Holiday stress eating!

By: Laura McWilliams, Industry Health

Here we go holidays! Who’s excited? I am, for sure. I am excited because I have my plan, and I have my boundaries in place. But, you know, even the best laid plans fall apart when you have to start actually doing stuff instead of just thinking about doing stuff. Like this:my diet is pretty fantastic these days, I get tons of great veggies, keep cooked grains in the fridge for grab and go meals, snack on fruit, have been slowly transitioning my coffee from half caf to decaf, and have almost cut animal products out of my diet entirely- for the time being. I feel really good, have a lot of energy, sleep well, drink water, i am feeling pretty successful. Until I received an unexpected gift of chocolates and I seriously ate 5 of them before I even got my coat off. Or someone at work ( yesterday) opened up an expired bag of caramel and chocolate covered popcorn and left it on the desk and I ate a handful every time I walked by for an hour. What is that about?! I have no trouble passing up buying all sorts of fancy treats and snacks and fill my house with health food and really believe in the eating of it. But sometimes, whatever is right in front of me is just fair game, and no amount of self talk will make me change my mind about eating it.


One of the big issues that i have dealt with in my adult life is psoriasis. ( I think) I have had a small amount on my scalp, and last year when I was working in a bakery, I started to get patches of some sort of skin flare up on my forehead. This is a crisis, right? My face?! I blamed my diet then, as I have done constantly for the last 15 years or so of having skin issues, and tried to troubleshoot the problem with changes to what I ate. To not much success. I really feel like no matter what I ate, the flare ups came and went and came and went. I could not figure out what caused it to happen. I was ( am) a firm believer in the idea that the skin is a reflection of what is going on internally, so I kept up with the elimination dieting, but was not getting anywhere. Working in restaurants is hard, working in restaurants while trying not to eat sugar and dairy and gluten is impossible. Oh, and I was the pastry chef, lol.


This kind of manic, orthorexic dieting is not helpful. Not only was I not able to stay on the diet while at work, I was spending a ton of money on the healthiest groceries and supplements to counteract the effects when I was home. Which doesn’t work. I wanted so badly to be able to let go of the idea that I could diet my way to good health, I knew that it wasn’t working, and failing over and over was taking a toll on my psyche. I brought this up with the counselor I was talking to at the time and i was really surprised by her answer. I was confident that she would release me from dieting, tell me to stop, to calm down. Instead, she ask me why I wasn’t able to advocate for myself and for my health in the way that I clearly knew I should. It was very true that a lot of the crap I ate that I knew I shouldn’t eat was because I didn’t want to have to tell people about my diet, or didn’t want to be rude, or wanted to fit in with the group. Was I sabotaging my health for the sake of others? Jeez. What a way to think about it. I am such an accommodator, by nature, I don’t ever want people to feel uncomfortable or upset, and I know that I use my own energy and sacrifice my own comfort for others. This was a radical new idea to take home with me.


I went for it! I found myself an authority figure ( naturopath) to put me on an elimination diet that I easily could have put myself on. And I told people about it. This was huge for me. I have never been an advocate for my own health, I have always kept quiet and gone with the group. But I did it. I did the diet, I successfully determined that the causes for my flare ups are chocolate and stress.  


So, when I get a box of chocolates or come across a bag of chocolate covered popcorn and start shoving it into my face, I know the full consequences of my actions. And yet I still find myself doing it sometimes. What is that about?! How can we possibly conquer stress eating in the most stressful holiday month of the year if it seems that it is a conscious choice we make? I know all of the sober people’s hands went up. We do it by making a choice to not partake. It’s not an easy choice, but it is a choice.


I used to do the same thing with drinking. Driving home, I would be having that internal debate about whether to stop and get a bottle of wine or not. One side of me would list off all of the reasons not to : hangover, money, health, fear of losing control, and the other side of me would just chill. Because there was never really a question about whether I was going to stop at the store. I always stopped. I always had concerns and reasons why I didn’t want to stop but I always stopped and got the bottle of wine and took it home. I don’t know what the toll of so many years of failing myself in that way was on my self confidence and self trust, but I do know that these days I value being able to trust myself a lot.


