9 Ways to Avoid Emotional Eating During the Holidays



I call the two months between Halloween and New Years the “eating season.”

No matter where you turn, there’s a bowl of your favorite candy on someone’s desk, decadent holiday treats at your doorstep, and invitations to parties.

The holidays are packed with stress, and we all know the easiest, safest, most affordable place to relieve that stress is in a plate of mashed potatoes or pumpkin bread, a box of Christmas cookies, and lots and lots of red wine.

I always think about the scene from Mall Cop when emotional eater Paul Blart (Kevin James) is spreading peanut butter on his bread, saying, “Pain, go away.”

But the more we give in to the patterns of emotional eating, the deeper our pain gets, especially for those of us who are intolerant to sugar, gluten, dairy, and alcohol — which includes lots of people who struggle with chronic depression and anxiety.

If you’re prepared with some action items, it’s possible to not get trapped into emotional eating even during the holidays — or at least not as much.

Here are a few ways you can avoid turning to food for comfort and exercise discipline during this self-indulgent season of the year.

1. Nibble on Dark Chocolate in the Morning

When I was newly sober, my sponsor told me to eat chocolate or enjoy a chocolate milkshake whenever I had a craving to drink. She was mostly right: Since sugar can often cancel out the beneficial properties of this food, it’s best to aim for dark chocolate that’s at least 85 percent cocoa or higher.

Dark chocolate often satiates the urge to engage in addictive behavior for a few reasons:

First, it has one of the highest concentrations of magnesium in a food, with one square providing 327 milligrams (mg), or 82 percent, of your daily value — and magnesium is our calming friend. According to a study published in January 2012 in Neuropharmacology, magnesium deficiencies induce anxiety, which is why the mineral is known as the original chill pill.

Dark chocolate also contains large amounts of tryptophan, an amino acid that works as a precursor to serotonin and theobromine, another mood-elevating compound.

I find that eating a few squares of 90 percent chocolate a day — oftentimes in the morning — quiets my impulse to binge the rest of the day on sweet breads and chips. And the Reese’s cups up above the kitchen cupboards are terrible for my mood.

2. Keep a Supply of Safe Comfort Food

In order to keep your hands off of problem foods, it’s best to have a supply of comfort foods that you can eat.

When I feel the urge to binge coming on, I turn to the foods that will cause the least amount of problems for me: popcorn with salt and butter, corn chips, dark chocolate, sparkling water, nuts, and seeds.

Of course, if you don’t have the addictive personality that I do, you can try consuming comfort food such as ice-cream, cookies, or sweet bread in moderation and satiate your urge that way. But I get in trouble doing that, so I have to go back to comfort foods that aren’t terrible for my mood.

If you’re going to a social event where you know there’s going to be a spread of your favorite desserts and fried foods, it’s always a good idea to bring your own “safe” dish so at least there’s something that you can eat.

3. Start a Food Journal

Keeping a food journal seems like a lot of work, but it’s beneficial in several ways.

First, it makes you accountable. Ever since I started to record everything I eat, I’ve been much more aware of what I put in my body.

It also helps you connect the dots between your diet and your mood. That’s how I realized that sugar, more than any other ingredient, was causing my mood swings. For two or three days after consuming the sweet stuff, my death thoughts would return, so I knew there was a cause and effect between the food and my negative ruminations.

Finally, it’s not a bad idea to leave some room in your food journal to express your thoughts — possibly the trigger for your urge to overeat. Journaling has been proven as an effective, inexpensive form of stress relief. Oftentimes when we record our thoughts, it gives us an opportunity to assess them and to let them go.

For 20 years, James W. Pennebaker, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, has been studying the effects of journal writing. “When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health,” Dr. Pennebaker says. “They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function.”

4. Sit Down When You Eat, and CHEW Your Food

One of the reasons that French people don’t get fat, according to a Cornell University study, is that they can better gauge when they’re full than Americans can. They use internal cues (“I’m no longer hungry”) to know when to stop eating, unlike Americans, who stuff their faces while watching TV or graze all day long, never sitting down for an official meal.

The French may eat baguettes and brie, croissants and butter, and all the other forbidden foods, but they enjoy them while sitting at a table, their butts on a chair, along with friends or family. They also chew and savor their food, which allows for better digestion — and an earlier signal of when to stop bringing fork to mouth.

Next time you’re tempted to eat something standing up — in transition here or there — stop. Instead, put the food on a plate and take it over to a table, being mindful of the experience of eating.

5. Distract Yourself

As with any addiction, distraction is often the best antidote for emotional eating.

Let’s say you’re in the kitchen right after your neighbor has just dropped off a batch of Christmas cookies. Flee the area! If sugar is as addictive to you as it is to me, and it makes you feel as horrible as it does me, you can’t put yourself in danger like that — not during the holidays when there’s already enough to drag you down.

So go to another room and start surfing stupid YouTube videos, like this great version of the “12 Days to Christmas,” or the classics of Saturday Night Live. Begin a trashy novel or do some other mindless activity that will allow you to forget about the cookies for a while until you can reenter the kitchen with a little more resolve.

6. Find Another Comfort Item or Activity

Eating is a perfect comfort activity because it’s so easy, and its effects are immediate. Ben & Jerry’s gives us a carbohydrate high by the time we dig into the pint for our second bite.

But if we can swap that behavior for another comfort activity, we can train our brain to go somewhere else for comfort.

Some possibilities include yoga, exercise, journaling, reading spiritual literature, meditation, online support groups, and 12-step meetings.

Going on a nature walk is almost as easy as opening the fridge, and according to research, it reduces ruminations and boosts feelings of well-being. I swear by swimming and running. Ten minutes of mindful meditation also helps — just focusing on my breathing.

7. Get Support

You might not need a support group to rein in your urge to binge. Maybe you just need to talk to someone else who struggles with the same kinds of issues, especially during the holidays — someone to email when you feel the urge to deal with some upcoming stress by stuffing your face with everything in your pantry with an okay expiration date.

If you don’t know of anyone who would be open to such conversations, there is a great binge eating and overeating forum on Psych Central with a thread devoted to holiday eating support.

8. Don’t Isolate Yourself

According to Howard Samuels, PsyD, author of Alive Again: Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, the No. 1 symptom of holiday depression is isolation.

“Many who suffer from depression, anxiety, and alcoholism are convinced that the cure for loneliness is isolation, when the truth of the matter is, it’s not,” he told me a while back in an interview. “It’s a struggle, I’m sure, but when you find yourself having the blues, sometimes the best thing for you to do is get out amongst the people.”

Most of us do our hard-core emotional eating when we are isolated, so by surrounding ourselves with people, we not only help our mood, but also protect ourselves from destructive behavior.

9. Practice Self-Compassion

The best piece of advice here is to practice some self-compassion. You’re probably going to slip. It’s the holidays, after all. We tend to revert to our worst behavior at least a few times during the jolly season. Be prepared for this, and instead of lambasting yourself for failing, congratulate yourself on your stellar effort, and then gently and lovingly try to start again.

Join Project Hope & Beyond, a depression community.

Photo credit: Andrew Hounslea/Getty Images; Kristen Curette/Stocksy; Alamy; Corbis

Originally published on Sanity Break.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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2 Responses
  1. Monika K. Lauer

    Hi Terese,

    I picked up a book about diet changes for inflammation. I am gluten sensitive. The author states that all grains including soy, rice, corn, oatmeal, to name a few — are to be avoided in addition to the wheat and others. Also avoid the gluten free products.

    I think everyone regardless of what they have for disorders should follow the authors advice. Inflammation is the root of alot of disease.


    M. Lauer