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Holiday Stress and Eating

This time of year is fueled with many emotions: stress, happiness, sadness, loneliness. And, emotions are a huge trigger to overeat or eat the foods we are actively trying to avoid while working toward our goal weight. The holidays should not sideline you. Recognizing the triggers will help you enjoy the holiday season without gaining unwanted pounds.

There are many reasons we overeat during the holiday season:

Hustle and Bustle of the holiday season:

The line from the Christmas song, Silver Bells, always comes to mind. "as the shoppers rush home with their treasures..."

Everyone is in a hurry to finish shopping for gifts, prepare food and decorations, and attend the on going parade of potlucks, parties, and gatherings.

This leads to less time for meal prepping, food journaling, and portion control. It lends to impulse decisions and eating on the go.

The Social Facilitation of Eating:

This is the tendency for people to eat more in the company of others than they would alone. It is basically holiday peer pressure. When your beloved aunt asks, "you don't want a piece of my pecan pie?" or just the mindless noshing we do at parties and potlucks while talking and enjoying the festivities with others.

The ongoing party between Thanksgiving and New Year:

The food we eat on just one day, be that Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, or a NYE party, could not possibly be enough to add 5 or more pounds to the scale. However, the many potlucks, parties, and bestowing of sweet treats can. Rarely do we celebrate just one day. Most of us have more than one family get together due to obligations with in-laws or we come from blended families. And, who hasn't received a tray of fudge, cookies, and candies from a neighbor, friend, patient, client, or other cheerful well wisher? It is not what we eat on a particular holiday. It is what we eat every day in between.

Emotional Eating:

As I mentioned before, the holidays are engulfed with emotional ties. These emotions are not just sadness.

For some it is stress. We host huge family gatherings, decorate our homes with trees, wreaths, and lights, and spend most of the season shopping and gift giving. This can be fun but it can also be stressful. Financial strains add to the stress of living up to expectations but not being able to afford them.

The holidays also trigger happy, warm memories. This is a time of tradition. We gather and enjoy grandma's pecan pie or mom's famous ham or casserole. Much of those warm fuzzy memories associated with the holidays are tied to food.

In fact, our sense of smell is the most closely tied sense to memory and emotion. Just smelling the food we traditionally eat around the holidays can trigger a barrage of emotions, good and bad.

Sadness is a very strong emotion during the holidays. The absence of loved ones is felt most deeply during this time. Many of us have lost a loved one in the past 12 months and this may be the first holiday without them.

My brother died December 11th, 2014. It will be seven years and still, his absence is the strongest emotion at Christmas.

Death is not the only absence mentally effecting us this time of year. We have all experienced holidays without big family gatherings since covid. Family members have not traveled to join us as in years past or we have avoided large crowds and gatherings to protect our elderly or compromised relatives and the spread of covid. Holiday traditions have been altered or perhaps cancelled all together. This has taken an emotional toll on everyone.

The holidays are a time spent with family and the empty chair left by a parent, grandparent, spouse, sibling, child, grandchild, cousin, or even a close friend can be depressing, sad, and lonely.

These emotions can trigger eating as a coping mechanism. And, it is true, foods high in sugar and carbohydrates can release the "happy hormones" that give us a temporary lift. But, they are only temporary.

So, how do we avoid these triggers to overeat during the holiday season?

1. Set boundaries. We must learn to just say "no". That may be to parties and events that you know will trigger you to overeat or overindulge. It may be to sweet treats offered by a friend, coworker, or relative. We must learn to prioritize what we want to eat and how much of it we consume. Practicing the 3 A's can help.

  • Avoid: This means not going to that Christmas party. Staying away from foods and events that trigger eating or making poor choices is often the only way. Why torture yourself by attending an event where you try to enjoy but also deprive yourself? I often liken this to a recovering alcoholic agreeing to attend an event held at a bar.

  • Adjust: Some events cannot be avoided. What then? If you know there will be food and most is not on your "nice list", agree to bring a healthy dish you can eat. Or, be certain to eat a healthy, protein packed meal prior to the event so that you are less likely to overeat while there. Also, drink lots of water.

  • Adapt: Traditions are wonderful but sometimes we need to adapt to new traditions. If you are the designated dessert person in your family, pass that title on to another. Or, alter recipes to make them lower calorie. If you host the holiday gathering, create a new, healthier menu this year.

2. Take time for yourself. Too often, holiday cheer can lead to mental, physical, and emotional fatigue. It is wonderful that you are a gracious host, make the best fudge, or volunteer for toy drives and other charitable causes this time of year but what are you doing for you? As the saying goes, you cannot pour from an empty cup. Be sure to give yourself downtime, get plenty of sleep, and do not abandon your exercise routine. If you take the time for self care, you may be pleasantly surprised at how much better you feel mentally and physically when the holiday season is over.

