Health & Wellness Articles

Tame the Emotional Eating Beast for Good

3 Ways to Get Back on Track

1KSHARES
When weight loss professionals discuss emotional eating, you hear a lot of talk about stimulus control, stress management techniques, and cognitive reframing. This is all well and good (and you’ll be hearing some of that here), but it doesn’t quite capture the actual experience of being caught up in an episode of emotional eating. In a recent post here on the Message Boards, a SparkPeople member got much closer to capturing the experience when she described it as “waking up the Slumbering Beast” we have inside us.

This really is what it feels like, at least in my experience. You’re doing OK, cruising along, when suddenly something happens that stirs up a bunch of feelings, and all of a sudden the Beast is awake and eating everything it can get its hands on. Or maybe it isn’t always that dramatic—maybe you just get bored, or start feeling a little anxious because there is nothing going on to distract you from that vague sense of impending doom that always seems to be lurking just under the surface. Even that little bit of free-floating anxiety can be enough to wake the Beast up and set it on the prowl for something to eat. Or it might be as simple as getting home from work or school, or finding yourself alone for a little while, after a hard day. Whatever the trigger might be, the Beast isn’t about to go back to sleep without doing some serious eating first. Or so the story normally goes.

There are two basic and complimentary approaches you can use to tame the Beast before it trashes your food plan, and you’ll need both for long-term success. The difference between them is the same as the difference between emergency medicine and preventive medicine. The main focus here will be on coping with the immediate emergency. You’ll find more information about the preventive approach, aimed at putting an end to the problem for good, in the links at the end of this article.

When the Beast is Loose: Getting It Back in Its Cage

The bad news here is that will power has little effect on controlling emotional eating. From a psychological perspective, the shift into emotional eating mode is usually a “state-dependent” event, which is a fancy way of saying that it involves shifting into a different state of consciousness (or persona) with its own independent set of emotions and related thinking patterns. For a little while, you literally aren’t your normal self, and the normal tricks you use to manage your behavior and thinking may not work.

The good news is that your Emotional Eating Beast is a pretty dim-witted critter, and you can trick it into going back where it came from without too much effort, if you know how to do it. Here are some tricks that usually work:
  1. Play the Stalling Game. Your Beast has a very short attention span, and if you can manage to stall it for just a few minutes on its way to the kitchen, it will often forget why it woke up in the first place, and happily go back where it came from. So, instead of trying to fight it and tell it that it can’t have what it wants, just tell it to hang on for five minutes and wait until you’re done doing what you’re doing. If necessary, you can usually get away with stalling like this 2-3 times before things start to get ugly, and most of the time, that 10-15 minutes will be plenty long enough for your Beast to forget the whole business and go back to sleep.
     
  2. Play the Distraction/Substitution Game. If your Beast doesn’t fall for the Stalling Game, you can still use your superior mental capacities to keep the upper hand. The key here is to keep in mind that what your Beast really wants isn’t food, but emotional comfort. If you can find ways to comfort yourself that don’t involve food, the need to eat will go away very quickly. Find something you enjoy doing that’s simple and easy to do right away. Listen to soothing or inspirational music, take a hot bath or a nice walk around the block, logon to SparkPeople, grab the phone and chat with a friend, or do some inspirational reading—you get the idea. Think of the Beast as a young child who just woke up from a nightmare, and of yourself as the parent looking for a way to help your child calm down and realize that it was all just a bad dream.
     
  3. Play the Good Beast/ Bad Beast Game. Even though the Beast may seem powerful and overwhelming, it is just as afraid of you as you are of it. It knows full well that you can and, someday, probably will just tell it to go take a hike, and that will be the end of the game. To postpone this unhappy day for as along as possible, the Beast is always willing to negotiate with you if you can muster up enough nerve to stare it in the eye and demand some sort of compromise you can live with. If you keep your kitchen stocked with healthy snacks that won’t kill your diet and your self-respect, and you let the Beast get its hands on them, then you can both stay relatively happy—until that day when you’re ready to finally toss the Beast out and change the locks.
Once you have the immediate situation under control, you can start working on ways to prevent this problem from happening in the first place, by learning how to handle stress and powerful feelings without relying on food. There are lots of articles in the Resource Center on stress management and handling negative thinking. In addition, you’ll find some helpful ideas in these articles:

1 Step Back, 2 Steps Forward
What Is Normal Eating - Part 3
An Exercise in Self-Esteem

This article is Step 4 in SparkPeople's Mind Over Body series, a 10-step program to ending emotional eating and creating a permanent healthy lifestyle. View the full series here or continue to the next step.

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints
Page 1 of 1  
Got a story idea? Give us a shout!
1KSHARES

Member Comments

  • today i will love myself enough to......breathe..
    ..care for myself when I'm in hard places. :)
  • This article was very helpful. I will keep it in mind as I go through the day.
  • The first time I read this article, I liked it and gave the strategies a try. They worked...up to a point. After reading it a second time, I realized that the tips are a starting point, but will not solve the emotion eating problem for good, because they work against the "Beast" and not with it. The "Beast" is trying to communicate its wisdom. There is much to learn from the "Beast" if we will only listen. I wrote a blog post expressing my insights: http://www.sparkp
    eople.com/myp
    age_public_jo
    urnal_individ
    ual.asp?blog_id=6062344
  • I did this twenty years ago when I stopped smoking and it worked. Never thought to do it to stop the munchies!
  • Good points, but they all go out the window when you're waiting on the results of a biopsy that will tell whether you have cancer or not. You'll do anything, and I mean anything, to alleviate the stress.
  • terrific metaphor. you really nailed what it feels like.
  • I'll be honest. The photo in this article made me crave glazed donuts.
  • I find that eating high fiber food and eating healthy snacks, not waiting too long between eating, helps me. If I don't feel starving all of a sudden, I make better choices. Planning dinner ahead of time and having everything ready at a reasonable time makes a big difference to me, too.
  • That was the best description I've ever read of what I feel like when I start to binge eat. Just knowing I'm not the only one who experiences this was very comforting.
  • JUDYITHE
    Thanks for a great article that gave me a lot to think about and some coping mechanisms that I am going to use.
  • I loved the article it really helps me understands in a better way . The beast has been out for a long time and now it is time to put it back in the cage . It's been a struggle for me but I am taking one day at a time.
  • This is a great way to explain it. I do have a beast - I now need to recognize and IGNORE her. One step at a time.
  • Good article. I like calling it "the Beast". I've gone as far as naming my "Beast" and sometimes talking back to her - when I'm alone. ;)
  • Another approach would be to eliminate all wheat from your diet, and I mean ALL of it, including hidden sources, for 2 weeks. You will guaranteed have reduced cravings for carbs. Modern wheat contains opiates that cause you to crave more of it.
  • This is the spot-on system I will use forever. When I first started on this lighten up path, I figured out most of the steps, but since I succeeded 3/4 of the way & started back sliding, I forgot them. You've given me fuel to again travel onward & liter. A million thanks.

About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

x Lose 10 Pounds by May 11! Sign up with Email Sign up with Facebook
By clicking one of the above buttons, you're indicating that you have read and agree to SparkPeople's Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy and that you're at least 18 years of age.