Morning Mix


Spectrum Health – Avoid Stress Eating

Posted at 11:33 AM, Dec 21, 2015

Stress Eating During the Holidays - Shawn Katterman, Ph.D.

Clinical Health Psychologist, Spectrum Health Medical Group

Generally considered a time of merriment and good cheer, the holiday season can also be stressful for many people. How you're feeling around the holidays can directly impact how well you're eating. If you're stressed out about money or time, or in a bad mood for other reasons, you may find yourself mindlessly nibbling on those tempting, sugary, starchy, and fat-laden holiday treats to ease your anxiety. And, we all know that these yummy treats wreak havoc on our blood sugar, cause us to crave them even more and ultimately derail our weight loss goals.

  1. What is stress or emotional eating?

Stress eating, or emotional eating, is the word we use to describe eating when you really aren’t hungry. This could be in response to feeling stressed, tired, angry, bored, or another emotion, even joy or celebration. You turn to food and eat to soothe or distract yourself or feel good.

  1. What are some of the signs of emotional eating?

Signs of emotional eating include:

  • “Hunger” comes on quickly
  • Craving a specific food
  • Eating until you are overstuffed
  • Once you start eating, feeling you cannot stop
  • Mindless eating
  1. Why does stress affect eating?

Stress eating is very common, with some reports saying that up to 70% of people eat more when they are stressed.

Eating meets a lot of different needs. It is a pretty good way, at least in the short term, to distract us from feelings we do not like. Food can definitely help us avoid, for a short-time, feelings that are uncomfortable for us (stress, anger, physical pain, boredom). The problem is that of course, this does not work for long, and does not solve the actual problem we are facing.

These habits are started for a variety of reasons. If your family rewarded good behavior with food during your childhood, you may have learned to eat to feel better. TV ads and the habit of sitting and watching TV and the commercials tend to make this habit stronger as well.

To make things more challenging, when we are stressed, our bodies make more of the hormone cortisol, which makes us more likely to crave high fat and high sugar foods. So not only do we think of food as a way to feel better, it actually does, in the moment.

Certain more stressful times of the year can be more stressful, and lead to emotional eating. For example, you may find yourself emotionally eating more during the holidays since you tend to have less of a routine, and have a lot of stressful tasks such as shopping, traveling, visiting family, and socializing. The winter months can also make us less active and lower our moods, which may trigger emotional eating.


  1. Tips to avoid emotional eating 
  • Plan out Regular and Balanced Meals
  • Maintain Healthy Habits
  • Keep a Journal
  • Make Realistic Goals
  • Practice Mindfulness

When to Seek Help

These tips and techniques are a great place to start to break the emotional eating cycle. But if you’re unable to control your emotional eating yourself, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. A therapist can help you identify the reasons you may be emotionally eating and help create proactive strategies to change your behaviors for the long-term.

Shawn Katterman, Ph.D.

Spectrum Health Medical Group


4100 Lake Drive

Grand Rapids, MI 49546


Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine

2750 E. Beltline Ave NE

Grand Rapids, MI 49525