According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (IV-TR), a binge is characterized by the following:
1) Eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances.
2) A sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating).
Binges may occur in isolation (and without any correlated behaviors) or may be a feature of Bulimia Nervosa, Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, or Binge Eating Disorder (not yet a clinical disorder, but likely will become one.) They may occur at lightning speed or be longer-lasting, may include eating one food, or many. And, clearly, even the clinical criteria are quite ambiguous: What exactly is an amount of food “larger than most people would eat”? Who are these “most people?” Are they of our same gender, size, culture, and eating-disorder status? What are “similar circumstances”? Moreover, can you always detect when you’re feeling a “lack of control” and is there even any way to quantify control? You’d think that as a science and a practice, we’d be able to do better than this. . . .
With such ambiguity (and diversity) in a clinical presentation, how do you really know if it’s a binge? Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography comes to mind (“You know it when you see it”), yet introspective awareness may be somewhat limited during a binge (though possibly enhanced after one). I think the control factor is a big one—if you feel like the eating behavior is controlling you (rather than you, it), then that could be a binge, but of course, the quantity consumed cannot be ignored (uncontrollably stuffing back a bag of airline peanuts, for example, can’t really be labeled a binge). Just because you’ve eaten more than you wanted, eaten past the point of fullness, or eaten when you weren’t even hungry doesn’t make it a binge.
I return to my old-standby, the continuum, when confronted with ambiguous topics like this. It seems it’s clear when it’s not a binge, and even pretty clear when it is a binge, but for all the shades of grey in between (particularly the darker greys, toward the binge-end of the continuum), I’d say this is a highly idiographic enterprise—I’d want to know from you as an individual—did it feel like you wanted/needed to binge? Did it feel like a binge during the binge? How about after? Because, especially when the science is so vague, the person is expert and the subjective experience quite diagnostic.
What makes it a binge for you?