Dear Food Speak: I rely on comfort foods too much this time of year. What I can do to change that as the holiday season gets underway?



Find comfort in knowing you can beat emotional eating.

The comfort you seek from food during the holidays may be from feeling that you have less control over your schedule, your exposure to tempting food, and your emotions.

Awareness is the first step toward preventing holiday overindulgence. Realize that emotional eating does more damage than comfort. It suppresses your feelings. Plus, it distracts you from learning effective ways to cope with your emotional distress. Experts estimate that about 75 percent of overeating is caused by emotions.

Shield yourself from emotional hunger by recognizing its tell-tale signs. Emotional hunger usually involves a craving for a specific food while physical hunger leaves you more open to options. Emotional hunger can be sudden while physical hunger occurs gradually. Emotional eating is also commonly associated with eating past fullness with subsequent feelings of guilt.

Be ready for urges to comfort eat. Be honest with yourself about whether your hunger is emotional or physical. Most emotional eaters have lost the innate ability to self-regulate hunger and fullness. Over time, you can relearn how to listen to and trust your body's internal cues. Start by focusing on eating slowly and mindfully, tasting every bite as if it was the first. The more a meal satisfies you, the less of a chance you'll overeat it.

You also need to be more mindful of what's eating you this time of year. Pinpoint which emotions typically trigger comfort eating in you. Remember that it's normal and healthy to experience a wide range of emotions, even negative ones. You just need to learn how to weather emotional storms without food and to focus more on non-food comfort. Make a list of at least three healthy ways you can redirect yourself from an urge to comfort eat and carry that list with you. Some ideas are: making someone laugh, playing with a favorite pet or reading a self-help book on emotional eating.

For some urges, damage control makes the most sense. After all, there's no need to eliminate emotional eating entirely. Give yourself the gift of feeling successful even if you use comfort food less often to fix your feelings.

For example, curb your exposure to holiday food triggers by setting yourself a special occasion rule. By granting yourself small portions of foods you really desire on celebratory days you're eliminating deprivation as an emotional trigger to overeat. You can also create ways to redefine comfort food. Try out some healthier holiday dishes and offer to bring one you like to your next party.

If underlying life problems prevent you from finding ways out of emotional eating, I urge you to consider counseling as way to prevent a more serious eating disorder.

Courtney Sansonetti is a medical nutrition therapist and certified diabetes educator for Rehabilitation Associates Inc. Her Food Speak column appears monthly. Email your questions to