9 Ways to Avoid Emotional Eating Over 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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4 Responses
  1. Theresa Hron

    I comfort eat almost every single night. I know it’s bad for me. I am already 40 pounds overweight when in my younger years I was always a size 8 to 10. It seems as I get older this compulsive behavior is getting worse. (I am 56 years old) I know it’s bad for me (the sweets) but there are days when I feel like I cannot get enough and just gorge myself. Then of course I feel horrible physically and mad at myself then mad at everybody. I keep a lot of frustration/anger deep inside me and I know this is why I do this. I don’t ever recall doing this in my younger years. I really didn’t even think about eating and when I did eat it was just enough to fill me up……not eat until I felt like I would explode like I do now!!!!!! The holidays are so sad and just makes you think about all the people you have lost in your life. I am on Wellbutrin 300 mg and Lexapro and my husband thinks I should just feel fine and dandy and cannot understand why I love to sleep so much……..I feel so ashamed of myself and defeated most of the time. I don’t even keep the house clean like I used to. A load of laundry can drag out for two or three days. Then when I do get to it it takes me forever to fold and put it away. I feel scared because I just feel this is all getting worse. I feel like I drag myself through life most of the time and I feel like life is just passing me by.

  2. Marie

    Talk about synchronicity! I was sitting at my desk reading your post today, and feeling a little blue because of the season and so many reasons, when in walks one of our vendors with a little solid dark chocolate bar. About the time I got to the bit about magnesium and tryptophan, I decided why not? And I ate it! So, now, I’ve got to say I’m in a much happier mood. I realize that I am not the only person who has no family for the holidays. I choose to be grateful for the fact that I have something even better (at least for me). I have the most wonderful dog that God put on the planet, who actually sings me awake when I am having night terrors! Usually, this side effect of PTSD will only occur once or twice a year, but during the holidays, there is always one lurking at the edge of my dreams each night. I am so thankful for this loving being. He reminds me when I come back to the world at those times, how good life really is. Your story and your posts have meant so much to me over the last several years. I have been a depressed person most of my adult life, and now I am 67 and learning more about myself than I ever thought possible. I thank you for much of that. There is something of value for me in every post from you, Therese. Merry Christmas!

  3. Sadia

    Hi therese
    You recommended more than 85% dark chocolate and the link article recommended a lesser amount (60 i think).
    I was wondering if you have felt that 85 is better for mental health.
    If you’ve written about it before I must have missed it.
    Would love to know your thoughts. I am thinking of trying it out this season.

  4. Nuschler

    I already DESPISE the holidays. 60 years of treatment resistant MDD, 30 hospitalizations, gazillion meds, ECTx4, my spouse committed suicide and everyone blames me.

    Let me at least EAT!

    For some reason after breast cancer surgery and radiation I have lost my appetite. I quit chemo as I wanted to die anyway (Anyone with MDD will tell that they wish they had cancer that would kill them–at least it would be REAL!) AND I GOT BETTER. No further cancer anywhere.

    I can’t even get breast cancer right. I can’t exercise–severe osteoporosis, 8 spinal fractures, plus fibromyalgia times 50 years. I could swim in Hawai’i but had to move when I became a widow…horribly expensive place.

    So I sit here in Georgia. Ycch. Trump supporters and I’m a Dem. They don’t even my church here in the Bible Belt. (Buddhist).

    November 30 is the anniversary of my spouse dying 3 years ago. I moved here to be near my brother-in-law and he DIED of hep C 2 years ago. I have NO ONE! I volunteer. I cut the grass for neighbors. I make cookies, casseroles. I plant shrubs and flowers. Used a chainsaw to cut dead trees in back. Any activity puts me in bed for a week.

    The thought of holidays—shit.

    I at least can get down eggnog and cookies. Is that OKAY with you???

    Don’t tell me not to eat comfort foods at age 70!