3. Be intentional with food choices. There will be an abundance of tasty treats but you do not have to eat every single one. Choose those you particularly love and look forward to having this time of year and pass on all the others. Practice moderation and portion control but enjoy your favorite holiday foods. If you feel the pressure to please and are concerned you will hurt a relatives feelings by not eating their pie, cake, casserole, or traditional dish, just explain your intentions but remain assertive. Remember your goals and do not eat out of guilt.

4. Stop the "All or Nothing" mentality. So you blew it at the company potluck? That does not mean you call the day a bust. Put it behind you and move forward with purpose and a plan. One meal will not break you but throwing your hands up in defeat can.

5. Do not save your calories. We have all been guilty of this and perhaps even told it is a good strategy. But, starving yourself all day so that you can eat everything you love at your mom's house later will only cause you to overeat. In addition to eating too much, your body will most likely think you are starving because you went hours without any food. It will, in turn, lower your metabolism leading to you burning fewer of those extra calories you consume later. Instead, have a protein snack at least an hour prior to a big meal and drink plenty of water.

6. Continue to journal your food intake. If I had a dollar for every patient who said, "I did not even document my food that day because I know I ate too much"...

But, there are benefits to recording your calorie intake even if you eat more calories than normal.

  • You may be surprised to learn some foods are not as "bad" as you thought. Of course, you may also learn that foods you have considered a good choice, were not so much. But, how would you know if you did not research the calories and document?

  • Some might be surprised that they do not eat as many calories as they anticipated avoiding the after meal guilt.

  • Because you continue to record everything you eat, you will find it helps control your portions and your choices.

7. Stay mindful and remember you are in control. You make the decision on what foods you eat and how much you eat. A good strategy to lessen the stress is the Triple D approach:

  • Delay: Be the last to make your plate and the last to finish eating. If you are sitting at the table with an empty plate while others are still eating, you will be more likely to go back for seconds. Drinking a tall glass of water before a meal can also serve to delay eating and help you eat less.

  • Distract: You can distract yourself from the abundance of food choices by focusing on time spent with family and friends, catching up with those we have not seen much this year, and not making the season about food. I offer this same strategy for birthdays. There is no rule that says you must have birthday cake. We can celebrate without overeating. Playing games is a fun tradition my crew has started and it is a nice distraction from sitting around the table and munching for hours.

  • Disarm: If you are the host, send all the leftovers with your guests. If you are not the host, decline leftovers. Once the meal is over, avoid standing around the kitchen or table. Step away from the food. Out of sight is out of mind. Put food away once the meal is over and you will be less likely to go back for more. My mother-in-law has an excellent strategy. She purchases to-go boxes from Sam's Club and fills them after a meal and sends everyone out the door with food.

8. Recognize the emotions that trigger you to eat. Is it stress, time management, grief, or finances? Gift shop early to avoid last minute stress. Learn to delegate tasks to other family members. You are only one person and should not have to do it all. If there are financial strains, change the plan. Spend less on gifts this year. Besides, it is the thought that counts. Perhaps a change in tradition? Instead of buying for everyone, draw names and take the burden off of everyone over-spending on gifts. This is something my family has adapted with grown children who are newly weds, finishing college, traveling long distances for the holidays, or starting new careers and businesses. They just do not have the extra money to spend on gifts. Instead of everyone going into debt, we focus on time spent together.

If your trigger is emotional because of the loss of a loved one, family conflicts, or the inability to spend the holidays with those closest to you, recognize that emotion and find a coping mechanism that does not involve food. Seek out a therapist, counselor, or friend to talk to. Find ways to honor and remember those who have died. Donating to charity in their name, a personalized ornament to remember them, or carrying on a tradition they loved.

If a relative cannot be home for Christmas, they may be able to Zoom, Facetime, or call to be a part of the celebration from afar.

My daughter lives in Oregon (and I am in Arkansas). The last two years have been difficult because she is not only across the continent but is a graduate student. Along with a pandemic, these factors made it impossible for her to come home for Christmas. It was hard and sad for this mom but finding ways to adapt to changes make them easier to deal with.

Do not feel pressured to perform. If the emotional toll of putting up a tree or hosting a party is too much this year because of a loss, health issues, financial strain, or other obstacle, then bow out. Do not force it as it will surely lead to emotional backlash. Your mental health is important.

Most of all, enjoy the holidays. It if means changing tradition, trying something new just for this year, or altering plans, be flexible.

Stay mindful of your goals, be good to yourself, and have a safe and happy holiday season.

If we do these things, there will be no need for New Year Resolutions.

With warmest wishes,


Here are further resources and links to sources used for this blog post:

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