7 Rewarding Ways to Avoid Holiday Stress Eating

I would imagine that most of us would agree that the holiday season can be stressful.  These feelings of holiday stress are often felt most from Thanksgiving to New Years Day and can result in unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as emotional eating.  Eating as a way to manage holiday stress can cause unnecessary weight gain.  In fact, a 2018 survey of U.S. adults found that 88% of respondents gained weight during the holiday season, with the average adult gaining six lbs1.  However, this doesn’t mean that emotional eating during the holiday season and subsequent weight gain is a forgone conclusion.  

By understanding what is causing your emotional distress during the holidays and creating a plan to manage this stress in healthy ways, you can eliminate holiday season emotional eating and the resulting weight gain.  I can recall working with one particular client who described to me how she would get overwhelmed by holiday stress each year.  She explained that she would cope with the holiday stress by eating to calm her emotions. By the time the New Year would roll around, she’d be feeling exhausted, lethargic (from all the comfort foods she’d been eating), and distraught about now having to muster up the energy to lose the weight she had gained.  

After hearing her story, we created a plan for her to use during the holiday season, which helped her recognize when she was feeling stressed, allowed her to cope with her emotions in a healthy way, and prompted her to nearly eliminate her habit of holiday season stress eating.  As a result, she avoided her usual holiday weight gain, and most importantly, she enjoyed that year’s holiday season the most she had since she was a child.   

In this article, you will learn what is causing you to eat emotionally during the holiday season and the 7 ways you eliminate emotional eating.  To start, you’ll figure out what is driving your desire to eat emotionally during the holidays.  These reasons are most often tied to deep-rooted emotions, family tensions, and loss of routines.

What Causes Holiday Stress Eating?

Psychological Reasons 

The holiday season can conjure up an array of emotions within us; many of each can elicit a desire to eat.  Some of the negative emotions most widely felt during the holidays are grief, sadness, and guilt.  Turning to food to cope with these unwanted feelings is a scenario many people find themselves in. 


The holiday season is a time traditionally spent with loved ones.  When this time of year rolls around and the loved ones you typically celebrated the holidays with are no longer with you, it can generate feelings of grief.  Since we usually miss lost loved ones the most during times of celebration, the holiday season can lead to magnified feelings of grief.  This time of year can also make us feel lonely and sad. 


For people without a significant other or family that lives close by, the holidays can feel very lonely.  Often this feeling of loneliness causes people to isolate even more than usual, causing sadness and depression.  Additionally, those who do not have the life situation they desire can sometimes spend the holidays reflecting on better times in their past, heightening feelings of sadness.  Another emotion felt quite often during the holiday season is guilt.  


The anticipation of the activities you plan to participate in and the expected feeling of holiday joy they will bring can often lead to the generation of unrealistic expectations.  When these expectations are not met, it can leave you feeling disappointed and guilty.  This can be particularly true if you feel as though you didn’t meet your loved one’s holiday expectations.  Perhaps, you didn’t give the gift they were looking for, or the meal you worked so hard on didn’t come out as planned.  These unmet expectations can undoubtedly leave you feeling guilty and often can create tension within a family.  

Family Tension

Whether we like it or not, the holiday season calls for family get-togethers.  For many of us, spending time with our extended family on several occasions within a month can feel overwhelming.  Family tension can arise as a result of acute issues that are going on within a family, or they can be caused by long-standing differences.  

However, even if there aren’t any specific conflicts or deep-rooted issues that are driving family tensions, just the act of being around your family so often during such a short period of time can create issues.  This is especially true once you add alcohol and include other sources of holiday stress into the mix.  Often feelings of holiday stress are worsened due to a loss of routine.  

Loss of Routine 

The holiday season can feel like a rat race.  We often find ourselves running around trying to fit in all of our shopping, cooking, decorating, and socializing because if we don’t do all of these things, it “doesn’t feel like the holidays.”  This self-inflicted overscheduling not only generates stress, but it causes us to abandon our routines. 

A staple practice of stress management is to maintain healthy routines.  These routines lead to regular exercise, nutritious eating, essential periods of downtime, and allow us to get adequate sleep.  If these routines are dropped in favor of jamming in all of our holiday, “must-dos,” it can lead to extreme levels of stress.  The good news is that there are many approaches you can take that will allow you to manage your stress levels and avoid holiday season stress eating.  

