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Handling Holiday Head Hunger

By Michelle May, M.D.

Notice how often food is at the center of your celebrations: traditional foods, family gatherings, tins of holiday goodies as gifts. Eating is a wonderful way to reminisce, nurture, and bond.


Emotional eating is normal, even healthy-unless it is the primary way you cope with or avoid your feelings. During the holidays, emotional eating becomes magnified. Not only is food everywhere, but you may feel more stressed, lonely, exhausted, overwhelmed, or even happier-all common triggers for emotional eating.

How Emotional Eating Leads to Overeating

  1. Food is a quick, convenient, easy way to manage your feelings (for example, stuffing them or calming them down).
  2. When you’re eating for emotional reasons, you’re more likely to reach for sweets, salty snacks, and comfort foods. In other words, why you are eating affects what you eat.
  3. Emotional eating is often mindless, so you barely notice what you are putting in your mouth or how full you’re getting.
  4. You can eat a lot of food when you’re eating for emotional reasons. If hunger doesn’t tell you to start eating, what tells you to stop?
  5. Emotional eating only gives you temporary pleasure or distraction so you have to eat again when the effects fade.
  6. Food alone can’t really make you happy or less stressed so your emotional triggers come back again and again.
  7. Emotional eating can lead to shame and guilt, ironically two of the most powerful emotional triggers for more overeating.

The way to break out of this pattern is to create a self-care buffer zone to decrease emotional triggers. When it happens anyway (and it will), learn to identify and handle head hunger more effectively. When you do, you’ll feel better, for longer.

Prevent Emotional Eating with a Self-Care Buffer Zone

Recognize Head Hunger: Whenever you feel like eating, first ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” Look for physical signs that you need fuel. (Review chapter 5 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes)

Eat What You Love: Deprivation and guilt are powerful emotional triggers that can lead to overeating so choose foods that nourish your body and your soul.

Love What You Eat: Eating can be a satisfying emotional experience. Savor each bite mindfully, staying conscious of how your body feels as you eat.

Do what you love: What are your favorite holiday activities? Who do you want to spend time with? Which events are the most meaningful to you? Which ones could you do without this year?

Practice Self-Care: Give yourself the gift of adequate sleep, healthy meals, regular physical activity, and unscheduled time to decompress. These choices build an effective self-care buffer zone.


About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

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