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How to Prevent and Deal with Holiday Overeating

By michelle_may_md on Nov 15, 2012 10:00 AM in Healthy Eating

By Michelle May, M.D.

As much I love holiday meals, I now know that there’s an invisible line that I’ll cross if I’m not mindful. That line separates a great celebration with wonderful food, from an afternoon of discomfort and regret. I have to remind myself that I live in a land of abundance where delicious food is available year round. So why eat until I’m miserable? Why not enjoy the occasion and still feel good when it’s over? 

You hear a lot about how to prevent overeating during the holidays but what do you do after you’ve overeaten anyway?

Everybody overeats at times; that’s normal. The difference is that for some, an episode of overeating sets off a chain reaction: “I already blew it; I might as well keep eating and restart my diet tomorrow (or on January 1st). I call this the eat-repent-repeat cycle; maybe you’ve seen that pattern in yourself.

People who don’t struggle with food overeat occasionally too. The difference is that although they may feel regretful, they don’t feel guilty and they don’t punish themselves. They just feel uncomfortable so they may skip their next snack, postpone their next meal, feel like eating less, and/or want to take a walk. They aren’t punishing themselves; they’re just listening to their body wisdom so they naturally compensate for occasional overeating.

Mindful eating can help you return to this natural state too. Mindfulness is simply awareness of the present moment. Mindful eating allows you to focus on the immediate effects of eating more than you needed, rather than beating yourself up over the potential long term consequences. That allows you to make adjustments and learn from the experience. Here’s how:

Notice how you feel. Sit quietly for a few moments and become completely aware of your body. Focus on the sensations so you’ll remember them the next time you’re tempted to overeat. Does your stomach feel full, stretched, or bloated? Is there any discomfort or pain? Do your clothes feel tight? Is there any nausea or heart burn? Do you feel short of breath? How is your energy level? Do you feel sleepy, sluggish, tired, or lethargic? You may be less likely to repeat the mistake if you remind yourself how it feels to overeat (kind of takes the fun out of it, doesn’t it!).

Don’t beat yourself up. Overeating is simply eating more than your body needs at that time. Overeating doesn’t mean you were “bad.” It just means that you made a mistake—so don’t miss the lesson!

Turn your mistake into a learning experience. There are a lot of reasons people eat past the point of satisfaction: habits, learned behaviors, past dieting, and mindless eating. Ask yourself, “Why did it happen?” and “What could I do differently next time?” For example:  

“It was a special occasion.” You’re more likely to overeat if you only give yourself permission to eat enjoyable foods on special occasions. You don't need an excuse to have a wonderful meal—so why use a special occasion as an excuse to overeat?

Here are examples of other triggers for overeating covered in chapter 7 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle.

I felt obligated.

It tasted good so I just kept eating.

I wanted to taste everything.

I was afraid I wouldn't get that food again.

I saved the best for last.

I wasn't paying attention as I ate.

I ate too fast.

I had too much on my plate.

I hate to let food go to waste.

Wait to see when you feel physically hungry again. Rather than continuing to eat by the clock or because you feel like you’ve already blown it, listen to your body. You may not be hungry for your usual snack or even your next meal.

When you get hungry again, notice what you feel like eating. You might notice that you’re hungry for something small or something light—maybe a bowl of soup or cereal, a piece of fruit, or a salad. Gradually learn to trust and respect what your body tells you; as you become more mindful, you’ll naturally seek balance, variety, and moderation.

Last, don’t use exercise to punish yourself for overeating. Instead, be physically active consistently and use the fuel you consume to live a full and satisfying life. 

Michelle May, M.D. is the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Workshops and Facilitator Training Program that helps individuals learn to break free from mindless and emotional eating. Join her for an all-inclusive New Year, New You Retreat - six days and five nights to nourish your body, mind, heart, and spirit.



Great article, thank you.

Also, I know this is about holiday eating but I would like to add two more things nonetheless:

1. Drink plenty of water before, during and after your meal. Water not only makes your stomach acid more dilute so you physically will feel less hungry, but also fills up the stomach as well. Also, the brain often perceives thirst as hunger. So drink up to eat less!

2. Clean your teeth! After eating 'sufficient' amount of food, brush your teeth and use a mouthwash after if you can. By sufficient I mean before 'overeating' starts - you are aware of when this happens if you pay attention while eating. This helps you eat less. Really, try it!

Yes, Yes!  I agree with above.  I'll add to that make sure to get your 5-a-day fruits and vegetables, (thanks Farkshadow) drink plenty of water, and start every day with a good breakfast.  

These will ensure that at least 50% of daily food choices are healthy.  And, help to make sure we don't get pushed over the edge at a party or an event.  


Excellent article!  

My strategy will be to reasonably fill one plate with a single, wonderful meal of yummy food, except with a sliver left open for dessert (later). After I've eaten that plate-full, slowly, while enjoying conversation with family, I'll be done. Otherwise, I'll do what I did last Thanksgiving: go back for two more full plates of food, because the first one was so good!

This strategy has been working for me, so I'm sticking with it. I was surprised how long I can make two slices of pizza last, too--about as long as it normally took me to eat half a large pizza...


I try and load my plate with the healthy foods (turkey and vegetables) and have a small spoonful of the rest (stuffing, mashed potatoes).

Last year for the first time I made it through the whole holiday without overeating and found I was happier than when I stuffed myself and was uncomfortable.

I pretty much eat what I want on Thanksgiving, but I avoid eating leftovers and dragging it out to multiple days of poor eating.

Good advice Also to maintain not to consume liquids/water while eating food or after till one and half hour.

Awesome article!!!

Like previously said in other comments: Drink water. 

Also, if you don't feel like wasting food or feel obligated to eat, eat until your not hungry any more then ask the host (if you're somewhere else) for a plate to bring home for later. You will still have the all the amazing food you didn't or did have for later. And nothing else, I am sure it will make them feel great!

Yes! I agree it was an awesome article! I enjoyed reading this article, and totally agree on drinking at least 20oz of water before and after a meal helps prevents you from overeating because water helps keep the stomach full. My breakfast is the largest meal I have everyday after breakfast (or any meal) its smart to walk at least 20 to 30 minuets, helps digest and burn some calories. The article presented good advice on overeating, which may help me.

I may skip lunch, and when I get hungry again I select a high fiber fruit and drink two more 20oz before I eat the fruit, and right after, and two more 20oz of water before dinner, and after as well. 

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