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Stress Eating During the Holidays AND COVID-19: How to Deal

December 22, 2021
Stress Eating

The winter holidays are glorious. And stressful. Even without a pandemic, the extra challenges of family, travel, shopping and food can shift you into stress mode. This year, with the unknowns of what the holidays will look like, you may also be concerned about your eating and exercise habits.

Addressing Stress and Loss

First, acknowledge your feelings of anxiety and loss. It’s sad to imagine the family circle without your loved ones. If the pandemic affected your finances, you may be worried about how to celebrate the holidays the way you’d like. All of those feelings may push you to eat more than you’d like or less healthy than you’d like.

And while the pandemic has changed many of our rhythms, it’s also highlighted how valuable our health truly is. Take steps to protect yourself from the coronavirus — and steps to care for your emotional and mental health. Developing an eating plan for the holidays may help you feel more in control.

Remember that food is just one component of the holidays. Nothing beats holiday eats, it’s true. But there are lots of non-food ways to celebrate:

  • Spend time with friends and family
  • Volunteer
  • Attend religious services
  • Take a traditional walk or do an activity

Try to find a small slice every day (even just 15 minutes) where you practice holiday enjoyment without food or eating.

Ways to stop stress eating

Here are some other tips for handling the stress of food and eating during the holidays:

1. Understand it’s OK to enjoy yourself

Nutritionists and dietitians encourage people to enjoy their food. All foods are OK in appropriate amounts. YOU get to choose what those are for you. If you have a favorite cookie or cake that makes you feel like it’s the holidays, enjoy it!

When you restrict your enjoyment of food, it can lead to overeating. Eat the treat as part of the holiday celebrations. Recognize that it’s OK and healthy. When you start to overeat or use food to soothe your feelings of loneliness or grief — that’s when it’s time to turn to a different activity. Take a walk, play cards or talk to your family and friends.

2. Create new traditions

Many families have traditional dishes they prepare and eat together. That may not be possible if you can’t be in the same place as your cousins. Turn it into something fun. Try a mail cookie exchange. Or have everyone make the dish and then eat it together over Zoom.

Now is a great time to start a new tradition: Pick a new recipe to make with your family or the people you’re celebrating with. Food can and should be an important part of celebrating the holidays. Get creative about how to incorporate favorite dishes even though you may not be together in the same physical place.

You can also play Secret Santa by mailing gifts (Elfster is one free tool for this purpose) and hosting an unwrapping party together — maybe the gift is a food that fits into the holiday theme? There are so many ways to create connections and have fun, even if we can’t be together in person.

3. Reach for water

Alcohol is fun — and delicious — but it can add a lot of calories to your daily total. Think about filling your glass with flavored seltzers, fruits like strawberries or oranges or sugar-free drink mixes. You don’t have to go full-on teetotaler — by all means, celebrate. But even saying “I’ll pass” to one drink can be saying no to an extra 150 to 300 sugar-filled calories.

Saying “yes” to water is always a good idea. Staying hydrated keeps you from filling up on empty calories and helps control some of your hunger around those goodies.

4. Remember January 1 is just a day

Many people eat more than they want to during the holidays because they know January 1 is coming. That’s when they’ll “turn over a new leaf.” But January 1 is just a day. It’s not very different from December 31.

Try saying, “I’m going to eat one treat a day during the holiday season, even though I normally restrict myself.” Make the daily treat part of your holiday eating plan. That way, you can still enjoy the season but not get mad later that you didn’t stick to a strict eating plan.

5. Find ways to move around

Continue to exercise during the holidays — aim for at least 30 minutes a day. Host holiday dance parties with friends and family over Zoom. Rake your leaves. Shovel your driveway. Studies show that exercise releases your endorphins, those feel-good hormones.

For some people, the holidays start at Halloween. For others, it’s Thanksgiving. However long it is for you, remember that eating is just one part of the celebration. Don’t let it cause even more hassle during an already stressful time. Enjoy a piece of cake and move on!

Learn More

Baystate Health offers a variety of services and resources for healthy weight management.