This time of year, especially Christmas sees lots of focus on food and it can send so many into an anxious spin about holiday weight gain and un-doing any good ‘work’ they’ve achieved to this point. January then follows with the media messaging of diets and restriction, as if it’s a normal and helpful behaviour.
Conventional wisdom offers you these solutions to “help” you through the season.
- Don’t keep the food in the house.
- Eat before you go out, so you snack less at the parties.
- Take a healthy snack with you.
However, have these messages helped you to be fully present and enjoy your Christmas? Perhaps you’ve noticed you feel less in control of your eating despite all your well-intentioned efforts? Have you found yourself finding comfort in food, as the festivity overwhelm kicks in? In part because you have spent weeks avoiding food to fit into someone’s standard of body image for that Christmas dress!
Eating in response to our emotions….we all do it sometimes!
Eating is central to our behaviour as humans. Our eating behaviours are dependent on several factors beyond our physiological needs: genetics, emotions and our environment (1). What this means is, that our environment and minds also play a role in food choice and consumption.
Emotional eating happens when our threat system is activated. Eating in response to threats is a normal response. You feel a threat, you eat as part of a calming strategy, you feel what you feel and then you move back to regular eating patterns once the threat has subsided.
Emotional eating can often be a way of coping!
Despite what most people feel, emotional overeating is not just a lack of control, discipline or willpower. Emotional overeating usually occurs when we struggle to understand, manage and cope with our feelings.
Anything from work stress to financial worries, health issues to relationship struggles may be the root of your reliance on food to cope. We may not know how to engage in other effective stress reduction activities.
Emotional overeating may also be a result of internal and external pressure to restrict food intake. Studies have shown that dieting puts our eating under conscious cognitive control, which means you are thinking way too hard about eating (2). Of course it is advisable to support your health, however the irony is that our thinking brain is so caught up in the good and bad narrative about food, that we fail to hear our natural cues. Also the cycle of restrictions may be leading to erratic and emotional eating behaviours.
5 Intuitive Eating ideas for you to consider through this season:
If you really don’t want to be facing another Christmas, where you feel stressed about what you are eating. There is a way that you can start to bring the fun back into the food you eat this season. People who practice intuitive eating have learned how to eat according to what their body wants, not what their mind tells them.
1. Eat 3 meals every day – Simple right? But even committing to 3 meals a day ESPECIALLY if you have had an emotional eating episode will be transformational for you. Ensuring that you consume enough nutrition to fuel your body and activities is key. This will support you to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger (3).
2. Stop, pause and think about what would really satisfy you at this eating period. As you eat, connect in with your hunger before eating. Gently say to yourself all of the options are available to me. This means fighting the inner critic saying you’ll need to run an extra 5km tomorrow to work this off. Depriving ourselves of food, in the moment might feel you have won. However, the mind may linger on that mince pie and backfire later on as the desire heightens and this is how you end up overeating.
3. Mindful eating has been shown to have a positive effect on food choice and eating to comfortable levels. This does not mean you need to chew 52 times and savour every moment – you can start by taking a breath. If you stop for 2/3 breaths you’ll provide your body with oxygen, which will calm your nervous system and starts to kick off digestion. But more importantly, it allows you to enjoy the eating experience you are about to have.
4. Be intentional with creating more calming feelings in your everyday life. With consistent new evidence emerging about the Gut-Brain connection, it is refreshing to know we can support our emotions through our gut (4). Stresses include fear of food, restrictive eating, over-exercising, busyness, loneliness, eating guilt and shame and negative body thoughts. What we know about all these stressors, in particular prolonged stress, is that it is implicated in unfavourable neurological responses through the gut-brain axis and can create significant health risks (5,6,7). As Christmas gets busier, this is the time to make a conscious decision to look after our gut by giving it plenty of nourishment both from food and relaxing, calming behaviours.
5. Show yourself compassion. It is important to remember that emotional eating is normal, occasional overeating especially around celebrations happens. Sounds easy however if you tend to beat yourself up when you engage in the behaviour, try offering yourself kind words. Remember the reality of indulging over a couple of days is not going to harm your health however the feelings of failure and guilt can have a far more significant impact on your mind and body(8).
We all deserve appreciation and respect!
Remember this eating does not require any special talents, it simply requires appreciation and respect both for ourselves and our food. Our bodies are amazing, they are always working on keeping us in balance.
Focus on celebrating the many wonderful things that Christmas can bring; spending time with those people who bring you joy, time to be mindful, eat with joy and most importantly live every minute of this precious life we all have.
- Emilien, C., & Hollis, J. (2017). A brief review of salient factors influencing adult eating behaviour. Nutrition Research Reviews, 30(2), 233-246.
- Evers, C., Dingemans, A., Junghans, A. and Boevé, A., 2018. Feeling bad or feeling good, does emotion affect your consumption of food? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 92, pp.195-208.
- Healthline. 2021. Emotional Eating: Why It Happens and How to Stop It. [online].
- Anderson, S., Cryan, J., & Dinan, T. The psychobiotic revolution (p. 25). Washington: National Geographic Partners.
- Torres, S., & Nowson, C. (2020). Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity.
- Finch, L., & Tomiyama, A. (2015). Comfort eating, psychological stress, and depressive symptoms in young adult women. Appetite, 95, 239-244.
- Bonaz, B., Bazin, T., & Pellissier, S. (2018). The Vagus Nerve at the Interface of the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis. Frontiers In Neuroscience, 12.
- Ferreira, C., Matos, M., Duarte, C. and Pinto-Gouveia, J., 2014. Shame Memories and Eating Psychopathology: The Buffering Effect of Self-Compassion. European Eating Disorders Review, [online] 22(6), pp.487-494.