It may be the “most wonderful time of the year,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t stressful. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the holidays, but even the fun things, like picking out and wrapping gifts, can add more stress to my already hectic schedule. While I wish I could make all my stress melt away this holiday season and all year round, the truth is that some degree of stress is inevitable; it’s what you do with and about that stress that is in your control.
For a lot of people, myself included, stress triggers emotional eating. If I’m honest, I’ve struggled with emotional eating for most of my life and it’s something I continue to work through regularly. It’s incredibly common for people to turn to food to cope with their emotions. While on the surface this may sound strange, there is an actual scientific reason why. In addition to meeting our nutritional needs, food can often be used to meet our emotional ones as well.
When we eat, it causes the release of endorphins, feel-good hormones that are naturally released by the body during times of stress and physical pain, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The role of endorphins is to decrease pain and make you feel better — in other words, to comfort you. While you may have just learned this fact, your body already “knew” it. That’s the reason that so many of us turn to food when we’re feeling sad, angry, or even bored: It makes you feel better on a chemical level!
Of course, endorphins are also released in response to activities other than eating, including exercising and getting a massage. The problem with getting these chemicals from food is it can lead you to eat to self-soothe even when you’re not hungry or overeat because you are using food as a coping mechanism for emotions and not as a way to nourish your body.
I am all for filling your body with nutritious food (and a moderate amount of your favorite, less healthy foods) when you are hungry. But emotional eating creates an unhealthy dynamic with food that can negatively impact your health and sabotage weight loss efforts, notes the Mayo Clinic. If you think you may be an emotional eater, try these six ways of avoiding emotional eating during the holiday season and the rest of the year too!
- Stay hydrated. This is my top tip for three main reasons. First, chronic dehydration is all too common and easily avoided. In fact, the National Library of Medicine estimates that about three-quarters of the American population is chronically dehydrated. Second, it’s not uncommon for the brain to confuse thirst and hunger, because the same area of the brain, the hypothalamus, controls both, per Medline Plus. So you may feel genuinely hungry when all you really need is a glass of water. Lastly, drinking a large glass of water is a great way to fill yourself up and allow you the time you need to process your emotions without turning to food.
- Honestly assess how you are feeling. If you’re heading for the kitchen to grab something to eat, pause and consider how you’re really feeling. Are you truly hungry? If so, proceed to the kitchen. If in this brief pause, however, you find that your day has got you feeling some big emotions, take the time to find a good outlet for those emotions that does not involve food.
- Find a healthy outlet. If you’re feeling angry, sad, anxious, or another negative emotion, find a way to work through those feelings without heading to the pantry. Consider being proactive and making a list of activities that work best for you ahead of time. Give yoga, meditation, walking, exercising, and journaling a try. Calling a friend and making a connection can also be incredibly helpful.
- Don’t make foods off-limits. The holidays are rife with temptation. From pies and cookies to casseroles and buttery stuffing, rich foods are everywhere during the holiday season. Keep in mind that no food is “bad.” Swearing off your holiday favorites may actually backfire if you go overboard when you finally allow yourself to have some.
- Portion your food in the kitchen. I love potato chips. However, they’re an easy food for me to overdo it on. As a result, when I do have chips, I’ve switched to portioning out a small bowl in the kitchen rather than eating out of the bag. This is a visual signal for me. Once the bowl is done, I am, too. This prevents me from mindlessly or emotionally eating more than I realize.
- Bring a dish with you. If you’re headed to a holiday gathering, bring a healthy dish with you that you can have before your main meal (or maybe even with appetizers). A dish that is mostly fruits and vegetables will give you a healthy dose of fiber, vitamins, and minerals and help you feel full for very few calories.
I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season and that it’s completely stress-free. If, however, you do feel stressed, consider yourself normal. Take a walk, have a glass of water, and be gentle with yourself. I hope you eat when you’re hungry and you enjoy every delightful bite!