THE BLOG
12/22/2014 01:11 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

The 7-Step Plan to Avoid Emotional Eating Over the Holidays

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'Tis the season for overindulgence, overeating, and potential weight gain. In addition to plenty of overeating temptations, this is also a time of year that can easily trigger emotional eating -- stress eating, comfort eating, using food to feel better, calm ourselves or stuff down a feeling.

For many of us, the next few weeks will be a combination of fun, hectic times and stress. Holiday rituals trump our usual routines and structure, relationships aren't always merry, and emotional eating triggers abound.

Complicated as it is, there's no need to throw in the towel until January. It is possible to take charge of overeating challenges over the next few weeks and enjoy the holidays at the same time.

Here is a seven-step plan to avoid overeating and emotional eating, adapted from The Emotional Eating Rescue Plan for Smart, Busy Women.

  1. Identify your potential overeating triggers and vulnerabilities. Delicious food becomes even more irresistible when you are hungry for things that are not food. Exhaustion, stress, and other hidden hungers can easily trigger you to reach for food when you aren't hungry. The first step to empowering yourself is becoming aware of your vulnerabilities during the holiday season. You can take the free Hidden Hungers Quiz online to get a clear idea of potential overeating triggers and some simple action steps you can take to avoid overeating and emotional eating.
  2. Use simple structure and routines to stay on track. The holidays disrupt our routines. Vacation days, late nights, house guests, celebrations, and even sleeping in can disconnect you from healthy habits and the usual cues that help you pay attention to your needs. Make a plan today to check in with yourself over the next few weeks. You'll want to commit to something simple each day, even if it's just for a few minutes. Decide when you'll take five to 10 minutes to journal, walk on the treadmill, or take 10 deep breaths. The point is to give yourself a chance to pay attention to how you are feeling and what you need.

    In The Emotional Eating Rescue Plan for Smart, Busy Women, I cover the importance of non-negotiables, the things that are essential to our wellbeing. When we don't attend to our non-negotiables, we are much more likely to overeat, so this step is key to staying in control with holiday eating and stress. Take a few minutes now to make a list of what is non-negotiable for you to be well and to function at your best. My list includes drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, and getting outside for some activity most days. I also need a little bit of time alone to sort through my thoughts.

  3. Once you've identified your non-negotiables, think about how you'll feed these needs, at least most days, especially during the most hectic times. Schedule, commit, and line up accountability partners or plans now.  Think reasonable and do-able. You may not have an hour to yourself, but you can probably carve out five minutes to jot down your thoughts in the morning. Ten minutes of yoga, a walk around the block, or eating the breakfast that keeps your energy up are small acts that can have a huge impact. Be creative, but don't skip this step. When we're not feeding our spirit, we're particularly susceptible to using food to fill in the gaps -- and food is likely to be everywhere.
  4. Identify potential emotional eating and overeating challenges now. Take a look at your calendar and make a list of the events, social situations, and days that may be tough in one way or another. Now -- when your brain is calm -- is the time to do some creative brainstorming about how want to approach them. Don't simply assume you'll "make it work" or that you "won't get upset this year." Instead, approach these tricky spots with the respect they deserve. Assume they may be difficult and consider how you'd like to take care of yourself and how you'd like to eat in these sticky situations.
  5. Make a plan for the treats you love. No one wants to be told no all the time. Decide early on which holiday treats you definitely want to relish and savor -- and then give yourself permission to do so without guilt. Make sure to eat these when you can give the experience your full attention so you can enjoy the food with all your senses. You'll feel more satisfied and you are likely to eat less than if you're not fully tuned in and savoring. On the flip side, make a list of the "junk" you'll probably see this season that you don't really like or isn't really special (dried out buffet food, crackers, chips and dip that you can have any time, and store-bought cookies). Make a policy not to waste angst, energy, and calories on food you simply don't love. Hold yourself to it.
  6. Plan for "routine" eating that will help you win. There will be many hours during the next two weeks that are not holiday celebrations. Create some easy, no-brainer, low stress ways to approach them -- now. I always try to keep lots of fruit around this time of year and breakfast and lunch tend to be simple, healthy meals that don't require a lot of thought and that leave me feeling nourished and happy with how I've eaten. Consider making a pot of soup with lots of vegetables in it that you can reheat for lunches. Give yourself easy, preplanned eating routines that will help you feel good about the way you are feeding yourself.
  7. Most importantly, don't expect perfection. I'm a believer in the "tweak and adjust" approach. Instead of getting rigid and stressed about food, allow yourself to be curious. Notice where your plans go well and where they don't. Notice the strategies that work and when something doesn't, give yourself permission to make adjustments instead of getting mad at yourself for not getting it perfect. Take the attitude that you'll do your best instead of falling into the trap of all or nothing thinking.

What's your biggest challenge when it comes to overeating or emotional eating during the holidays? Leave a comment and share your thoughts and the strategies that you'll be putting into place this year.