us directly to other answers.

  • Ask yourself the question, “Am I really hungry? And if so, what am I hungry for?” Research shows, for example, that often we’re thirsty, not hungry at all. Getting in tune with what you’re hungry for lends intentionality to eating. “I’m hungry for something really fresh tasting,” can feel very different than, “I’m hungry for anything.” “Do I want one Hershey’s kiss or do I need 15 kisses?” Go to a nutritionist to help you figure out your relationship with different foods.
  • Food can act as a friend — there when you need it. But it’s not. Not really. The more we isolate and hover over iPads, the more food may be acting as our hangout buddy. Reach out to someone instead, and it will be much more rewarding.
  • Grief, sadness, guilt, anger, disappointment, humiliation. None of these emotions are easy to feel. Yet the more you avoid them, the stronger they can become. And it becomes a cycle. You have to eat more to handle the growing feelings. You can choose to stop that cycle. Journal. Go to therapy. Talk to a friend. Sit with the feelings. Cry. Vent. Chop wood. Scream. Do anything that will help that’s not self-destructive or hurts someone else.
  • Try other ways of comforting yourself. Read. Walk. Watch an old movie. Talk. Stretch. Meditate. Laugh. Paint. Do something else that helps you feel better.
  • Self-acceptance is paramount to good mental health. It’s not resignation. It’s accepting yourself as you are, where you are, and how you got there. It’s practicing self-compassion. You can then work on something, but not from a place of shame. Chronic shame is paralyzing.

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