Emotional Eating and the Holidays

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”  You know this song?  The one jubilantly proclaiming this to be the “hap-happiest season of all!” For some that absolutely may be the case, but for others, not so much.

Emotions, whether positive or negative, run high in this holiday season for most of us. These emotions can impact what we choose to eat and how much, ultimately affecting our weight and our overall health.

If there is one common denominator that I see among clients it is the tendency towards emotional based eating. Whether it is boredom, stress, loneliness, sadness, or all of the above. These emotions can be magnified this time of year. On the flip side, for many, this is a season of great joy, lots of socializing, and lots of parties and celebrations centered around food, creating plenty of opportunities to overeat.

Emotions and food are connected from early on in our lives. Food is used to show love, to nurture, to comfort, and to reward. We celebrate birthdays with cake and ice cream, we go out to dinner to celebrate big events, and for many of us the holidays are centered around food. Most of us can easily name a handful of foods we look forward to having this time of year.

For someone with a healthy relationship with food who eats instinctively this is fine, food is meant to be enjoyed. But for some, we use food in an unhealthy way as a habitual way of coping with certain feelings, setting us up for overeating and making choices that are not great for our health.

When we eat emotionally we tend to crave high-fat, sugary, simple carbs. In addition to our conditioned connection between food and emotions, these foods chemically trigger pleasure centers in our brain releasing powerful brain chemicals, like serotonin and dopamine, that temporarily make us feel better. It is easy to overeat, though, when eating is based on emotional triggers versus true physiological hunger. Because emotional eating doesn’t address the real underlying issue, the temporary relief is only short-lived and that same emotion or feeling returns along with the guilt we feel for overeating, ultimately making us only feel worse.

Moving from emotional based eating to a more intuitive or instinctive way of eating is a process, but is possible.  Becoming aware that you choose foods often based on emotions is a first step.  Many people aren’t even aware of this tendency and instead think they overeat because they lack willpower or just because it tastes good.

The key is to be mindful and investigate and look at certain times of the day that eating might be emotionally triggered.  You’ve likely heard of keeping a food diary as related to calories and other nutrients, but you can also keep a “food and mood” diary where you record how you are feeling each time you eat.  This will allow you to see patterns in your eating habits and in what way they are connected to how you are feeling.

Once you see which specific emotions are connected to eating for you then you can figure out what steps you need to take to learn to cope differently and more effectively with your emotions.  Here are a few common emotions and ideas for other ways to cope.

  • If you find you eat out of boredom, come up with a plan for redirecting your attention in other ways besides eating, like reading a book, calling a friend, putting on music and dancing, or going for a walk.
  • If you eat because you are stressed, decide to try something else to relieve stress like meditation, deep breathing techniques, take a yoga class, take a bubble bath, or exercise.
  • If you eat because you are lonely, find some new interests that involve interacting with other people that share your interests like community activities, church groups, continuing education classes, or volunteering.
  • If you eat out of sadness and/or to feel comforted, be sure to make the effort to do things to nurture yourself regularly like getting a massage, resting and relaxing, spending time with a friend, playing with your dog or cat.

I see this issue of emotional eating so often with clients that I will be starting a comprehensive training program to become a Mindful Eating Coach starting in January.  I truly feel that for people who struggle with emotional eating getting to and maintaining a healthy weight is about more than just calorie counting or hours logged in the gym.  Each of these are pieces of the weight management puzzle and in order to be most successful long term the pattern of emotional eating must be broken.

Take some time to consider what your specific emotional triggers are during this holiday season.  Make a plan ahead of time to handle them differently.  Enjoy those favorite foods, but do so mindfully and with focus.  Take a deep breath and make the holiday season less about stress, food, and gift giving and more about friends, loved ones, and caring for yourself.  Warm wishes for a happy holiday season!