What is considered excessive eating?

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The concept of “excessive eating” can be a tricky one to pin down, as it’s based on the idea that there’s a “normal” amount of eating. 

In reality, the appropriate or ideal quantity of food intake varies from person to person and day by day and depends on numerous factors.

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Excessive eating vs. binge eating

The term “excessive eating” is a general and colloquial one, left open to interpretation. By contrast, the term “binge eating”, is more well-defined, and used by clinicians to describe a subtype of excessive eating. 

According to the DSM 5, which is the most recent edition of the handbook on known eating disorders, a binge eating episode is defined by the presence of three or more of the following symptoms: 

  • Eating much more rapidly than normal.
  • Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry.
  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full.
  • Eating alone, to hide the true amount one is eating.
  • Feeling disgusted, depressed, or guilty after eating too much.

In general, during these episodes, a person often feels a sense of loss of control, and some binge eating episodes can add anywhere from an additional 5,000-15,000 calories to a person’s daily total. (1)

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a clinical diagnosis that requires frequent binge eating. Specifically, to qualify for a diagnosis of BED binge eating episodes must occur at least once a week over the course of three months. (2)

Excessive eating and binge eating can be triggered by many things, including stress, difficulty dealing with strong emotions and negative thoughts, or extreme dieting.

Yet, one of the reasons it’s so difficult to define “excessive eating” is that everyone is different. Different bodies have different hunger cues, different daily caloric needs, and different metabolisms, among other considerations, and these all depend on a number of interdependent factors, from a person’s regular activity level to their genetics.

Health at every size (HAES)

In fact, an entire nutritional concept has been developed to try to account for the inherent variability in people’s body sizes or ideal caloric intake. It’s called Health at Every Size (HAES), and it highlights all the different ways a person can be healthy, independently from the numbers on the scale.

According to this approach, a person’s “ideal” body weight is one which lets them feel strong and energetic while leading a healthy life. (3) This central idea is supported by the major principles of HAES, which include:

  • Accepting and respecting the diversity of body shapes and sizes.
  • Providing respectful care for all.
  • Encouraging enjoyable movement.
  • Supporting health policies that improve access to information, services and practices that boost personal wellbeing.

Through this lens, the ideal amount of food intake should depend more on a variety of factors that influence personal wellbeing rather than the narrow concept of weight control. Using the Health at Every Size paradigm, the times and amounts a person should eat should instead be based on hunger, satiety, nutritional needs, and even pleasure.

And HAES is not the only recent concept promoting a more individualized approach to daily food intake.

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Excessive eating vs. mindful eating

Another increasingly popular concept in the nutritional health world is mindful eating.

MIndfulness is defined as paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally. Therefore, mindful eating involves paying attention to every aspect of the eating experience in an open and kind-hearted way.

People who are eating mindfully will carefully consider the taste, texture, and smell of every bite, rather than rushing through a meal, eating while on the way to somewhere else, or eating without thinking about it. 

People learning to eat mindfully are encouraged to avoid passing judgment, which means letting go of thinking about the calories, carbs, or fat content of what they’re eating. According to mindful eating principles, the purpose of eating is not to lose or control weight, but to enjoy the various sensual aspects of eating.

Bringing this type of presence to mealtime is thought to promote self-compassion, self-trust, patience, and acceptance, which can help curb disordered eating patterns and some of the mental and emotional issues behind them. (4)

Like other types of mindfulness practices, however, mindful eating may take some time to fully incorporate into one’s regular routine. And while it may help curb excessive eating, the practice is not necessarily designed to help promote more nutritious eating. Furthermore large-scale randomized trials to definitively determine its utility for weight stabilization or disordered eating have not yet been done.

Excessive eating vs. intuitive eating

A close kin to mindful eating is intuitive eating. Rather than embracing the internal sensations of eating, however, the principles of intuitive eating encourage people to reject outside influences, including cultural or societal ones, over when, where, or how much they should be eating in favor of their own inner wisdom.

For example, a three-meal-a-day paradigm, with breakfast, lunch and dinner—with pre-set ideas of when these meals are eaten, what foods they include, and how big they are—may not be appropriate for everyone.

Instead of making socially-dictated decisions about food, intuitive eating paradigms teaches people to listen to their own guidance on when they’re hungry and what or how much they might need to eat. These are called hunger cues.

Learning your hunger cues

It can be difficult to hear your own hunger cues at first. It often involves deprogramming years of social-based diets, and filtering out other false hunger signals, which can be triggered by fatigue, stress and boredom. 

Keeping a food diary can be helpful. (5) Make two columns, and make sure to include, in one:

  • What you eat.
  • What time you eat.
  • The mood you were in when eating.

In the second column, make sure to mark down your “triggers,” or what “caused” you to start eating. This can include:

  • Seeing a commercial that made you feel hungry.
  • Feeling bored or tired.
  • Feeling stressed.
  • An interrupted day, including one where you were traveling a lot.
  • Something habitual, like eating while you make coffee in the morning.

Finally, try to determine if each time you ate was based on true hunger, or an outside cue. (5) Some ways to help with this task are:

  • Distracting yourself with something other than food—then seeing if you’re still hungry.
  • Drinking water—then seeing if you’re still hungry.
  • Pausing to ask yourself if you’re actually hungry, and trying to be honest.
  • Eating more slowly when you do have a meal, to allow your stomach to signal to your brain in due time that it’s satiated.
  • Doing a head-to-toe body scan to evaluate your general physical state and mood.

Once you’ve gotten a better idea of your body’s individual hunger cues, you can also work on making healthier choices when those moments strike.

If you find yourself munching on chips while watching TV, for example, you can substitute that snack for carrots or nuts. Or if you need a de-stressing snack after work, reach for a healthy one, like an apple.

Overall, the key to maintaining these types of healthy eating patterns—and to avoid excessive eating episodes—is balance. 

Much like HAES and mindful eating, intuitive eating also stresses self-compassion, and discourages people from beating themselves up for digressions related to food. For example, people would be told it’s okay to have a piece of cake every once in a while, and would be encouraged to simply appreciate how good it tastes in the moment and the happy emotions it evokes, and then to move on from the experience.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. Binge eating. Binge Eating | MentalHealth.gov. (n.d.). Retrieved June 10, 2022, from https://www.mentalhealth.gov/what-to-look-for/eating-disorders/binge-eating 
  2. What are eating disorders? Psychiatry.org - What are Eating Disorders? (n.d.). Retrieved June 10, 2022, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/eating-disorders/what-are-eating-disorders 
  3. Size Diversity & Health at every size. National Eating Disorders Association. (2021, August 18). Retrieved June 10, 2022, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/size-diversity-health-every-size 
  4. Nelson J. B. (2017). Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes spectrum : a publication of the American Diabetes Association, 30(3), 171–174. https://doi.org/10.2337/ds17-0015
  5. Pennmedicine.org. (n.d.). Retrieved June 10, 2022, from https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/health-and-wellness/2020/april/how-to-understand-hunger-cues

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