Holiday Season Stress Management Techniques

  1.  Set Realistic Expectations 

Much of our holiday season stress is related to unrealistic expectations.  To combat this source of stress, set reasonable expectations.  To do this, enter the holiday season knowing that things will go wrong, people will be ungrateful, and that not everyone will get along.  Rather than expecting a “Waltons” holiday, anticipate a “Griswold” holiday.  In other words, set the bar low and be happy if it turns out better than you expected.

  1. Avoid Trying to Please Everyone

It’s easy to run yourself into the ground trying to give everyone else in your life the perfect holiday season.  Attempting to do this will set you up for disappointment, as your loved ones may not fully appreciate your efforts.  Understand that you can’t control anyone other than yourself and that no matter what you do, your mother-in-law may still complain about the food, your children may gripe about the gift they didn’t get, and that your uncle will have too much to drink and will rave about political issues at the dinner table.  To set yourself up for success, make sure that you make time for the things you enjoy about the holiday season and invite others to join.  

  1. Spend Meaningful Time With Loved Ones 

There is so much to do around the holidays.  But how much of this “to-do list” actually matters to you?  Doing things just to do them, even traditions, is not a good use of your time.  Before launching yourself into your usual holiday scramble, think about what brings meaning to the holidays for you and ask your loved ones what they really enjoy about the holidays.  Then make time for these festive activities, and don’t worry about fitting in the rest.  This will leave you feeling more satisfied and less stressed.  

  1. Give Back 

Research shows that giving to others makes us feel happy.  In fact, a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health found that when people donate to charity, the pleasure centers of their brain “light-up.”  The holiday season is a wonderful part of the year to donate your time and money to others.  Participating in activities like serving Christmas dinner at a soup kitchen, donating a warm coat, or buying a present for “Toys For Tots” are all meaningful ways to give back.  Incorporating generous acts into your holiday routine will help you feel good and reduce feelings of stress. 

  1. Delegate 

Much of the stress during the holiday season can be self-generated by taking on too much.  The chances are that you have many capable people in your life that can help to wrap presents, cook a side dish, and pick up a relative from the airport.  You don’t have to do EVERYTHING!  Not only will delegating help to distribute the workload, but it will provide you with some much needed “me time.”  Use this time to spend meaningful time with loved ones, volunteer, or to sneak off to relax on your own. 

  1. Eat Mindfully 

The holiday season is often accompanied by foods that you usually enjoy just once a year.  There is nothing wrong with partaking in eating these foods.  The problem occurs when you eat ALL the foods.  Think about the holiday foods you genuinely enjoy eating the most.  Eat those foods and pass on the rest.  For instance, if you really like to eat roast beef on Christmas, help yourself, but if you could do without the mashed potatoes, then pass on those. By making mindful eating choices, you’ll be able to enjoy your favorite foods, thus avoiding the feeling of deprivation, and you’ll be able to avoid the extra calories that come along with the foods you don’t even like that much.  

  1. Don’t Abandon Your Healthy Habits 

One of the worst decisions I see people make is to tell themselves, “I’m just too busy to keep exercising and to eat well during the holidays.  I’ll pick it back up in the New Year.”  Do not fall into this trap!  Eating nutritious foods and exercising regularly are staples to managing stress levels.  Abandoning these habits during perhaps the most stressful period of the year is the worst thing you can do.  Stick with your habits, even if you have to modify or dial back your practices during the holiday rush.  Something is better than nothing.  Plus, it will feel much easier to ramp back up your healthy habits in January if you keep them going, even at a reduced level, during November and December.  


In addition to being the “most wonderful time of the year,” the holiday season can stir up hard to process emotions and generate feelings of stress.  During the holiday season, increased feelings of angst paired with the abundance of available comfort foods create a recipe for stress eating.  Eating to cope with your emotions often leads to holiday weight gain and New Year guilt.  Rather than succumbing to this as a forgone conclusion, there are several things you can do to eliminate holiday season emotional eating. 

By setting realistic expectations, avoiding trying to please everyone, spending meaningful time with loved ones, giving back, delegating, sticking with your health habits, and eating mindfully, you’ll be able to manage the holiday season without having to turn to food for relief.  Plus, you’ll enjoy the holiday season in ways that you might not have since you were a child. 

Related Posts:


1.Gobble Away! Average American Will Put On 6 Pounds During Holiday Season, Study Finds. https://www.studyfinds.org/average-american-gains-six-pounds-during-holiday-season/#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20survey%20of,chowing%20down%20on%20holiday%20food.

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