Emotional eating, or stress eating as it is often called, involves using food to make yourself feel better. Typically, emotional eating has nothing to do with hunger or nutrition. Rather, most emotional eaters eat this way in order to suppress or soothe negative feelings and experiences.
After a particularly difficult day, for example, you might grab a pint of ice cream to numb the painful emotions rather than use other coping strategies such as meditation, going for a walk or talking with your partner or friends.
Most of us can certainly agree that eating in order to cover up, deal with or escape from difficult feelings is probably not the healthiest thing to do. Dr. Jonny Bowden, an expert on weight loss, nutrition and health, explains that we never really feel in control of our eating when we’re eating to self-medicate. And it’s this lack of control that often leads to bingeing on all the foods that make us feel worse than we did before we started the binge.
“Emotional eating often increases over the holidays, a time when expectations are high and sweets and treats abound,” explain Dr. Paige O'Mahoney, a certified health and wellness coach, and Karen R. Koenig, a psychology of eating expert.
But why such an increase over the holidays? Well, O’Mahoney and Koenig say emotional eating this time of year may be fueled by socializing with people you don’t ordinarily see, unresolved childhood grievances, alcohol, travel fatigue, pressure to party, shifts in routines, unhealthy family dynamics and striving to be on your best behavior.
“Often, we’re not even conscious that we’re eating emotionally," say O'Mahoney and Koenig, who coauthored the book Helping Patients Outsmart Overeating: Psychological Strategies for Doctors and Health Care Providers.
We may not even realize we’re feeling overwhelmed from too much to do or from striving for the perfect meal or gift. We simply see food and eat it. Other times, O’Mahoney and Koenig say we’re aware of our stress and guiltily choose food as a way to relax because we feel entitled to a mini-reward or to grab some me-time.
Unlike other coping strategies (healthy or unhealthy) we can choose to stop using, quitting food is not an option. That’s why learning new ways to have a healthy relationship with food is critical, regardless of the time of year. Here are a few ways the experts say you can avoid turning to food for comfort this holiday season.
Know your triggers
O’Mahoney and Koenig say that one way to prevent emotional eating is to know your triggers. Monitor the emotions you’re experiencing throughout the holidays that may trigger emotional eating, such as sadness, excitement, disappointment, exhaustion and overwhelm.
“Think ahead to what usually drives your emotional eating, then plan for how you will comfort or care for yourself,” suggest O’Mahoney and Koenig. Call a friend, take a walk, find a quiet space to reset your emotions or use soothing self-talk to get you through.
Pause for a minute
Bowden recommends putting 15 to 60 seconds between you and the food you’re compelled to eat. Ask yourself if you really want it, and then ask yourself what the consequences of eating it will be. Finally, decide whether it’s worth it.
Take a page from the 12-step program
“Don’t get too hungry, too angry, too lonely or too tired,” says Bowden. It’s a recipe for disaster. Self-care is critical all the time, but especially during the holidays. Make sure you’re sleeping well, eating regularly throughout the day and tackling emotions as they surface.
“Unconsciousness is the handmaiden of emotional eating,” says Bowden. He suggests paying attention 10 percent more than you usually do when it comes to food. And try this mindfulness exercise the next time you have a craving: Stop and ask yourself, “Am I physically hungry or emotionally hungry?”
Depending on the food you’re about to grab, the answer should be pretty clear. If you’re reaching for the plate of holiday cookies rather than the bowl of fruit sitting right next to it, you’re likely dealing with an emotional need.
At times you might be struggling, try to remember that the holidays are temporary and that it's perfectly healthy to take time for yourself or get mental health assistance during especially difficult times.
A version of this article was originally published in October 2012.
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