12/19/2010 10:15 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Overeating: Avoid Stress Eating This Holiday Season

We have shopped; no one will like anything we bought; let's eat. I suspect this mantra will be repeated frequently as holiday shoppers stagger toward the food court in the mall, feet hurting, fingers pinched by the stiff handles on the shopping bags, and a mouth parched by the overheated air. Buying gifts for anyone but newborn babies can be frustrating and maddening, so it's understandable why the food court may be the most welcome space in the shopping mall. You can sit down, put the heavy bags on the ground and finally do something nice for yourself. You can eat.

The holiday season is no holiday for most people because few, if any, can give up their day job to take care of the additional burdens and obligations associated with the Christmas/New Year celebrations. Even though the computer has made it easier to buy gifts, send cards and pen the yearly letter to relatives, no computer is capable of decorating the house, cooking holiday meals and picking up relatives at the airport. The to-do list seems endless but the number of days to accomplish everything necessary are all too limited. Eating seems to be the only time you forget about your obligations and just relax.

So eating is now our time out by default. There is nothing wrong with this. Even galley slaves were allowed to stop rowing for a few minutes while they gobbled their rations. Eating as time out from the stress of gift buying and holiday obligations becomes a problem only if:

1. You are not really hungry but convince yourself that you are in order to stop shopping or cleaning the guest room;

2. The calorie content of the foods you eat are more suited for someone rowing across the Mediterranean chained to his oar than addressing envelopes.

To prevent holiday stress eating from leaving you with the gift of a few extra pounds, consider this: You don't have to eat in order to justify taking a few minutes for yourself to rest.

If you go to the food court to relax and ease your tired feet, you can justify occupying a chair by sipping at some bottled water or a diet beverage. No one will make you leave because you are not eating a platter of deep fried chicken wings or a triple burger. The same thing is true at home. You don't have to wait until it is time for a snack or meal to allow yourself to stop the endless tasks and sit down. Plopping into a comfortable chair with your feet on a hassock is allowable and you don't have to have a snack in your hand to do this. A magazine will work just as well.

Many years ago, a weight-loss client and I struggled to understand why she snacked so many times during the day since she was never hungry when she reached for food. The reason became clear only after she described her mother's attitude toward relaxing. Martha was taught to keep busy with chores or with homework when she came home from school. The only time she was permitted to read or watch television was when she was having her after-school snack. As my client told me, "As long as I was eating, I didn't have to dust or empty the dishwasher or clean out the litter box. So of course I ate as much as I could for as long as I dared." And this habit reached into her adulthood, so the only time she did not feel guilty about stopping her work around the house or in the garden was when she was snacking.

Taking time out to snack is however important at one time of day; the late afternoon. As the sun goes down, our mood often goes down with it and we feel out of sorts, tired, grumpy and not motivated to do anything. Simple exhaustion and winter darkness are behind some of this late afternoon moodiness, but the brain is also responsible. A particular chemical in the brain, serotonin, seems to become less active late in the afternoon resulting in a deteriorating mood and a nagging need to eat. Boosting serotonin levels is the key to restoring mental, emotional and physical energy. The only way to do this is to eat a low fat, low protein carbohydrate snack like pretzels, popcorn or graham crackers. Serotonin levels go up soon after the snack is digested because eating carbohydrate allows tryptophan, the amino acid from which serotonin is made, to enter the brain. And as soon as tryptophan becomes available, serotonin is made. The changes in mood following this increase in serotonin are easily detected. Focus returns, tiredness decreases, patience replaces irritability, and motivation to keep shopping or wrapping presents increases. These mood changes can be linked to increased activity of this feel-good brain chemical.

So when late afternoon rolls around and you are feeling incapable of doing one more chore or buying one more gift, stop, sit down, eat a carbohydrate snack, wait 20 minutes and then get going again. You still may buy the wrong gift, but at least you will be in the right mood.