Turning a New Leaf: Changing Patterns of Overeating at the Holidays

Overeating chocolate Santa ClausesA friend of mine was distressed over seeing her daughter for the first time after starting college and realized she had been overeating.

The daughter had gained weight, and my friend thought she was witnessing the “freshman 15.” Pizza and beer socialization, cafeteria food plans, and stockpiles of snacks in dorm rooms result in a diet of considerably more calories than the home cooked meals with mom and dad. By the end of the first academic year, 15 pounds are gained.

Holidays and Overeating

The period from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day presents similar weight gain vulnerability.

High risk factors include:

  • Frequent food socializing
  • Celebratory eating and drinking
  • A diet rich in traditional and/or ethnic dishes
  • Preparing food for guests or company
  • Suspension of exercise routines
  • Rationalizations to indulge and start a diet in January
  • Travel and other disruptions of eating or sleep routines
  • Time or family pressures leading to eating for stress release

As a result, the “holiday 10” may be even more prevalent than the notorious freshman 15. Employing a number of behavioral and cognitive strategies can help make the holidays a weight neutral experience.


A study by Phelan, Wing, et. al. emphasized the importance of “pre-holiday planning” in effective weight control during this challenging period. This echoes the stress management technique of reducing stress by expecting it.

Planning might include:

  • A per day total calorie target
  • A written meal plan for the following day
  • A grocery list synchronized to the meal plan
  • Developing a “safe meal” to have in a restaurant instead of ordering from the menu
  • Holding time sacred for continuing an exercise routine
  • Simplifying the diet with repetitive choices for certain meals (eating a similar breakfast every day)
  • Calling friends ahead of the visit to see what they are serving
  • Bringing safe options with to your friend’s
  • Perusing all the buffet options before putting things on your plate

The bottom line is- without a plan, effectiveness is far less likely to occur.


Mix mindless eating with a “food toxic environment” and you have an epidemic. An antidote to this is a commitment to self- monitoring, which lies at the center of behavioral weight control. Food diaries/journals, apps, and devices such as the Fitbit are all designed to track behavior, heighten awareness, and give feedback.

Holiday weight gain can be prevented or minimized by self-monitoring focused on:

  • Recording all food eaten
  • Counting calories
  • Tracking exercise steps, minutes, and intensity
  • Weighing and graphing
  • Attending to the context and triggers of overeating episodes

When behavior is elevated to this degree of accountability it is far less likely to be self- defeating.


girl-348596_640The stress management principle of eliminating unnecessary stress has relevance to overeating control, especially as it applies to high risk eating situations over the holidays. Possibilities include:

  • Keep sweet and salty snacks and desserts out of the house
  • Serve healthier desserts and snacks, such as yogurt or fruit
  • Ask the guests to take leftovers home with them
  • Say no to some food centric social invitations
  • Bring salad, not dessert, to the pot luck

It also helps to have, what one client called, “absolutes”- firm resolutions or limits: no eating in the car, no eating after dinner, no fast food, one drink per event. Any one of these will save calories that might have been consumed. Using several of these strategies reduces the likelihood of holiday weight gain.


For some people, overly rigid rules and eating restrictions will lead to a sense of defeat, deprivation, or rebellion and undermine overeating control efforts. To counter this reaction, “anti-deprivation” eating can be employed.

Have that favorite ethnic dish or traditional holiday dessert, but do it mindfully- eat at a table, slowly, savor it, no distractions, and remember to use the strategies mentioned above: plan, track, and limit.

Then do what athletes are trained to do- focus on the next play and get back to the plan. If, on the day after New Year’s, you weigh the same or within a few pounds of what you weighed the day before Thanksgiving, pat yourself on the back and move forward.


The rigors of the holidays create wear and tear on resolutions and intentions, and inevitably there are slips, slides, lapses, relapses. No one will get through perfectly. Relapses are a bit like the yellow wrench symbol that appears on the car dashboard: maintenance required.

Keep calm and ask yourself what led to the slip– you skipped breakfast and then got overly hungry in the mid afternoon. The lesson is – be sure to have breakfast. A “prolapse” is a lapse that leads to insight which is used to strengthen the future plan. Additionally, doing something positive after a lapse (take a walk, etc.) will help restore a sense of control.


girls-487097_640A client named Gail started relapsing midway between Thanksgiving and Christmas and was still gaining weight well into January. Reflecting on the relapse chain of events, she realized she had discontinued all the healthy self-nurturing that had become routine in her life, thus setting up eating as the way to reward herself.

To undo the overeating slide, she put up a schedule of “healthy pleasures” on the refrigerator and started to engage in them:

  • Daily – inspirational reading
  • Weekly – a pedicure, manicure or massage
  • Monthly – a trip to an art museum or concert

As the self-care returned, the binges and emotional eating diminished, and she began to lose the holiday weight. Over the holidays, investment in some non- food renewal, refreshment and rewards will help keep food in the primary role it is meant for-nutrition.


Motivation is the synchronizing of values and action. Effectiveness is maximized when we are clear what our priorities are and we take action to support them. If weight control over the holidays is important to you, then you will express that with time and activity.

This holiday season, why not turn several new leaves: plan, track, limit, allow, rebound, nurture and value. Happy Holidays!

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What are examples of ways you have learned to plan, track, limit, allow, rebound, nurture and value yourself? Have you seen positive results after incorporating these activities into your routine?


Kern, L., The Skinny on Superlosers, poster presented at the annual meeting of The Obesity Society, New Orleans, LA., 2007

Phelan, Wing, Raynor, Dibello, Nedeau, Peng: Holiday Weight Management by Successful Weight Losers and Normal Weight Individuals, Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, 2008, Vol. 76, No.3

About the Author:

Lee Kern, MSW, LCSW, is the Clinical Director at Structure House, an internationally recognized, psychologically based residential weight control center in Durham, NC. He supervises a team of therapists and contributes to the development of the clinical program, providing psychotherapy and psycho-educational workshops.

He received a Masters of Social Work from the University of North Carolina and serves as an Adjunct Instructor for the UNC-CH School of Social Work. He was a regular contributing author to WLS Lifestyles Magazine, and has conducted studies and authored publications on successful weight management.

In 2011 his articles were published in a collection called LOSING LESSONS. In addition to working with weight and eating issues his professional interests include psychodynamic therapy, stress management, relapse prevention, lifestyle change, motivation, life goals and addiction.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 12th, 2014
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com