Dealing with Emotional Eating – During the Holidays and at Any Time

by Ann Goebel-Fabbri, Ph.D.
Joslin Diabetes Center

Many people turn to food and eating as a way to comfort themselves, relax, and feel nurtured when they find themselves feeling stressed, angry, lonely, and sad.

Emotional eating can also be a way to celebrate something wonderful and happy, but even then it can go overboard too.

Here are few ways to help you manage emotional eating:

  • Make a list of activities that you enjoy doing (other than eating!), such as walking, reading, gardening, etc. Keep this list handy and refer to it when you get the urge to eat.
  • Call up a friend or family member who can take your mind off of eating.
  • Try waiting out the urge. Give yourself 10 minutes. Then, after 10 minutes, if you really want to eat, have a small portion and get the remaining food OUT OF SIGHT!
  • Drink a glass of water or cup of tea. Hunger can be mistaken for thirst.
  • Keep healthy snacks around, such as baby carrots, low fat crackers or cut up fruit, rather than high-fat, high-calorie treats. Also, make sure that you keep these healthy snacks in plain view – seeing them will be your cue to choose a healthier option.
  • If you find yourself buying high-fat, high-calorie treats, try to stick to one manageable portion and remove the leftovers from the house (or don’t even bring them home). You could bring them to work, give leftovers to guests as they are leaving, or simply buy one portion at a time and eat it when you are out of your home.
  • Don’t deprive yourself. It’s not uncommon for people trying to lose weight to completely cut out all favorite foods, but this can lead to bingeing on them later. Allow yourself to have a treat on occasion. If you are allowing it, REALLY allow it. Plan the type of food, make sure you really love it, and then allow yourself to enjoy it in a portion that will allow you to feel guilt-free. Food is not poison – it is meant to be enjoyed.
  • Before giving in to emotional eating, take a moment to ask yourself, “What am I really hungry for?” If you are stressed, maybe you need a relaxing bath. If you are tired, put yourself to bed! If you are bored, find something fun and engaging to do – that does not include eating. If you are lonely, reach out to a friend or loved one. If you are actually hungry or thirsty, then allow yourself to find a healthy option and feed your body well.

If you think your eating is due to depression, anxiety or stress, seek out help from a mental health professional.

Ann E. Goebel-Fabbri, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and works in the clinic at the Joslin Diabetes Center as part of the Mental Health and Counseling Services team. She has special interests in eating disorders and diabetes, and women’s health. Learn more about Dr. Goebel-Fabbri and her work at the Joslin Diabetes Center.


Do you find yourself struggling to cope with emotional eating?  What do you do?

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