Which brings us back to the popcorn…..The whole time I was eating the popcorn, I knew that it was harming me. I could feel the heartburn starting, I was so thirsty, I was losing the hunger for my healthy lunch. Every time I approached the bag, some part of me would be saying- don’t do it!- but I did, every time. This seems like some pretty simple math, right? I quit drinking by deciding 100% that there was no way I was going to drink again ( plus a ton of other stuff, of course). By deciding 100% there was no wiggle room, no mental struggle at all. I had decided. The door was closed, I could stop thinking about it. I made that decision with food over the summer when I successfully completed the elimination diet. I committed 100% and followed through. Why haven’t I made the choice to do it forever?


To talk about taking comfort foods out of the diet entirely, we have to talk about stress and stress eating. Stress eating is a huge thing! It gets the best of us sometimes. It’s how we were raised, it’s the culture we live in- rewarding ourselves for good behavior, numbing pain. Food does both of these things at the same time. Which would make it a miracle drug if it weren’t for the fact that food is so closely tied into our health and well being, and our appearance and body size- things that are very closely tied into our feelings of self worth. Yuck. Tricky situation.


Will you join me in exploring other ways to comfort ourselves and reduce stress this time of year? I have some great tools to share, ones that I am going to be using to get through my own stresses, and  to transition myself off of stress eating. For me, eating crappy food causes skin flare ups, and stress causes skin flare ups. So stress eating is out!

1. Drinking tea or sparkly water instead of eating. This works! Sometimes, you just need to be putting something in your mouth. A la croix? Or a fantastic tea blend- hot or cold? Hell yes to both. I find that a lot of the time I want to eat, I am just bored or nervous. And if I occupy my eating needs with a beverage, i’m good. And sometimes when I feel like I need to eat I really just need more water. Give it a try, there are some really amazing teas out there that taste great as well as having actual good for you properties. Nettle, licorice root, good spice, mint with honey and lemon. You can’t go wrong.

2. Meditation. I struggle with remembering to keep up my meditation practice but I can definitely tell the difference when I don’t! It just takes a few minutes a day and has incredible benefits for our stress and overall wellbeing. This will be a part of my intentions for the coming year, and I am going to start this month! 20 minutes a day? 10? I’ll start with 10.

3. Journal writing. This is the number one thing that I have to do in order to stay sane and keep everything together. It’s like, I can’t figure things out when they are in my head, but as soon as I start writing them down I can see what needs to be done. Dear Abby but with myself. Dear Laura! If you want the most bang for your buck, check out Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. She calls for morning pages, which is three full handwritten pages every morning. It doesn’t have to be about anything or have a narrative, often times i’ll just write exactly what pops into my head at the moment and things flow from there. Try it! Three pages, first thing in the morning- write down how you slept and any dreams, write down 5 things you are grateful for, and then write, write, write for three full pages. It’s crazy effective. Journaling before bed is also helpful, it gets out the thoughts that you have kicking around and allows your mind to rest.

4. Leaving some time quiet. I noticed a few weeks ago, laying in bed with my mind racing, that I never really have any completely quiet time. When I am home I am listening to music or podcasts, podcast in the car, talking to people at work, talking to people after work, there is always noise. Some days, when I lay down in bed to go to sleep, it is the first moment of completely silent time that my brain has had to think things over and figure them out. But that is the time when I want to sleep! It seems like our brains could use a break from all of the noise, it certainly helps me. I have started ( trying to) leaving the car quiet when I drive. Also, I don’t put on music when I am working at my computer, I try to single task my brain as often as I possibly can. Do you notice a lot of noise in your life? If it’s tv and kids and music and talking, is there ever a break? Give this some thought, it may help your brain space!

5. Simplify your holiday plans. I did this! I am very excited about the holidays this year because I have a plan. I am doing things on my own terms, and I am only doing the things that I want to do because they sound fun to me. I am not doing a single holiday activity just because it’s the thing that you do. Jealous? You could totally join me in cutting back. We put so much stress on ourselves this time of the year to do everything and buy everything but, seriously, we have the same amount of time and money now as we do all of the rest of the months! It’s a trap! We can show that we care with love. We can make meals that are delicious and simple. We can give out a few less cookies and make more time to spend resting with our loved ones. It’s going to be cold and dark- don’t run yourself ragged. Get lots of sleep, invest your time in places that are really meaningful to you. Your time is valuable, it is a gift.

Laura McwilliamsComment