Emotional Eating and the Holiday Season

This is an article that originally appeared on Yahoo Health last holiday season. It’s a straight-up advice post (read: no story-telling and definitely no cursing, per Yahoo’s demands) but the material is relevant. Hopefully it’s of use to you or someone you know. Enjoy.

On Thanksgiving, the colossal majority of us ate far more than our bodies needed (one source suggested that we consume about 50% more calories during Thanksgiving than other times during the year). Many holidays have food as a central component which, unfortunately, allows us to easily eat beyond what is needed to satisfy our hunger/provide necessary nutrients. For a lot of people, this extra consumption is simply a mindless force of habit but, for others, Emotional Eating (EE) is the major culprit. In short, this is using our feelings to dictate what, when and how much we eat, rather than what our bodies actually need.

For those who are interested in curbing this habit as we roll further into the holiday season, awareness is the first and perhaps most important tool. You need to know and understand what the emotion(s) is that is generating poor eating habits. It’s at that point you can intervene so you are making the best decisions regarding food choices. Below are common emotional states people experience during the holidays that lead to EE, along with some common, as well as perhaps not-so-obvious solutions.

Boredom

This is the most commonly reported emotion that leads to EE, and for good reason. While many people enjoy the respite from the daily grind of life, the reality is that there isn’t all that much to do during the holidays. Most public arenas are closed and there are only so many films/television programs to watch, so what do many people do? Eat.

Obvious Solution: Fill up your calendar…in advance. Know what you’ll do with your time, plan it out, be active. Don’t take a “wait and see” approach to what the holidays will offer, dictate the pace and plan.

Alternative Solution: There’s an old saying in psychology that reads “don’t just do something, stand there.” In other words, people often believe that boredom requires action. While behavior can often ameliorate the feeling, it’s not mandatory. Sit with the emotion, don’t block it out. Boredom can sometimes be a cue to reflect on your life: what is working, what isn’t, what needs to change, what should stay as is. Your mind is capable of going in countless directions if you allow it to, so don’t believe you simply have to mask your boredom through activity. This is a chance to be much more mindful about your life.

Depression

Unfortunately, the holiday season is an extremely debilitating time for millions. Dissatisfaction with life, paired with the pressure to be happy and grateful and “into the holiday spirit” can bring about or amplify depression.

Obvious Solution: Remember that, first and foremost, food is a very poor antidepressant. Like alcohol, the positive effects are quite brief while the aftermath of emotional eating (e.g., weight gain, feeling overstuffed, self-dislike) is of much greater duration and intensity. Identify the people and tasks you enjoy and immerse yourself in them instead.

Subtle Solution: Even the most religious people recognize that the holiday season, at least regarding duration, is man-made; it is society that has created a month-long extravaganza filled with consumerism and psychological pressure. To combat this, make the holidays what you want them to be, independent of what anyone tells you. Conforming to society’s standards is expected, but certainly not required. Change your mindset about what the holidays “should” be for you as an individual and the depression associated with it is often tempered.

Stressed Out/Upset

These aren’t emotions per se; they are really a compilation of many different feelings. But it is what many of my patients report when they think about the psychological toll of holiday shopping, party planning/attending and, of course, spending time with some relatives who aren’t necessarily the easiest group to get along with.

Obvious Solution: Cut back on the demands. Do your shopping online instead of in the chaos that is the retail outlets. Pick a select number of gatherings and only attend those. In short, streamline your life during this time.

Subtle Solution: Remember that what you “should” be thinking, feeling and doing is not necessarily reality or mandatory. Again, make your holiday what you want it to be and your stress level will decrease.

Happy

Not all Emotional Eating is based on negative emotions. Many cultures use food for celebration and appreciation. This is not a bad thing, but one must recognize its limits as a healthy experience.

Obvious Solution: When you’re happy, anything should seem possible. So using food as a sole expression of happiness is, quite frankly, psychologically lazy. Embrace your family, friends, health, wealth, religion, whatever it is that brings you joy. Isn’t that at least part of what the holidays are about?

Subtle Solution: Eat a reasonable meal, in the same way you would any other day. Holidays are notorious for leftovers, so after you’ve consumed your fair share, bring all the extra food to a soup kitchen or shelter. Rid yourself of temptation while helping others. Contrary to popular belief, the happiest people on the planet are the most altruistic, so why not actually increase your own happiness by elevating someone else’s? That is what the holidays should truly be about.

Best of luck and enjoy your holiday season…

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One Response to “Emotional Eating and the Holiday Season”

  1. BL1Y says:

    For the “Fill up your calendar” advice, be sure you’re filling it up with things that aren’t conducive to eating.

    If you schedule movie night with your family, there’s a good chance that a big bag of overly buttered popcorn will come out. Playing Settlers of Catan? You’re less likely to get your munchies on, though playing games with the fam might bring upon stress eating…