Emotional Eating and the Holidays: The Food-Mood Connection

As the holidays approach we are often faced with a barrage of sweets and treats everywhere we go. Even if you stared down that Halloween candy bowl and managed to not dive into it, the upcoming holidays and festivities are fraught with desserts and other ‘goodies’ that are often hard to pass up. The holiday season brings a lot of stress as well. We have the physical stressors of additional ‘things to do and places to be” that jam our calendars and can compromise our sleep, exercise habits and energy levels. Emotional stressors can rise at this time of year as well. People who have lost loved ones or are separated from family and friends can experience emotional stress from isolation or loneliness. Mental stress runs high as well as seasonal ‘to-do’ lists get piled high and there doesn’t ever seem to be enough time to get it all done in time.

Trying to stay on track with healthy nutritious eating, exercise and sleep habits can indeed be a difficult challenge during the holiday season.

Mixing the stress of the season with the opportunity to easily indulge in the holiday sweets and traditional comfort foods is a recipe for disaster for many of us. But there is hope -There are ways to avoid breaking our resolve to maintain our healthy habits.

Understanding the connection between how food affects your mood can be a starting point that allows you to enjoy the season without parting ways with your new healthy habits

Emotional Eating, or Cravings

Cravings: Ever feel like you just ‘have to have’ that sweet? That cookie, candy, muffin, piece of cake? We explain it as a craving and seek to satisfy it. When we do; we tend to feel ‘better’. We feel a little soothed, calmer and happier. This is what we call “Emotional eating” and it is REAL. It is also the downfall that many suffer in the quest to eat healthier, lose weight and take control of their health.

How does this happen?  How can our mood be soothed by our food?  What and how is that craving we feel within us soothed by sweets or some other high carbohydrate food?

The Biology of Emotions: Your emotions – those feelings of love, hate, anger, peace, happiness, discomfort, contentment; are ALL chemical reactions in your body. These emotions are not just something that your mind envisions or your brain processes. Emotions are chemical messengers called neuropeptides that are chemically and electrically processed to flood your body and every cell within you. No wonder they overwhelm us at times!

Serotonin and Dopamine = Pleasure: Food also has a biological and chemical effect on our moods. When we eat high sugar foods (sugar, processed breads, cake, candy, cookies etc.) we experience a spike in our blood sugar levels. This triggers an increase in two ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters: serotonin and dopamine. Both ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters make us feel ‘good’ ‘happy’ and ‘soothed’. The spike in serotonin after we eat sugar is a process that is actually tied biochemically to the high insulin levels that our pancreas must push out to deal with the sugar in our blood streams.  Those beta cells deep within our pancreas hold not only insulin, but also serotonin and when insulin is released, so is serotonin. Sugar intake will also stimulate the release of another ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter called dopamine which floods the pleasure center of our brains; the same ‘pleasure center’ that gets activated with opioid drugs and other addictive substances.

Is it any wonder that so many of us have a real struggle with sugary foods and simple carbohydrates?

The Addictive Cycle: The high carbohydrate intake that comprises much of what we call “Emotional Eating” causes a roller coaster ride for blood sugar levels and ultimately will contribute to weight gain, drain your energy and affect your overall health. Eating sugary foods is akin to throwing paper on a fire. You get a huge blaze for a moment, followed by a quick burn-out; with sugar, you get that quick rush of high blood sugar which stimulates the pleasure center of the brain with a flood of dopamine and a surge of serotonin that floods your body systems and makes you feel so good; but then CRASH….it’s gone. And just like a fire burning out your energy crashes, and so does your mood. What do you do? Go grab another ‘fix’. This creates an addictive cycle that is very hard to break.

Did you ever stop to think that perhaps the craving for sugar can represent a deeper need? Emotional eating can signal a need for an emotional connection- love, closeness, affection, fun, adventure? If you look deeper into your cravings for sugar you may remember being ‘rewarded’ for good behavior with a sweet treat. Or perhaps you were ‘treated’ to sweets and goodies by a loving grandparent when your mom wasn’t looking. This pleasure/reward system can be compounded by both the physical and the emotional conditioning we experience with sugary foods.

