By Michelle May, M.D.
Co-author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes
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
Recognize Head Hunger: Whenever you feel like eating, first ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” Look for physical signs that you need fuel. (Review chapter 5 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes)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.
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?
Practice Self-Care: Give yourself the gift of adequate sleep, healthy meals, regular physical activity, and unscheduled time to decompress. These choices build an effective self-care buffer zone.