It is quite difficult to not talk about food when the holidays roll around. Not only is food the staple of gatherings, it’s also bound to tradition and family celebrations. But with the holidays also comes the stress of trying to get everything done.
Holiday shopping, family events, and managing your work with your personal life and social events can all lead to emotional eating, or as it’s also known “stress eating” - made easier by the ready available supply of holiday goodies scattered around the house.
Of course sticking to healthy eating habits is all the more challenging during the holidays, when our stress levels can be at their highest. Since calorically dense foods are known to activate our brain’s reward system, by eating when your stress levels are high you train yourself to eat to cope with feelings of stress.
Before we give you some tips on how to cope with stress eating over the holidays, and because it might not always be easy to tell apart stress eating from actual hunger, here are some telling signs:
- Stress induced cravings are often associated with your emotions, when you feel particularly sad, a sense of emptiness, or when you’re nervous. Physical hunger, as it suggests, will have a physical impact on your body, such as your stomach grumbling.
- If you are craving a specific food or snack, that usually means it’s an emotional craving. If you’re instead willing to eat a diverse meal at lunch time or dinner time, your hunger is most likely physical.
- Checking the time of day might also help tell where your hunger is coming from. Emotional cravings will often make themselves known late at night or during the afternoon, especially if you’ve had a meal already. Physical hunger will naturally occur several hours after your last meal.
- While stress cravings will sneak up on you suddenly and need a distraction to go away, physical hunger will naturally build up over time.
- Lastly, the way you feel after you eat is the biggest telling sign of what kind of craving you just satisfied. It’s common to feel guilty after acting on emotional cravings, while acting on physical hunger will result in feeling satisfied.
How to actually cope with stress eating?
The first thing you should do is set boundaries with yourself and with others. Limit the amount of events you agree to attend or even help organize. Give priority to the gatherings that mean the most to you and avoid situations where having a couple of sweets and treats is easier than sitting down for a meal.
Taking some time off during your holiday time off is perfectly reasonable. Removing yourself from situations that will increase your stress levels, even if temporarily, is the correct approach. Go for a walk, brew some tea, or take a nap. It’s also important to recognize when you reach your limit and it’s time to leave a gathering.
Self-care is the most effective way to manage your stress and cope with emotional eating. Even though the holidays tend to be the busiest time of year, make sure you set some time aside for exercise, get plenty of sleep, plan ahead for events where food won’t be readily available, and lastly do things for yourself that will make you feel happy.
While sitting down at the table…
Take your time during meals. A normal meal should take around 45 minutes, which is plenty of time to properly chew your food, especially if you focus on the social aspect of meals and chat while you eat.
Make sure you plan meals ahead of time and use a list when going shopping for ingredients so you avoid impulse purchases. But also allow yourself some special treats that you set aside for snack-time or when traveling or running errands, rather than eating when that stress goes up.
What to do when the urge is too strong?
If you’ve just had a meal a few hours ago yet can’t help but to reach for something dense in calories, try the DDS method - DELAY, DISTRACT, SUBSTITUTE.
1 - Try to wait out the sudden craving. If it goes away after you start doing something else, you know it was an emotional craving and not physical hunger.
2 - Give some attention to a hobby, play a game on your phone, open up a book, turn on a show you’ve been meaning to watch, or spend some time with a friend or loved one. These distractions will help with waiting out the craving and they’ll have the added bonus of helping you cope with the stress or emotion that brought it about in the first place.
3 - If you do decide to act on the urge to eat, try replacing whatever it is you were craving with the next best healthy substitute. Going for some assorted nuts rather than a sugared candy will satisfy that hunger and remove any feeling of guilt you might have for giving in.
Yes, the holidays can be a stressful time and keeping a positive outlook is easier said than done. However, your eating habits do not need to suffer. Try choosing the healthy option when possible and if you do end up giving in to an emotional craving, don’t feel too bad about it. We all cope with stress in our own ways.
If you want to find comfort in something other than food, explore other options - a walk around the neighborhood, some quality time with a loved one, a puzzle or a game, whatever helps you deal with the stress and shift your attention elsewhere.