Shopping, cleaning, cooking, baking, traveling and socializing – the holidays can make the last two months of the year a stressful time, and for many of us, it’s easy to turn to food to relieve our anxiety.
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Emotional eating is a way to suppress or soothe our negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness.
But food isn’t the answer, says Lillian Craggs-Dino, DHA, RDN, LDN, CLT. Dr. Craggs-Dino is a bariatric dietitian and support group coordinator for the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute Support Group at Cleveland Clinic Florida.
Eating to relieve stress, rather than when you’re hungry, can lead to unnecessary weight gain and can worsen existing medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, Dr. Craggs-Dino says.
“Food is necessary to keep us healthy,” she says. “The best philosophy is to enjoy your foods, but don’t connect eating to emotional well-being. If you feel stressed, try not to use food as the solution.”
To help rein in holiday overeating, Dr. Craggs-Dino offers these five tips:
1. Find a stress-reducing activity
Go for a long walk by yourself, take a bike ride with your children or challenge a friend to a game of basketball. “You’ll feel better if you get physical instead of eating to release some of that stress,” Dr. Craggs-Dino says. Alternatively, you could try activities that are soothing and will restore peace of mind, such as getting a massage or a manicure/pedicure. At home, try yoga, meditation or simple, deep breathing to relax.
2. Engage your brain
Choose an activity that requires brain power to refocus your thoughts on something else besides food. Read, do a crossword puzzle, watch a movie, putter in your woodshop or do some sewing. You might consider talking with a close friend or family member, Dr. Craggs-Dino says, because emotional support helps to reduce stress.
3. Eat healthy food and stay on schedule
If you skip meals, your hunger may overwhelm you and cause you to lose control and overeat, Dr. Craggs-Dino warns. And make sure the food you do eat is healthy and naturally filling with fiber. Treats are OK, if they are in small portions. “Have breakfast, lunch and dinner and healthful snacks in-between,” she says. “High-fiber alternatives such as whole grains, fresh fruit and veggies can keep cravings at bay. Eat sweet treats in moderation and never when you’re hungry — that just leads to overeating.”
4. Enjoy comfort foods in moderation
When we feel stressed, it’s easy to turn to comfort foods, such as cookies, chips, ice cream. They often link us to happy memories while others, like dark chocolate, may affect neurotransmitters and hormones, giving us a temporary sense of euphoria. These feelings are short-lived, Dr. Craggs-Dino says – and we may end up feeling more stressed afterward, especially if emotional eating affects our health or weight. “I believe that almost all foods can play a healthy role in our diets in moderation — if we keep the emotional attachment away from the food,” she says. “You can even make a comfort food like mac and cheese healthier by using lower-fat ingredients and watching portion size.”
5. If you slip, get back on track
If you do indulge in some stress eating, don’t panic, rebuke yourself or give up, Dr. Craggs-Dino says. The best thing to do is to get back on schedule. Go to bed at the usual time, get up at the usual time, eat breakfast, go exercise and don’t overindulge the rest of the week. Make a healthier lifestyle a goal, she suggests, and begin by keeping track of your food intake and exercise.