Food for Thought: An Intentional Approach to Holiday Eating

The holidays are fast approaching, and while the holidays are a time of joy for many, they can also be a time of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Daylight is fleeting and festive gatherings with friends and family brighten this dark time of year. It is a time of preparing and sharing large meals together. While these can be nourishing and unifying experiences, there are often stressful elements embedded in the social and familial expectations of the season and its traditions. This may lead to a change in your patterns of food consumption. But rest assured, you’re not alone if you find yourself eating differently during the holiday season.

One study found that 63% of Americans struggle with “food guilt”
Let’s take a deeper dive into the connection between the holidays and our food choices, which may be linked to an emotional response to the stressors that we encounter during this time.

Brain Chemistry: The Pathology of Consumption
According to Dr. Umadevi Naidoo, Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, studies indicate that a healthy diet has an impact on our overall mental health.

When we eat high-fat, high-sugar foods our brains respond by increasing the production of endorphins and dopamine, the pleasure hormones that light up the brain circuits responsible for giving us feelings of reward and satisfaction. This may sound like a good thing but in the long run, research suggests a link to increased rates of depression in those who rely upon these types of foods as the primary way of attaining those good feelings. This is how we come to use over-eating as a coping mechanism during times of stress.

This doesn’t mean we should avoid indulging in seasonal treats, but it does mean we should and can prepare ourselves to make healthy holiday food choices when temptations are offered more frequently than usual. Moderation and balance are crucial.

But how can we overcome our natural urge to eat more than we need in order to ease our holiday stress? Where is the line between comfort and over-indulgence? Mindful eating can be a valuable tool to help break these problematic patterns and implement healthy practices in their stead.

A Mindful Eating Practice Takes Practice
Mindful eating refers to the practice of becoming aware of your body’s response to foods without judgment. It starts by minimizing distractions during eating and focusing on one’s emotions, feelings, sense of fullness and satisfaction about the food that is being enjoyed.

During the holidays, we recommend setting food boundaries, such as:

  • Making food choices before you are hungry. Set aside time to pre-plan a few meals and make healthy snack food choices like nuts and seeds or fresh citrus fruits available to you during busy and demanding times. Healthy snacks in-between meals helps to maintain balanced portion control.
  • Opt to control food choices at gatherings by bringing a healthy choice: hummus and vegetables, fruit and yogurt, nuts and seed trail mix, whole grain crackers and seafood dip are great options.
  • Take control of the food environment. Put away tempting foods or give excess treats away as gifts. Keep the healthiest food options at eye level in your pantry and fridge.
  • Focus on sensory cues. It can be easy to get overstimulated by the inherent indulgence and nostalgia of the season. Take the time to really acknowledge your relationship to your eating experience. Check-in with yourself throughout each meal, taking the time to notice and appreciate your food with all of your senses.


Although it can be tempting to multitask during the holidays and perhaps eat while on a work call, reading an email, or talking on the telephone, research suggests that these behaviors can actually detract from the mindful experience and may increase feelings of anxiety.

Try to designate time solely for eating without distractions. This will help you stay in tune with your body and its limits. When you eat meals slowly and intentionally, you can be aware of when you become full. Honor your appetite and dedicate time to enjoying your meals.

Replacement Coping Mechanisms
The emotional component of the holiday season is understandably what triggers overeating as a coping mechanism and a way to self-soothe. It’s important to remove shame and guilt from what is a very natural response to complicated emotional family situations and dynamics.

This is a time of year when we see people we don’t always interact with regularly, and these relationships can be triggering. But this is a wonderful opportunity for self-reflection and growth. Implementing tools such as meditation and deep breathing exercises before and after holiday gatherings can help you stay grounded and present during potentially complex emotional situations. And remember, you don’t have to do this alone. Therapy can be incredibly helpful in helping you build your toolbox of healthy coping mechanisms.

Rest, Relax, Repeat
When we are sleep-deprived, cravings for high-fat, high-sugar, and high-salt foods increase. During the holidays and year-round, it is essential to prioritize sleep with a schedule or wind-down routine. Aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep each night to optimize health. Avoid excessive alcohol consumption and limit caffeinated beverages 10 hours prior to bedtime.

Keep your pre-holiday routines as much as possible. Prioritizing self-care can help you navigate this time of year. Pay attention to your boundaries. Take yourself for a relaxing stroll after dinner. Drink plenty of water. And if you need a little extra support from your provider or registered dietitian, you’re not alone. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When you’re functioning at your best, you have more to give to those you love.

With these suggestions, you can optimize your holiday season with your family and friends, enjoy mindfully sharing meals with those you love with a spirit of gratitude, and minimize the shame attached to “holiday eating”.

This blog post was written by:

Katherine Tom


Katherine is a private practice registered dietician with her own nutrition consulting business, North Texas Nutrition Associates. She has over 15 years of experience in outpatient and tele-nutrition counseling, clinical research, and diabetes self-management education. She is passionate about helping adults and children gain access to evidence-based nutrition information so they can be empowered to make informed decisions for themselves.

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