Emotional eating and eating disorders can fall into the following categories
Characterized by self induced starvation and extreme weight loss, symptoms of anorexia include a refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight (85% or less) for height, body type, age, and activity level. There is also an intense fear of being "fat" or gaining weight; feeling "fat" or overweight despite dramatic weight loss; a disturbance in the way one's body is perceived (distorted body image); amenorrhea (the loss of three or more consecutive menstrual cycles); and extreme concern/distress with body weight and shape. 1
Characterized by bingeing and purging, symptoms of bulimia include: repeated episodes of bingeing and purging; eating beyond the point of fullness and feeling out of control during a binge; purging after a binge (either by self-induced vomiting, excessive use of diuretics and laxatives, fasting, diet pills, and/or excessive exercising); frequent dieting; and extreme concern with body weight and shape. As opposed to anorexia nervosa, a bulimic usually maintains a normal body weight with only a slight fluctuation. The individual will feel completely out of control and abnormal, and conger up feelings of depression, shame and self-deprecation. The bulimic cycle becomes habitual and highly addictive. 1
Binge Eating Disorder / Compulsive Overeating
This is likely to be the most frequently occuring eating disorder. It is similar to bulimia in regards to consuming large quantities of food while feeling a complete lack of control. However, different from bulimia, the individual will not purge the food that was consumed during the binge. When in the binge, one no longer feels full and will continue to eat until the point of uncomfortable pain. Following the binge comes feelings of guilt and shame, followed by anxiety and even depression. 1
Other behaviors that can lead to more developed eating disorders include chronic dieting and body image problems. In fact, 35% of "normal dieters" progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full syndrome eating disorders. (Shisslak, C.M., Crago, M., & Estes, L.S. (1995). The spectrum of eating disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18 (3), 209-219.)
The Vicious Cycle of Eating Disorders and Emotional Eating
Experiencing a feeling or a need, one often has reactions to that experience which begin a vicious cycle into disordered eating.
Having shame for feeling or needing,
eating or restricting to console self,
feeling shame for eating,
eating to relieve shame,
suppressed feeling or need leads again to eating to console self.
What brings on shame for having a particular feeling or need?
To break this cycle it becomes important to not only recognize the cycle, therefore finding new tools to break out of habitual behavior, but also to come to understand what makes one's feelings or needs so unbearable.
Usually, in taking a look at one's life experience and relationship history, certain patterns will become apparent. How did one learn and come to expect that their feelings or needs were not significant or valued enough to warrant a response from a loved one? Was a person's experience attended to and recognized in their life? A time to reflect upon these questions, journal about experiences, and talk to trusted others can begin a process of uncovering and understanding what underlies the difficulty in having a particular feeling or need. Once there is some clarity, one is free to find new and healthy ways to take care of themselves and break out of the vicious cycle of eating disorders and emotional eating.
1: The Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness