The Stress of the Holidays and Emotional Eating: How to Recognize Patterns and Start to Shift Them – Part 1

The holidays are quickly approaching and with that, comes the increased stress of buying gifts in busy shopping malls, seeing family or friends that you may have difficult relationships with and the constant temptation of all the sweets and treats that this time of the year brings.

Often, the combined stress and anxiety of the holidays and the availability of many high sugar and high fat foods can be a bit of perfect storm with weight gain being the result. This can then trigger our desire for making the good ol’ new years resolutions which commonly involves weight loss, from interventions like dieting and exercise. But what most people do not think about is that its not entirely about the food and the workouts. A big part of why we gain unwanted weight is from attempting to deal with unwanted feelings or emotions, aka emotional eating. Identifying these patterns and implementing strategies to change them can set you up for long term health and wellness and for a healthy relationship with food.

    How Do You Know if You Are an Emotional Eater?


When you find yourself distraught, frustrated, upset, angry, or hurt, the feelings can be so uncomfortable that you just want them to stop. So, you reach for a candy bar, ice cream, cookies, or whatever food you find comforting.

When that urge rears its ugly head and does not settle down, emotional eating can create a path of devastation in its wake.  Emotional eating is defined as eating for comfort rather than nourishment.  It is usually associated with out-of-control eating behavior, but not always. Sometimes it is the uncontrollable urge to eat something that you know will not nourish you but will entertain you.

Comfort eating most likely started when you were young. Some well-meaning adult offered you a lollipop to soothe the hurt when you scraped your knee. You felt better and a neural pathway was created. The event was repeated, and the pathway got reinforced.

Now, every time you feel a certain way, you reach for food to soothe it.

Just like the chemicals in the air or the water can be toxic to your body, certain emotions can be toxic as well.  These emotions are considered “toxic” not because you should not feel them, but because when you do, they generate chemistry in your body that can cause negative side effects to you.

These emotions can include sadness, hate, shame, jealousy, hopelessness, self-righteousness, worry, greed, anger, and guilt.

How Emotions Affect Your Brain

Any of these emotions can put you into a “flight or fight” response and inhibit the cerebral cortex, that part of the brain responsible for high-level thinking (aka your “wizard brain”). Being in fight or flight mode enhances access in your brain to the limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for survival (aka your “lizard brain”), so it becomes predominant.

When stressed it is hard for the wizard brain to speak up with, “this is not in alignment with my core values*”. In these situations, the lizard brain is in control, not the wizard brain. Unfortunately, it is easy to lose touch with your core values when trapped in the lizard brain. At this point, a common reaction is to reach for food to stuff or numb the feelings instead of using logic and knowledge to reason through the emotional trigger and create an appropriate response.

*[Your core values may be things like health, purpose, nature, trust, family, happiness, or safety for example. Identifying your core values can be a whole other self discovery exercise separate from this one but can be very helpful in your journey to achieving your health and wellness goas. And living in alignment with these core values everyday will bring you the health and happiness that you desire.]

 This is all an unconscious process for you when you emotionally eat. You do not suddenly say, “I’m just going to eat this food even though I’m not hungry because I have an emotional wound and I want to heal it”.

Usually, with emotional eating you experience an uncontrollable urge to eat when you are not even hungry.

Reprogramming the Pattern

Breaking free of emotional eating is not easy but it is very possible. It takes time and multiple iterations of replacing the old response with a new one until you have reprogrammed your brain to the new response.

Below are some guidelines for:

  • identifying triggers for emotional eating
  • establishing strategies for overcoming it
  • creating new neural pathways in your brain

Identifying Triggers

First, make a list of the foods that soothe your emotional pain.

  • What foods do you reach for when you are tired, really frustrated, angry, or feeling that life just is not going the way you want it to?
  • What foods do you find addictive, once you start eating them you cannot stop until either the package is empty or you are in so much pain that you have to stop?

Next, explore the circumstances and emotions that trigger emotional eating.

  • Is it visiting your mother? Going to restaurants with friends? Fights with your partner? Stress at work?
  • What emotions are most likely to trigger you to soothe yourself with food?

A way to identify the emotional trigger is to think back to the last time you were tempted into an emotional eating pattern. What was that emotion?

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Overwhelm
  • Inadequacy
  • Insecurity
  • Boredom

There may be one or two emotions that are key for you. Take the next week to explore and note these emotions without judgement, and stay tuned to next week for strategies to help you address emotional eating.

Adapted by Megan Hoffman, RD with permission. © Dr. Ritamarie Loscalzo, MS, DC, CCN, DACBN, Institute of Nutritional Endocrinology (INE)

Megan Hoffman, Registered Dietitian

Megan Hoffman has always had an interest in health and wellness which is what drew her to study to become a dietitian. Her passion is strongly rooted in the power of belief in nutrition for optimal health and wellness. She believes in a whole-foods eating approach and creating and fostering a healthy relationship with food. Read more about Megan here.

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