Stress Eating: 5 Strategies to curb ‘emotional eating over the holidays’

Emotional eaters use food to deal with stress and negative emotions. The holidays can be challenging for such eaters, but there are strategies that can help.

My friends, I have a confession: I am what dieticians call an “emotional eater.” That is, one of the main ways I deal with strong emotions or stressful situations is to eat. Very often I’ll find myself mindlessly downing some chips or peanuts when I suddenly realize that I’m not really hungry. I’ll think to myself: Then why am I eating? Usually, it’s because I just heard a piece of distressing news, felt frustrated with a problem, or was dealing with some other emotional disturbance.

An informative article at defines emotional eating as “using food to make yourself feel better — to fill emotional needs, rather than your stomach.”

Does this happen to you? For me, eating to cope with unwanted emotions is an all-too-frequent occurrence. Just the other night I was watching TV when I suddenly hit pause on the remote and hurried into the kitchen. Fortunately, I suddenly realized what I was doing as I was downing my second cracker. I decided I wasn’t eating out of hunger, but because something on TV had upset me. Immediately I put the crackers back in the cabinet and went back to finish the TV show I had been watching. Of course, 15 minutes later there was another jarring onscreen moment — and guess what I did next?

Characteristics of emotional eating

The HelpGuide article lists a series of characteristics that distinguish physical hunger from emotional hunger, but there is one that particularly resonated with me:

Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. The urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a very long time).

Of course, your experience of emotional eating may differ significantly from mine. Maybe you associate feeling better with particular comfort foods, or you often feel like you owe it to yourself to eat a pint of ice cream when someone close to you upsets you. Regardless of how the behavior manifests itself, the fact is that emotional eating never makes the situation better, and often makes matters worse — especially if we start putting on pounds and then beat ourselves up about it.

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