Avoid Emotional Hunger to Beat Holiday Weight Gain

  • Published
  • By Capt. Denise Campbell, Registered Dietitian
  • Health Promotions, Spangdahlem Air Base
In the midst of the holiday season, there are two guarantees: emotions will be high, either because of relationships, stress, sadness or a combination of factors, and there will be A LOT of food...everywhere you go! 

Everyone responds to stress and the high emotions of the holidays differently, and one habit we want to avoid is feeding those feelings with food, otherwise known as emotional eating.

Emotional eating can get in the way of our weight loss goals and lead to unhealthy associations between food and mood. 

Emotional hunger is sudden and urgent and is hunger for a specific food.  For example, after a stressful phone call with a relative, all you want to eat is a bag of potato chips, even though you weren't hungry prior to the phone conversation. 

It is hunger "above the neck" that is paired with an emotion, and eating this way often leads to feeling guilty afterwards.  It is brought on by a thought, scent, or sight of a food, or a specific mood.

Here are a few tips to avoid overeating when the holiday emotions pile up:

Rate your hunger.  Before you reach for that cookie or extra glass of eggnog, rate your hunger on a scale of 1-10, which 1 being "famished" and 10 being "stuffed, uncomfortable."  If your hunger is a six or more, you may be eating for emotional reasons.

Write it down.  Keeping a food log or food diary, especially during stressful times, can help curb emotional eating.  Along with writing down the food you eat, also write the portion, time of day, and emotion you were feeling before you started eating.  This is a particularly helpful tool if you're not sure if you are an emotional eater; seeing it in black and white can help pinpoint triggers.

Know your trigger foods.  During stressful times, it's important we limit our access to trigger foods (foods that cause us to overeat.)  Our willpower is finite, so it's best to leave those leftovers at the potluck or on the shelf at the grocery store, and just say 'no' once instead of risking overeating later.

Stock up!  However, we want to ensure we do have access to healthy snacks if we are physically hungry, so purchase perishable and non-perishable healthy options to have on hand when physical hunger strikes!  These snacks should be nutrition boosts, so stock up on fruits, vegetables, low-fat yogurt or cheese, or low-sodium nuts and seeds.

Show compassion.  During the holidays, we tend to show more compassion and generosity toward others, and it's important we do the same for ourselves!  Self-compassion is important to recognize what caused us to overeat, forgive ourselves, and then set a plan to avoid that situation in the future.  Focus on the positive changes you have made, and remember the path to good health isn't about being perfect for a short period of time, but to be consistently good for a long period of time.

Seek professional help.  At Spangdahlem Air Base, we have resources to help you overcome emotion eating.  The Behavioral Health Optimization Program at the Medical Clinic can help you manage stress and emotions without reaching for a snack, and the Health Promotions office can help you build an eating pattern that will allow you to meet your goals and still enjoy the holiday season! 

Call the appointment line at 452-8333 for more information or to set-up an appointment.