By Michelle May, M.D.
Emotional connections to food are woven into the fabric of our social experience. Notice how often food is at the center of your celebrations: holiday office parties, baking Christmas cookies with grandma, and sharing traditional meals with your family. Eating is a wonderful way to reminisce, nurture, and bond.
Emotional eating is normal, even healthy—unless it is the primary way you cope with or avoid your feelings. During the holidays, emotional eating becomes magnified. Not only is food everywhere, but you may feel more stressed, lonely, exhausted, overwhelmed, or even happier—all common triggers for emotional eating.
How Emotional Eating Leads to Overeating
- Food is a quick, convenient, easy way to manage your feelings (for example, stuffing them or calming them down).
- When you’re eating for emotional reasons, you’re more likely to reach for sweets, salty snacks, and comfort foods. In other words, why you are eating affects what you eat.
- Emotional eating is often mindless, so you barely notice what you are putting in your mouth or how full you’re getting.
- You can eat a lot of food when you’re eating for emotional reasons. If hunger doesn’t tell you to start eating, what tells you to stop?
- Emotional eating only gives you temporary pleasure or distraction so you have to eat again when the effects fade.
- Food alone can’t really make you happy or less stressed so your emotional triggers come back again and again.
- Emotional eating can lead to shame and guilt—ironically two of the most powerful emotional triggers for more overeating.
The way to break out of this pattern is to create a self-care buffer zone to decrease emotional triggers. When it happens anyway (and it will), learn to identify and handle head hunger more effectively. When you do, you’ll feel better, for longer.
Prevent Emotional Eating with a Self-Care Buffer Zone
Practice Self-Care: Give yourself the gift of adequate sleep, healthy meals, regular physical activity, and unscheduled time to decompress.
Do what you love: What are your favorite holiday activities? Who do you want to spend time with? Which events are the most meaningful to you? Which ones could you do without this year?
Eat What You Love: Deprivation and guilt are powerful emotional triggers that can lead to overeating so choose foods that nourish your body and your soul.
Love What You Eat: Eating can be a satisfying emotional experience. Savor each bite mindfully, staying conscious of how your body feels as you eat.
Recognize Head Hunger: Whenever you feel like eating, first ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” Look for physical signs that you need fuel.
If You’re Not Hungry, FEAST Instead!
Focus: What is going on inside of you? Focus on your physical state, your thoughts, and your feelings. Identify any possible triggers for eating such as fatigue, boredom, overwhelm, or nostalgia.
Explore: Complete this statement: I feel _______ because _______. Peel away the layers by asking “why?” and “what else?” Sometimes “I want a cookie” means “I want comfort,” or “I want rest,” “I want to escape from this conversation,” or “I want to experience the joy I remember from my childhood.”
Accept: Criticizing yourself for your thoughts, feelings, and actions will keep you stuck in old patterns. Accept that your emotions, no matter how difficult or trivial they may seem, tell you something about your needs.
Strategize: What could you do to meet your underlying need? (If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got!)
Take Action: The step you take will depend on your specific need; just make sure it small, realistic, and takes you in the general direction of meeting your true needs.
Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle and founder of www.AmIHungry.com, Mindful Eating Program.