Emotional Health · Health

On Emotional Health: Finding Solace in Food

What is the link between emotion and overeating? On this, the Thursday before we Americans gather for the year’s biggest family meal, Women’s Voices publisher Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D., our regular Medical Monday columnist, turns for expertise to a new member of our site’s Medical Advisory Board—Megan Riddle, M.D. Ph.D., a psychiatry resident at the University of Washington and a graduate of the Weill Cornell/Rockefeller/Sloan-Kettering Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program. Dr. Riddle’s research has focused on the biological mechanisms of eating disorders.

Dear Dr. Pat:

We’re still a week away from Thanksgiving, but I can already feel my anxiety increasing. Every year, we host a big meal at my house with both my parents and the in-laws, as well as my kids and their significant others. That brings together a lot of, well, intense personalities, and things are not always harmonious. I feel like it should be a festive time, but instead I find myself too stressed to enjoy the occasion. When I get this way, my willpower is at an all-time low. Despite all that I’ve read about moderation and sticking to a healthy eating plan, I end up going back for seconds and thirds, then feeling very guilty—and ill—afterwards. Do you have any suggestions for how to turn this from a day of gluttony back into something resembling the day of gratitude I know it’s supposed to be?



6425796905_fd044f4126_zPhoto by Selena N.B.H. via Flickr

Dr. Riddle Responds:

Dear Becky:

Despite what the Hallmark movies might have us believe, your feelings are extremely common. Big holiday meals can trigger intense—and not always positive—emotions. Despite days of planning and careful preparation, the table never ends up looking like the one in Martha Stewart Living. Add to that the family dynamics, often played out dramatically around the dinner table, and you have a recipe for emotional eating.

Research has become increasing interested in the role of emotion in driving our eating behavior, putting scientific data behind what many of us have known intuitively—that, when push comes to shove, many of us find solace in food. From infancy, food is associated with warmth and comfort. Our nostalgic connections to food can be shaped by our childhood. Likely, some of those dishes you prepare for your Thanksgiving table now were also the ones of your childhood.

Stressful situations can trigger changes in our eating behavior, undermining our best intentions to stick to moderation. Choosing certain foods, particularly those rich in carbohydrates, may decrease feelings of helplessness and distress. In research settings, when faced with impossible puzzles, people ate more chocolate and fewer grapes than they did when the puzzles could be solved. Your Thanksgiving is a bit like that impossible puzzle—it will never look like Martha’s, and inevitably someone will start an argument or be in a foul mood. So you reach for more chocolate—or, in this case, an extra serving of mashed potatoes and stuffing.

So what to do about it? You’ve made the first step, which is to recognize that you are turning to food in times of stress. Many of us take the grin-and-bear-it approach, white-knuckling through the event while keeping a sweet smile on our face. Unfortunately, research has shown that this emotional suppression is more likely to trigger emotional eating. Thus it is important to find different ways to cope. Below are five steps to help you manage your roiling emotions without reaching for an extra portion.

  1. Manage your expectations. The meal will not be perfect. That can be difficult to accept, but once you do, it can free you up. Know that the same level of imperfection is happening in kitchens across the country.
  2. Give yourself a timeout. On Thanksgiving, it can be easy to jump from one thing to the next as you dash around cleaning, straightening, checking the turkey, and making sure the gravy doesn’t burn. Stop. Do something for yourself, even if it is only for a few minutes. Stopping to savor a cup of coffee or going on a quick walk can reconnect you with yourself.
  3. In the moment, reappraise rather than suppress. Research has shown that people who reappraise their intense emotional state are less likely to reach for comfort food. Thus, when things heat up around the table and you feel yourself caught up in the emotion, try to take a step back and acknowledge to yourself that this is not a major crisis after all. Remember, this is temporary, and look for the silver lining.
  4. Practice mindfulness. Focus on appreciating the moment. Savor the first bites rather than rushing. These initial tastes are often the most satisfying and sensual. Appreciate them. If you find yourself reaching for seconds, pause and get in touch with how you are feeling. Hungry? Go ahead. Upset? Rushed? Distracted? Take a deep breath and set the spoon down. Eat what feels right for you; try not to feel pressured by others to eat more or less than seems right to you. You can take the same mindful approach to conversations, taking a moment of self-reflection rather than being pulled in to family drama.
  5. Consider new traditions that may help to reduce your stress. These can be small changes like cutting down on the number of side dishes you prepare (do you need two Jell-O dishes?), converting the whole thing to a potluck, or purchasing pre-made dishes. You may also want to consider a more dramatic change, such as serving food as a family at a food pantry or community meal.

By taking steps to reduce your stress and change your response to it, you may find it easier to avoid that third helping. At the same time, do give yourself permission to enjoy the food that you like. Sharing the table with friends and family serves as an important way of connecting with others.

Megan Riddle, MD/ PhD



  1. Taut D, Renner B, Baban A (2012): Reappraise the Situation but Express Your Emotions: Impact of Emotion Regulation Strategies on ad libitum Food Intake. Frontiers in psychology. 3:359.
  2. Hamburg ME, Finkenauer C, Schuengel C (2014): Food for love: the role of food offering in empathic emotion regulation. Frontiers in psychology. 5:32.


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  • Hilda Hutcherson November 20, 2014 at 11:36 pm

    I have spent the majority of my life as an emotional eater. And I don’t mean just on holidays! I was helped greatly by a few visits with Dr Pat Allen. She made me look at the deep-seated causes of my emotional eating. Dr Pat is a life saver.