Stress eating is a real problem, especially during the holiday season. A 2018 study found that 88% of Americans felt stressed while celebrating the holidays

Between traveling and visiting family, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas can feel like a blur of a moment where we allow many things, including our health and nutritional goals to be put aside. All of that eating isn’t purely associated with the Thanksgiving feast, though. While some of it is the second helping of stuffing, much of that increased eating comes from stress eating. But what exactly is stress eating? And why do we fall prey to it even more-so during the holidays?

Understanding the biology of stress eating and getting equipped with actionable tips can help manage this habit and help you avoid excess weight gain & improve mental health.

Did you know that the average American expects to gain 4 to 5 times more weight during the ‘eating holidays’ than they actually do? Holiday weight gain myth BUSTED below.

Table of Contents


What are ‘eating holidays’?

In an article by Kaitlin Dannibale titled “The Effect of the Holidays on Eating Disorders, Thanksgiving and Christmas are associated with a 14% increase in eating compared to other holidays.

Calling holidays with high caloric intakes eating holidays, Dannibale states, “eating holidays are known as the point of highest caloric consumption in the United States.”


What is stress eating?

Also called “emotional eating,” stress eating is a pattern of eating where people use food to help them deal with stressful situations.

Many people stress eat during all times of the year. Work, family, friends, and life in general create moments of stress. However, the combination of high stress and copious amounts of food around us create a volatile scenario in which we have many more opportunities to replace our stress with food.

Stress eating is also called “emotional eating” because of its association with our moods. When we feel emotions such as stress, apathy, or nervousness, it tends to create a reaction in our guts.


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The brain-gut axis

Our digestive system even has its own nervous system, called the enteric nervous system. This specialized nervous system is highly connected to our typical nervous system, which is why when we have strong feelings, we get a “gut reaction.” Stress eating is just another one of these many interactions it creates.

Why do I stress eat during the holidays?

We know we do it but finding the answer as to ‘why do I stress eat?’ may not be apparent on the surface.

Oftentimes we find ourselves stress eating over specific triggers, which is why it is so prevalent during the holiday season. Feeling strapped for time & personal space, fulfilling family holiday obligations, and overspending are just a few stressors main holiday stressors. Stressful triggers are abound when you’re traveling constantly, interacting with friends and family more, and putting yourself at an overall higher stress level than, say, Labor Day weekend.

A 2018 study found that 88% of Americans felt stressed while celebrating the holidays

But more specifically, we stress eat because our brains find it comforting on a biological level.

When we eat certain foods like carbohydrates, for example, this creates a process in the body that ultimately ends up with our bodies having higher amounts of the hormone insulin released in the blood to help control glucose levels. In addition to gathering up glucose, insulin is also good at gathering and transporting higher amounts of the amino acid tryptophan to the brain.

There in the brain, these high levels of tryptophan pass the blood-brain barrier and tryptophan is the sole precursor to serotonin, also known as the “happy hormone”.

FUN FOOD FACT: Carbohydrates biologically help make us feel happier by way of releasing higher levels of serotonin in the brain.

When stress and sadness snowball into each other, we look for quick and simple ways to bring up our mood. Since food is so readily available to us, it’s an easy place for our brains to fixate and abuse during times of stress.

The time between Thanksgiving and New Years is the most stressful part of the year.

The holidays are a wonderful time of year because of all the delicious and wonderful food we cook, bake, and eat. If you’re susceptible to stress eating, however, the stress the holidays produces can be increased even more.


How much weight is gained over the holidays?

You’ll often hear and read that the average American can gain anywhere from 5-10 pounds during the holiday season [November to the New Year].

However, during any time throughout the year weight can fluctuate daily 5-10 pounds. But unless you’re consistently adding an extra 3,500+ calories a week on top of your daily recommended calorie intake, long-lasting weight gain upwards of 5-10 pounds will be hard to maintain in a 6-8 week period during the holidays.


Holiday Weight Gain Myth BUSTED

  • Studies showed on average that most of us may gain about 1 pound coming out of the holiday season
  • Only about 10% of subjects from the study gained 5+ pounds coming out of the holiday season
  • Of those that gained 5+ pounds it was found that they were more likely to already be overweight


How to stop stress eating especially around the holidays

While we cant necessarily turn off our urge to overindulge or our susceptibility to get stressed-out during the holiday season, we can take action to help manage and make the season more merry.

