22 November 201610 Strategies to Avoid Emotional Eating During the Holidays

True Story: I have in the past been an emotional eater. So I know how distressing it can be, even though the supposed purpose of doing that is to calm yourself and reduce stress or anger or sadness. Inevitably it doesn’t work because you end up feeling guilty, not to mention if you eat enough you end up really bloated and uncomfortable.

The holidays are Prime Time for emotional eating. There are so many reasons:

  • Stress: choosing gifts, work, traffic, shopping, family demands
  • Over-commitment (gift expenditures, travel expenses, party invites, party planning family events, etc etc etc.)
  • Sadness: winter blues, feeling left out, being alone, not enjoying the company you keep, disappointment with gifts or behavior of other people
  • Throw in guilt and self-blaming for overeating and it’s not a happy time of year.

I looked for articles about how to fix or prevent emotional eating, and didn’t come up with much that sounded plausible. That’s probably because there aren’t a lot of effective universal strategies. I found some of these 10 suggestions online, and some are my own invention:

  1. Make lists of things to do besides eating. OK that might work, as long as you consult your list when you start eating. I’d suggest any such list be about fun and happy things, not “clean the bathroom” or “pay bills”. You might look on it more as a list of fun/happy things to do when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, rather than as a list of things to do in order to stop eating. Make a cup of tea and watch a fun movie or TV show, or put on some soothing music and take a bath.

  2. Only eat when you’re hungry. Well yes that’s true all the time, and how well does that always work out? The problem with this advice is that when you’re in an emotional eating phase, you aren’t thinking at all about whether you’re hungry. You’re acting based on past experience that eating makes you feel better, if only temporarily. At which point you’re set up for guilt because you were supposed to only eat when hungry.

  3. Keep a food and emotions journal. Well if you’re spending a lot of time writing, maybe you don’t have time to eat. A journal like this might help you recognize the situations that set off emotional eating and help you to be aware of them and developing coping mechanisms. Or you might journal once or twice and then give up because you don’t have the time. Setting yourself up again to feel guilty because you were supposed to keep a journal.

  4. Weigh yourself daily. Hmmm, this could backfire. What if you weigh yourself after an emotional eating episode the previous evening and you’re 2 lbs heavier (likely due to fluid retention by the way). You could end up feeling so guilty you just start another emotional eating episode. I don’t recommend this as a deterrent to emotional eating, although it can work for some people as a way to keep a diet on track.

  5. Identify your triggers. A journal might help with this, but many people know their triggers without writing everything down. For some people it’s being alone at home. For some it’s being in a crowd of people at a buffet loaded with goodies. For some alcohol opens the floodgates for emotional eating. You could be triggered by hanging out in the kitchen with all the Thanksgiving leftovers, after a particularly stressful family dinner. Or even if the dinner wasn’t stressful, just being in the kitchen with too many sweet treats is a trigger. It could be loneliness or money worries or anger at a family member or friend. This isn’t to suggest that identifying your emotional eating triggers is a waste of time. Once you’ve identified the likely ones, you need to have a plan to cope with –or avoid --the situation. In the case of leftovers in the kitchen, stay out of the kitchen. If being home alone is inevitable, have a solid alternative plan: pick out a movie/TV show ahead of time and settle in. For being home alone, it helps immensely to keep tempting trigger foods out of your pantry. If they’re not there you can’t eat them

  6. Bring your own food to parties. I’m not making this up, it was a suggestion on one website. Ugh. Bringing your own special food so you can avoid over-eating food the hosts are serving is not a great plan. I do not recommend this as a strategy

  7. Keep a supply of “safe” comfort foods. Such as what? Some of the “experts” who suggest this have pretty strange ideas about comfort food. Kefir? Pumpkin seeds? Most people think of comfort food as cookies or ice cream. “Safe” cookies or ice cream sound like an oxymoron. If you keep those in the house, they’ll be easy to grab when you’re feeling blue. I do not suggest eating as a solution to eating. It just reinforces the idea that when you’re stressed/angry/exhausted/sad/etc. you eat.

  8. Exercise. Assuming you have a regular work-out schedule, stick to that as much as humanly possible, despite the holiday busyness. Exercise will help alleviate your stress and make you feel more in control of your life. I know, it’s frequently hard to stick to that, given the cold weather and shorter days, but I also know I always feel much better afterwards. If you’ll be traveling, you need to identify activities you can do at your destination.

  9. Go dancing. I know, it’s actually exercise, but dancing can be more than just exercise. It’s fun and social and refreshing. If dancing is an option at a party with a tempting buffet spread, pick dancing over desserts.

  10. Work with a therapist. I put this last because it’s a last resort to simple emotional eating at the holidays. People with on-going eating problems (binge eating, bulimia, anorexia) should be working with a therapist anyway. But if you feel this is a significant problem for you, a therapist well-versed in dealing with eating issues could help you develop effective coping strategies for emotional eating. Strategies that work all year long, not just at holidays. So again, I don’t think it’s for everyone.
If any of these ideas help you, great! I don’t think there’s any one solution. I do think a first Big Step in the process is to recognize that what you are doing is emotional eating. Then at least you’ve identified the WHY of your behavior. After all, if you don’t understand what’s going on, you really aren’t in a position to take positive steps to change it.

Donna P Feldman MS RDN

is author of "Feed Your Vegetarian Teen", writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition and is co-host of the Walk Talk Nutrition podcast series.

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Holidays / Parties/Thanksgiving Holidays / Parties/Winter Holiday Season Weight Loss/Emotional & Mindful Eating

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