Foods and Moods During the Holiday Season

Home / Campus / ( Published on 2014-08-14 )

For many of us, our food intake may be a way of suppressing or soothing particular thoughts or feelings. Research over the past two decades has demonstrated that many people increase their food intake during particular times of the year, hoping to relieve the intensity of emotions and states such as anger, boredom, sadness, and loneliness. The Mayo Clinic reports psychological factors are significant throughout the year and that some people may overeat to cope and deal with problems. For example, during the holiday season there are many opportunities to indulge ourselves in a wide variety of foods. From Halloween candies to tasty Thanksgiving meal leftovers to company Christmas parties, we have much to feast and not famine. Unfortunately, too much snacking and not being mindful of eating patterns during the holiday season may lead to unplanned and unneeded weight gain that we may later regret.

So, how do we enjoy the vast array of foods and moods that await us during the holiday season more sensibly?

  • Become aware of your emotional triggers for eating. Recall what you’ve eaten over the past week and observe yourself. Note patterns of when you eat. What happens just prior to eating and how you feel after eating? What type of foods do you eat?
  • Drink a glass of water. Sometimes our bodies mistake the feeling of dehydration for hunger.
  • If you slip, don’t be over-critical of yourself. Mistakes happen. Forgive yourself and try to learn from it. Make a plan for how you can prevent it from occurring in the future.
  • Don’t completely deprive yourself. Find healthier substitutes for what you crave. Perhaps allow yourself a small portion of a dessert that you love so much.
  • Be mindful of what you are consuming rather than grazing all day. A food journal has been helpful for many. Some may be surprised by what they find after listing everything we consume from morning to bedtime.
  • Exercise. Exercise stimulates the “feel-better” chemicals (endorphins improve your mood). Take the stairs—not the elevator; park in the farthest spot in the parking lot; walk or bike to work or to the store; walk during your lunch hour; play with your children instead of watching them play; walk with your family after dinner; do weekend chores the physical way—use a push mower to mow the lawn or wash your car manually; buy an exercise bike and pedal during TV shows or while talking on the telephone; use a pedometer and try to increase the number of steps you walk each day.
  • Lastly, talking to your doctor openly and honestly about your weight or possible health/medical concerns related to your food intake is one of the best things you can do for your health. Ask about weight-related medical conditions, such as hypertension, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, and arthritis. These health conditions may improve if you talk to your doctor about weight loss and are able to lose weight.

Changing your lifestyle is more than choosing different foods and putting more activity into your day. It also involves changing your approach to eating and activity, which means changing how you think, feel and act. Here are some suggestions:

  • Motivate yourself. No one can make you lose weight. In fact, increased external pressure—often from people close to you—may only make matters worse. Likewise, trying to lose weight to satisfy someone else rarely works either. Make diet and exercise changes to please yourself.
  • Make lifestyle changes a priority. As you’re planning to launch new weight-related lifestyle changes, make sure you’ve resolved other pressing problems in your life. It takes a lot of energy to change habits, and you want to be sure you’re focused on the matter at hand.
  • Have a plan. Work out a strategy that will gradually change the habits and attitudes that may have undermined your past efforts to lose weight. Choose a definite start date. Consider how often and how long you will exercise. Determine a realistic eating plan that includes plenty of water, fruits and vegetables. Write everything down: When and where will you do the steps in your plan? How will your plan fit into your schedule? What are the potential roadblocks, and how will you deal with them?
  • Set small goals. Remember that you’re in this for the long haul. You’re making lifestyle changes, and the goals you’ve written down are your first baby-steps in that direction. Anything you undertake too intensely or too vigorously will quickly become uncomfortable, and you’re more likely to give it up.
  • Surround yourself with good examples. As you set your goals, it helps to surround yourself with good examples. Magazines such as Health, Shape, and Cooking Light include plenty of real-life stories, healthy and easy recipes, exercise tips and interesting facts about fitness. Even if you eat meat, a publication such as Vegetarian Times can provide a wealth of low-fat recipes.
  • Avoid food triggers. Distract yourself from your desire to eat with something positive, such as calling a friend. Practice saying no to unhealthy foods and big portions. Eat when you’re actually hungry—not when the clock says it’s time to eat. When you eat, focus on eating. Serve your meals on smaller plates to make less food seem like more. In general, store food out of sight, and don’t keep junk foods around.
  • Focus on the positive. Rather than focusing on what you can’t eat, focus on what you can eat. Look at what new tastes and activities you can discover that will enhance your health.
  • Don’t give up. So much in American culture conspires to make and keep you overweight. You will have setbacks. Don’t expect perfection. But don’t give up. Use relapses to get back on track. Motivate yourself with healthy rewards when you reach goals.

The Faculty Staff and Assistance Program (FSAP) provides confidential assessment, counseling, and referral services that support the wellbeing of both the individual and the organization. For an appointment or more information contact us at 415/476-8279 or visit the FSAP website.


  1. Benton, D., Donohoe, R. T. The Effects of Nutrients on Mood. Public Health Nutrition, September, 2, 3A, 1999, pp. 403-409.
  2. Bruinsma, K., Taren, D. L., Chocolate: Food or Drug? Journal of the American Dietary Association, October, 99, 10, 1999, pp. 1249-1256.
  3. Herraiz, T. Tetrahydro-Beta-Carbolines—Potential Neuroactive Alkaloids in Chocolate and Cocoa. Journal of Agriculture Food and Chemicals, October, 48, 10, 2000, pp. 4900-4904.
  4. Lyons, P. M., Truswell, A. S. Serotonin Precursor Influenced by Type of Carbohydrate Meal in Healthy Adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 47, 3, 1988, pp. 433-439.
  5. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research