Stress abounds during the holiday season. It could be physical stress — your mind and body are stretched thin with the extra obligations and responsibilities this time of year. Or it could be emotional stress — the emotional pain of family rifts and disagreements, painful memories from the past or loneliness because of loss. Whether you are physically or emotionally stressed, you might turn to food for comfort. Emotional eating happens when you eat certain foods or overeat to soothe negative emotions or reduce your stress level.
The physiological reason for emotional eating
In the short term, stress often reduces appetite but when stress is persistent it releases cortisol, which can increase appetite, according to Harvard Health. But when you are stressed, you don’t want just any food; you want comfort foods, i.e, those high in fat and sugar. This isn’t only psychological; it could be biological. These foods can inhibit activity in the parts of your brain that process stress, so they actually make you feel calmer.
The emotional aspect of emotional eating
Food can bring up memories of the past. During times of stress you might eat foods associated with a happier or more carefree time in your life. A study published in Appetite by Shira Gabriel found that your comfort food is that which brings up pleasant associations. When you are feeling stressed or down, you eat those foods that make you remember better times. For example, you might choose to eat the pumpkin pie because it reminds you of happy childhood memories.
Gabriel found similar results in a previous study. People often associated chicken soup with being taken care of in their childhood. As adults, eating chicken noodle soup still triggered feelings of belonging. Your desire to remember happier and stress-free times in your life might prompt you to eat unhealthy foods or overeat what is in front of you.
Tips for managing emotional eating
Understand emotional eating: Too much stress can lead you to not eat enough, eat too much, or eat the wrong foods. What does it make you do? Keep a journal of your eating habits. Note how you are feeling, what you eat and how much you eat. Think about other, healthier ways to combat your negative emotions, such as taking a walk or engaging in a hobby.
Make your favorite meal throughout the year so you don’t feel you have to eat everything in sight. Some people overeat during the holidays because they crave the feelings associated with the holiday meal. They want to eat as much as they can because it will be an entire year before they have it again. You can enjoy your favorite meal anytime. Try cooking a few of your favorites throughout the year so you don’t feel the need to overeat during the holidays.
Be accepting of yourself. If you do overeat, accept it, forgive yourself, try to learn from it. Why did you feel the need to overeat? How did it make you feel? Did you overeat only certain foods? Think about how you were feeling, before and after, and come up with strategies to prevent the same mistake from occurring again.
Practice mindful eating. Eat slowly, savoring each bite. Pay attention to the flavor, the texture, the temperature and how you feel emotionally when you eat food. Take the time to enjoy the experience of eating. Focus on foods that lift you emotionally rather than those that bring up unpleasant memories.
Plan ahead. When attending a holiday function, prepare yourself ahead of time. Eat healthy food before heading out the door so you won’t be too hungry and devour all the food you are trying to avoid. Allow yourself to indulge on one decadent food.
Learn your triggers. Knowing why you eat emotionally can help you find alternatives to manage your negative thoughts. If you eat when you are nervous, bring along something to keep in your hands for fidgeting. If you eat emotionally when feeling sad, exercise, take a walk, listen to music that lifts you up before you eat. If you eat to reduce stress, take 10 minutes for meditation or deep breathing to calm yourself.
Set reasonable expectations. If you are attending a family holiday dinner, it probably isn’t reasonable to say, “I am only going to eat a few pieces of turkey and a vegetable.” Instead, limit yourself to one serving rather than opting to go back for seconds or thirds. Unreasonable expectations set you up to feel like a failure later.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.