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Emotional Eating and Food Addiction during the Holidays: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?


The holiday season is often hailed as the “most wonderful time of the year.” This is the time when most people delight in themed office parties filled with sweets and enjoy plentiful feasts of winter staples with family and friends. However, all the jolly, celebratory vittles might have food addicts and emotional eaters saying “bah humbug” and feeling more than a little anxious about their holiday plans.  

What is it that makes the holidays so hard on our waistlines? According to blogger, writer, and dietician Timi Gustafson, “Holiday bingeing is hard to avoid, not only because of the many opportunities (and excuses) to indulge more than usual, but because the holidays are a rather emotional time” (2013). Negative emotions can be brought to the surface by loneliness, by unresolved family issues, and by the extra stress that holiday preparations almost inevitably involve. However, the emotional eater doesn’t always focus solely on the bad emotions; clinical psychologist Alexis Conason states that “Many people use eating as a way to cope with difficult emotions, not only bad ones, but also happiness, excitement, and celebration” (Huffington Post, 2012). Unfortunately, both negative and positive emotions can be a side-effect of holiday meals spent with family and friends. 

In addition, compulsive emotional eating can become much more of a problem, holiday season or not. Binge eating disorder (BED) has only recently been recognized as a medical condition and eating disorder. WebMD defines eating disorders as “serious mental illnesses in which emotions and thinking patterns cause a person to adopt harmful eating habits, such as overeating or starving. Often, these habits are a way of coping with depression, stress, or anxiety” (2012). What with the abundance of holiday food and the overindulgence that seems to be the theme of every year, the holidays present even more problematic situations for those with eating disorders. Food addiction is also a major concern, as 5 percent of the general population meets the criteria for food addiction (Peeke, 2013). 

Thankfully, there are many resources now available to help people—those with and without eating disorders and/or emotional eating problems—survive the holidays without overindulging and overeating. 

Conason offers a couple tips for emotional eaters this holiday season (Huffington Post, 2013):

  1. Practice mindfulness. Ask yourself if you feel physiologically hungry. Rate your hunger on a scale. If you aren’t actually hungry and you have the urge to eat, think about what you might be feeling that brought about that urge. 
  2. Practice kindness to yourself. Don’t shame yourself or beat yourself up about overindulgence. Learn from your experiences and aim to accept and forgive yourself. 

Gustafson urges people to learn what triggers the emotional responses that lead to eating, and provides these tips from staying away from the holiday’s many opportunities to binge (2013):

  1. If being around food is too tempting, avoid it! There are other ways to get into the holiday spirit without being surrounded by food. 
  2. Ask your office management to place food platters and/or candy jars in parts of the office where you can’t see or smell them. 
  3. You are not obligated to participate in every holiday lunch or dinner party you are invited to! Perhaps you can suggest some alternative ideas, such as skiing or another outdoor activity. 
  4. Make a plan to navigate holiday dinners that you can’t avoid. 

Addiction and recovery news website The Fix spoke with four food addicts—who total 103 years of combined abstinence, by the way—who gave up some of their strategies for handling the holidays (Will, 2013):

  1. Keep an operating “lifeline” to any Twelve Step programs in your area. Go to meetings and meet with sponsors if the stress of the holidays and the enticement of holiday food are too much to handle. 
  2. Have a plan for the holidays, and makes sure you map out any events you are planning to attend. Planning ahead will help you keep in touch with your goals and avoid overeating. 
  3. Eat at home before going to parties—that way you won’t be tempted by the large amount of food that will be present. 
  4. Ask the host of any party what will be served, or offer to bring your own meal.
  5. Host your own holiday bash, so that you can devise healthy and balanced meals for you and your guests!

Using these helpful tips, food addicts, emotional eaters, and even those of us who have a hard time saying no to the plethora of holiday foods available to us, can alleviate stress and truly enjoy this special time of year. The holidays are a time for laughter, joy, spending time with loved ones, and giving back to those less fortunate; as Timi Gustafson writes, “You can never overindulge in these” (2013).


Gustafson, T. (2013). The holiday season, a time for emotional eating. Seattle Pi. Retrieved from http://blog.seattlepi.com/timigustafsonrd/2013/10/30/the-holiday-season-a-time-for-emotional-eating/   

Huffington Post. (2012). Emotional eating: How holiday stress triggers problems. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/16/emotional-eating-holiday_n_2303761.html

Peeke, P. (2013). Food addiction is real. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maria-rodale/food-addiction-is-real_b_3950373.html

WebMD. (2012). Binge eating disorder overview. WebMD. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/binge-eating-disorder/binge-eating-disorder-overview

Will, E. W. (2013). Coping with food addiction through the holiday season. The Fix. Retrieved from http://www.thefix.com/content/coping-food-addiction-through-holiday-season