Doreen Virtue Ph.D  in her book  “Constant Cravings’  outlines foods and emotions and what each food group may actually be “telling you” is you quiet yourself, tune in and truly listen to your feelings and what you need at the moment.

• Dairy Cravings: Antidepressant Foods
• Salty Snacks: Stress, Anger, and Anxiety
• Spicy Foods: The Drive for Excitement
• Liquid Cravings: Up and Down Energy Cycles
• Nuts and Peanut Butter: Cravings for Fun
• Breads, pasta and Rice: Comforting, Calming
• Cookies, Cakes and Pies: Craving Hugs, Pleasure, and Reassurance
• Candy Cravings, Sweet pick me ups: Craving rewards and Entertainment

Holiday Mood Boosting Strategies to Boost Serotonin and Dopamine Naturally:

  • Focus on Happy Memories: One of the major reasons we overeat at the family holiday table is that all our childhood emotions and memories are triggered by the sounds, smells, family members that surround us. And let’s face it; not many of us have Hallmark Movie childhood memories. Those feelings of childhood can make us feel awkward, helpless, distressed etc. as the family dynamics play out. You may find yourself wanting to ‘stuff’ those insecure feelings with food. You can overcome this: Remind yourself you are an adult. Do a mental mantra of all your best adult qualities. Make a list of good memories to share. Remembering things in a positive way increases serotonin.
  • Exercise outside: Spend some time in nature and move your body if you are able and weather permits. A hike with a loved one beats being a comatose couch potato. Research shows that just 5 minutes outside in nature improves your mood, self-esteem and motivation. There is a direct correlation between sunlight and the synthesis of dopamine and serotonin. Exercise boosts the release of endorphins (another feel-good chemical messenger) as well as elevating serotonin levels. Exercise will also burn off those extra calories and set your metabolism in gear.
  • Achieve a goal: Set some Short-Term ATTAINABLE Goals each week. Achieving a goal and boosts self esteem and dopamine levels.
  • Meditate and practice Gratitude: Meditation raises dopamine levels. Gratitude raises both serotonin and dopamine. Take 15 minutes and listen to a guided meditation (there are plenty available for free on YouTube). Meditating first thing in the morning can calm those stress hormones and keep you focused. Write down 3 things you are grateful for each night before sleeping.
  • Nutrition: Did you know that a simple cup of black coffee can raise your dopamine and serotonin levels? You can start the holiday right with fresh cup of coffee and a solid dose of clean protein and a healthy fat and nibble on fresh fruit veggies as you get through the day. Don’t starve in anticipation of the holiday feast. Your blood sugar will remain steady (so your serotonin and dopamine levels aren’t roller-coasting) and you won’t be tired, stressed and starving at the dinner table.
  • Stay hydrated: Don’t forget this healthy habit. Dehydration affects serotonin levels. Too often, we mistake thirst for hunger. Drink enough water throughout the day.

Staying mindful of the resources we have within us to overcome the addictive cycle of emotional eating, especially at holiday times can make setting New Year’s resolutions easier. It will also help prevent holiday weight gain and energy crashes.

By: Cindy Luisi WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach


Virtue, Doreen. Constant Craving: What Your Food Cravings Mean and How to Overcome Them. Hay House, 2011.

Staff, GoodTherapy.org. “10 Ways to Boost Dopamine and Serotonin Naturally.” GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog, 12 Dec. 2017, www.goodtherapy.org/blog/10-ways-to-boost-dopamine-and-serotonin-naturally-1212177.


Systems, Kent Ro. “Water and Depression: What You Need to Know about Dehydration and…” KENT Blog, KENT Blog, 15 Nov. 2019, www.kent.co.in/blog/water-and-depression-what-you-need-to-know-about-dehydration-and-depression/.

Why Our Brains Love Sugar – And Why Our Bodies Don’t.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201302/why-our-brains-love-sugar-and-why-our-bodies-dont.

The Neuroscience of Pleasure and Addiction.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201405/the-neuroscience-pleasure-and-addiction.