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Ask Dr. Lowenstein: Do comfort foods improve your mood?

This year is coming to a close and many of us are looking forward to spending time with family and friends. More often than not, those gatherings involve traditional meals and dishes. It may feel like you’re surrounded by special holiday treats and sweets the entire season. But do you pay a price physically—and mentally—when you indulge?

A study in the Journal of Psychological Science showed that comfort foods can actually improve your mood. The research looked at the role of comfort foods as a way to help us feel socially connected to others. Foods associated with good thoughts improved the participants’ sense of well-being and decreased feelings of loneliness. Keep in mind, however, that enjoying a special meal to celebrate with family and friends is not the same as emotional eating, which comes into play when you’re reaching for second or third helpings in response to feelings rather than hunger. Comfort foods can’t satisfy your emotional needs.

The following tips could help you avoid an unhealthy cycle of overeating that leaves you feeling worse this holiday season:

  • Think about your cravings before you give into them. It’s easy to mistake emotional hunger for physical hunger. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly and is specific to your cravings whereas physical hunger will come on gradually and you’ll eat just about anything to satisfy it. Emotional eating is also an urge that comes from your head rather than your stomach.
  • Find alternative ways to manage your emotions. When you feel a craving coming on, think about activities you can do to improve your mood. At home that may be a phone call to a close friend to cheer you up or a quick walk around the block to alleviate stress or boredom. During holiday gatherings, step away from the food and consider other ways to spend time together, such as starting up a card game, tossing a football or browsing through photo albums.
  • Practice mindful eating. Nobody wants to completely pass on their favorite dishes, but mindful eating can help you savor them without overeating. Start with smaller portions instead of piling food on your plate. Eat slowly and focus on the experience so you can really enjoy the meal.
  • Incorporate healthy habits. A healthier lifestyle leaves you better equipped to handle negative emotions, but it’s easy to lose sight of your health goals right before the New Year. Try to be more intentional about exercising and sleeping well. Little things, such as setting aside 30 minutes a day for physical activity, can go a long way.

Taking these steps will help you enjoy the holidays—food and all—without suffering a physical or emotional setback. They may not be enough, however, if you feel especially overwhelmed or depressed this time of year. Connecting with a support group or therapist may provide the extra assistance you need.

Dr. David Lowenstein is a Columbus, Ohio-based psychologist with more than 35 years of experience. He conducts individual, family, and group therapy sessions in his German Village office and also via telehealth. Dr. Lowenstein is also available for expert forensic testimony, and for educational workshops and presentations. He is frequently called upon as an expert source for print, radio, and broadcast media. Contact Dr. Lowenstein at Lowenstein & Associates, 691 South Fifth Street, Columbus, Ohio, 43206, or call 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.