Health & Wellness Articles

Tame the Emotional Eating Beast for Good

3 Ways to Get Back on Track

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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.
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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.

Member Comments

  • AVEINDHA
    This was an extremenly well written and insightful article. The best thing about it...is that it brings the beast out from under the bed (ie shame and embarrasement and a feeling of isolation) and into broad daylight where we can all see that..."hey! I'm not crazy. I'm not alone. There are people who fear this beast too!" You also know that others have overcome it...so guess what? you can too. - 6/18/2014 9:15:40 AM
  • My Beast must be smarter than the beast within others. It is not fooled by healthy snacks. It will devour the healthy stuff and then go right back to demanding the unhealthy thing it wanted in the begining. Stalling doesn't work either. The only thin that works is removing myself from the stressful situation that's causing the emotions. Since that stressful situation is currently my job, and I really don't want to be unemployed...my Beast will continue to be a problem. - 5/24/2014 12:09:45 PM
  • Getting to goal weight means requires that I learn to control the beast (the emotional eater). Maybe I haven't wanted to, which is the first hurdle I have to overcome. The second one is learning how to.

    Since the term "beast" was used, I have decided to use it to my benefit. I have a medium-sized lightweight sculpture of a midieveil dragon of my husband's that I have decided to put on my desk, which is also where the tv sits. It's going to help me counter the potato chip elves and the bad friggies, which I'm going to call my tempations. It's going to fight them for me, I've decided.

    I learned when drawing en plein aire (outside) that I have two entities, an angel and a demon, sitting on both shoulders. One aims to have fun and be joyous, the other aims to cut me down. I could choose to listen to either, but I chose to hush the demon and listen to the angel. It was a palpable struggle, but the desire to be outside and happy and to let my inner joy out was stronger than the demon telling me I was no good at what I was doing. I shut it up. My dragon is going to be my friend in this fight I call the active friggies. - 4/12/2014 6:09:00 AM
  • Great image, helps to put a "face" on the cravings, urges, whatever they are. Know I've been dealing with tons of stress at work so been doing more exercise but with early darkness I can't walk as much as I want. The "beast" knows this and so I will have to find other ways to keep him at bay. Nice article, thanks. - 10/13/2013 10:01:56 PM
  • The Beast -- wonderful image. I've got a lovely picture of a black dragon, and I've blogged before about taming emotional dragons. I'm going to print that picture and put it up in my cubicle and on my fridge. - 10/13/2013 6:47:27 PM
  • Now I will think of the "Beast" every time I get anxious and have something solid to deal with before I give in to gluttony. - 8/23/2013 1:15:40 PM
  • Loved the Tame the Beast article. Exactly how I feel. Will now read the whole series. I've never been able to put the feeling into such practical language before. - 8/23/2013 1:12:46 PM
  • FLOYDIE40
    A good book once told mr to go out and buy a pacifier and suck on it like the little baby you are being. It sounds harsh, but really, wouldn't the adult thing be to deal with the emotion and figure out why you're upset?

    It's one thing to overeat the day your mom dies, or on 9/11, but if you go to food every baseball game -- you're going to pack on some weight. Learn to comfort yourself with something other than food. Even a cup of green tea; that's a good way to calm down a friend. - 8/23/2013 9:49:53 AM
  • How did you get inside my head, Dean Anderson? LOL! Thank you for always being so frighteningly wise!
    I also now have a visual of the "Beast" (it looks something like a "Where the Wild Things Are" character that I can conjure up in those situations you have so accurately described. Yesterday, I actually got up from my desk and began to prowl for food somewhere in my office.....the "Beast" had taken over my mind for that brief and potentially disastrous period.. Now, I can actually visualize putting him back in his cage so I can go on with my day! - 8/23/2013 6:46:28 AM
  • REFERENCEGIRL73
    This sounds exactly like quitting cigarettes except, of course, you don't have to smoke three times a day to live. - 5/28/2013 9:12:11 AM
  • LINDAGALLI
    That Beast lives within me as well, My way of keeping it caged, and / or happy is to stay away from as many simple carbs as possable, They seem to trigger that Beast. I have been keeping my Carbs as low as I can keeping any that do end up on my plate, as complex as possable. That after Dinner snack is also a trigger, so I make sure it is only Protein. Once I get the carbs under control, (takes about 5 days of really working hard at self control) I do fine, The Beast has its comments close to bed time every night, but it is just a light whisper, not a full blown RAWR. - 4/23/2013 6:10:48 PM
  • I've always heard the "you need self control" plan to stop the cravings, but that doesn't work for me. This is the first thing I've read that admits that it's more than just that. Great! - 2/20/2013 4:00:12 PM
  • I think this may be the approach I need. Since I ignore the beast when I am at school all day, she demands my attention as soon as I get home. Now I will think of just disciplining the beast instead of feeding her. Wow! I think this will work!!! - 12/31/2012 6:21:50 AM
  • For me, "distraction" didn't work. I had to FEEL the feelings that were causing my emotional eating and then RELEASE them. I was an emotional eater for much of my adult life. When I wasn't actively dieting, I was constantly craving pasta, cheese, or anything crunchy. I wasn't so much a sweets gal. But I would come home at night after work and make several helpings of spaghetti or fettuccine alfredo and plop down in front of the TV. I finally figured out that I was eating to reduce subconscious tension, anxiety and a general unhappiness with my life. Then I decided to take a look at my life in great detail, and use emotional freedom techniques to rid myself of my emotional eating. I methodically examined all my memories from childhood to present and released any negative emotions I was harboring. The end result is I'm emotionally free for the first time in my life, and I'm very happy. I've lost 30 lbs and am still losing. I no longer crave high carb foods and look forward to eating salads and fresh fruits and veggies for my meals. I would encourage anyone struggling with emotional eating or food addiction to investigate EFT. It was a miracle in my life. I've also shared my journey, as well as all the exact techniques and exercises I used to get over my emotional eating in my book, ThinStead. If my story resonates with you, and you want to get over your emotional eating too, ThinStead is available on Amazon. If you can beat your emotional eating, you won't have to diet anymore, because you'll automatically be making healthier food choices every day. Doing the emotional work seriously gave me back my life. I feel so much freer and happier now than I ever have, that I wanted to share my story with others. But whatever you do, God bless you in your journey to health and fitness! - 8/16/2012 1:49:35 PM
  • Dean is very insightful and he writes in a voice that is understandable but not baby talk or preaching. Right On Keep up the Great Articles - 6/27/2012 8:03:06 PM

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