young caucasian woman eating greedily some snacks

Try these 11 tips to help manage stress eating & weight gain during the holidays

  1. Find 20 – 30 minutes to exercise – Breaking a sweat or getting your heart rate up not only helps burn calories but exercising releases endorphins helping to reduce stress levels. Plus, when you get a workout in it tends to help sets the bar to make healthier choices too.
  2. Make protein a priority – Not to say you shouldn’t have a well-balanced diet with carbs and fats. However, when reaching for a snack due to stress make sure you have some high-protein options ready. Protein helps with satiety and helps you to avoid sugary foods that may trigger additional stress or anxiety. Adequate amount of protein also helps to upkeep muscle mass in turn giving you more energy to tackle more of what the holiday season throws at you.
  3. Look ahead and plan [meal prep] – You’ll likely find meal prep on most healthy lifestyle lists and that’s because planning leaves less room for error and makes life simpler – both a bonus when it comes to stress and eating during the holidays. By making a plan now, you’ll have less decisions to make down the road helping to cut down on stress and making it easier to avoid overindulging during the holiday hustle & bustle.
  4. Try drinking hot herbal tea before bed– Hot drinks and in particular [caffeine-free] tea have calming effects and properties that might help calm your mind when under lots of pressure. Choose herbal blends that promote calming and relaxation such as blends with lavender, rose, chamomile, or mint. Winding down with a cup of hot tea before bed may just be the key to cut out night-time snacking & stress eating. Additionally, sipping on hot tea helps with hydration and fat burning; having ample amount of water in the body helps to metabolize fat molecules [lipolysis].
  5. Be mindful about getting in fruits & vegetables [2-3 cups of each daily] – During the holidays its easy to gravitate towards the cheese & cookie trays especially when you’re feeling burnt out and you just want to enjoy yourself. And while enjoying the seasonal treats is ok, be mindful about getting in your daily servings of fruits and vegetables before you dive into decadent dishes. This way you’ll fill up on healthy food items allowing you to have more self-control before you indulge. Getting adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals from your food will ultimately help reduce stress levels and maintain a level of homeostasis helping you physically feel good and mentally.
  6. Identify triggers & listen to your body It’s important to recognize triggers and be mindful of our own bodies. Just as it tells us when we’re hungry or hurt, our body tells us when it’s uncomfortable or anxious. Being aware of those moments and watching for potential moments like that are an important step towards self-control and maintaining a healthy habit for the long term.
  7. Food journaling Tracking our behaviors and what we eat can be important. Creating a food journal, even without tracking things like calories or macronutrients, can help create a greater awareness of what we are eating, how much, and the reasons why we are eating. Did we eat this meal because we were hungry, or because we just wanted something? Were we bored and decided to fill that time with eating instead?
  8. Find support and accountability through others It’s also been proven that holding to a lifestyle program can help keep a healthier mindset. According to a study done by Shawn Talbott, a PsychoNutritionist, lifestyle programs have a statistically significant effect on keeping people on their nutritional goals than when they had no program. It is unsure of which aspects of a lifestyle program specifically create this effect, but many theorize that it’s due to the focus on what, how, and when we eat that creates more mindful attitudes towards what we eat.
  9. Step back & analyze if its stress that’s making you ‘hungry’ A good question to ask when thinking about eating is “why am I eating?” If the goal is to eliminate hunger, or even to enjoy the tastes of the food, then eat away! But if you’re just feeling bummed or are bored and are looking for something to fill the time with, maybe figure out another way to spend your time.
  10. Say ‘NO’ to food pushing while you love your family and friends and want to make them happy, you don’t need to stress yourself out by sacrificing your health. If you’re dealing with a family or friend attempting ‘food pushing’ or making you feel obligated to enjoy their food, it’s ok to say no. You’ve got enough on your plate during the holidays, you dont need to feel forced to down extra food to make others happy.
  11. Take things at your own pace – Recognize when you need to pull away from the holidays for a moment of clarity. Create and maintain specific times or activities to destress. Breaking up the holiday stress with activities and planned leisure time can be a good way to maintain a healthy level of stress without overdoing it. It also gives you moments to reflect on how you are doing and if you need to alter your schedule in anyway.


Finding time for you

Some people say the holiday season is like having a part-time job. And it’s true to some effect; we’re constantly doing things: decorating the Christmas tree, putting lights on outside, traveling to visit family, these things take up time and effort that normally goes into relaxing after work, sleeping in later, or taking care of ourselves.

Finding time to destress and relax during the holiday season is essential for your mental wellbeing.

Even if it’s at the detriment of doing holiday activities, keeping your personal stress low is important, both in terms of stress eating and other mental health issues around this time such as seasonal depression or other eating disorders.

Understanding our bodies is only the first step in taking better care of our mental health; creating appropriate reactions is the next one.

Being more mindful can both lower the amount of stress we are under and allow us to be more conscious and purposeful with our food choices. Finding ways to lower our stress will allow us to be more present for the holidays and make more purposeful choices, especially in what we eat