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Emotional Eating During the Holidays

Posted Nov 23 2009 10:02pm

Hi Everyone,

You might remember Hadley, who has done a few guest posts from me before. Hadley is a health practitioner and the founder of Spark Wellness and the author of Hadley Holistics blog.   Today she is gracing Fitness NYC once again with a  great guest post on a topic I am sure many of us can relate to, emotionaleatingduring the holidayseason.  Enjoy!

For many, the winter holidays can be stressful. Sure, many of us look forward to gathering with friends and family… but it can also be stressful. How do many us cope? Eggnog, stuffing, cookies, cakes, pies… I could go on. We eat emotionally. According to a 2007 survey by the American Psychological Association, 41% of women and 25% of men eat to comfort themselves during the holidays (compared to 31% and 19% during the rest of the year).

So what is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is defined as using food or the act of eating to fill a void that has nothing to do with physical hunger.  Often there is the feeling of compulsion and an inability to stop. It can feel like the food is controlling you, instead of other other way around. Oftentimes there are feelings of regret afterwards: did I really need SIX glasses of eggnog and three servings of mashed potatoes?!

Sound familiar? It’s not just you: nearly 100% of my clients city this as being one of their top health concerns.

What’s the deal? Why do we do this?

Emotional eating is very much a primordial urge. From the time we’re born, we instinctively turn to our mother’s milk for comfort and nurture. As we grow older, we continue this pattern of turning to food to fill a gap in our lives, whether it be joy, excitement, sex, happiness, tenderness, sweetness. We also use food to cover up uncomfortable feelings, or sentiments we don’t want to acknowledge, such as loneliness, sadness, stress, boredom. Usually these are feelings that can’t be directly addressed in the moment so we use food to ’shove down’ the feelings for later.

The holidays are a prime target for emotional eating. While the occasion is always superficially joyous, often times there are strong undercurrents of stress, anxiety, and lots of emotional baggage. Many of my clients, especially those who are single, complain about feeling very lonely over the holidays: all the good cheer makes them want someone special with whom to share it. Also, there are a LOT of unhealthy foods readily available for consumption (and very often forced upon you by a relative with good intentions).

So how can I get through the holidays without drowning my sorrows in pecan pie?

  • Plan ahead. Most (if not all) of us won’t get through the holidays without some emotional eating. Instead of fighting it and judging yourself for it, accept it will happen and plan ahead. If you go into the holidays determined not to break your diet, at some point you’ll probably end up scarfing down dinner rolls or canapes. Trust that your body will compensate for any overindulgences that many happen. (And, as any self-respecting woman’s magazine will tell you, don’t arrive at a holiday party or the Thanksgiving table hungry, having starved yourself all day in anticipation of the many caloties you’ll consume. Instead, have a protein-filled, fiber-rich snack 1-2 hours prior.)
  • Eat the foods you love. In love with your gradmother’s pumpkin cheesecake bars but could care less about mashed potatoes and gravy? Take a few minutes before you go to the table to prioritize the foods you really love and decide which you could live without. Give yourself permission to indulge in your favorites (hey, the holidays only happen once a year!) and do your very best to enjoy them without guilt. Trust yourself around these treats: if you don’t think about it as a forbidden food–if you’ve already given yourself permission to enjoy it–you probably won’t go crazy with it. Take this as an opportunity to practice what it is to truly enjoy eating.
  • Suspend judgement. Your body recognizes the post-bingeing guilty as it would any other stressor. So stressing over emotional eating episodes only begets more emotional eating. Instead, acknowledge that it happened, it’s in the past, and you cannot change it. It doesn’t make you a bad person.
  • Name the feeling. As soon as you recognize that you’re eating emotionally, pause and name the feeling that you’re trying to avoid or the gap you’re trying to fill. (e.g., I feel lonely; I really wish my great aunt didn’t always embarass me; I can’t believe the turkey went up in flames). This brings you into the moment and makes it an intentional act. Even if you keep eating the food, at least you know why and, at a later time, can start to work through that problem.
  • Avoid trigger foods. We all have one or more foods that, once we have a bite, it’s hard to stop. Common culprits are sugar (it’s an addictive substance) and wheat (a common allergen). Alcohol can also lead to overeating, as it lowers our inhibitions and makes it more likely that we’ll reach for a second helping of cheese souffle. If you know your trigger food, try to limit or avoid it. If you love sweets but know sugar is problematic, consider making a dessert with natural sweeteners (such as agave nectar, maple syrup, or brown rice syrup) that everyone can share.

To sum it up: the holidays are stressful for many and therefore a prime season for emotional eating. Treat yourself to your favorite seasonal foods so you don’t feel deprived. If you do reach for the leftover chocolate mousse in the middle of the night, don’t judge yourself, just acknowledge why and move on. Instead of thinking of this time of year as something designed to ruin your carefully crafted diet, instead try thinking of it as a great time to investigate the areas in your life that may be lacking. Most of all: practice trusting yourself around food.

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