Want to Avoid Holiday Overeating?

Watch for This Psychological Effect!


We are only a few days away from Christmas, and for many people, it's a time for celebration.

This year will likely be different to some extent due to COVID; however, some things will undoubtedly remain the same.

For many of us, this will involve eating delicious food—and sometimes way more than we initially planned. When this happens, you may experience the ‘What-the-Hell Effect.'

The 'What-the-Hell Effect' is an actual psychological term. It's also known as counter-regulatory eating, but that term isn't nearly as interesting.

The ‘What-the-Hell Effect’ occurs when you deviate from a well-intended goal, such as eating healthy over the holidays, and you get off track. And once off track, you are tempted to say, "What the Hell, my plan is blown." When this happens, you may be inclined to indulge in even more food and drinks—for the rest of the day, or even for the rest of the holiday season.

This can lead you into the new year with the added stress of losing the extra weight you gained over the holidays.

This effect isn’t limited to overeating. It can come into play any time you find yourself off track from a personal goal.

Tips to Help Overcome the 'What-the-Hell Effect'

Now that you know what you're up against this holiday season, having a plan will help. Setting up a plan doesn’t need to take a lot of time or extra energy.

Let’s get started.


Make a plan.

Think about the areas in your life where you may be at risk of the What-the-Hell Effect, write them down, and carry them with you. As Benjamin Franklin once famously said, "If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail."

Your plan could outline what holiday treats you will have each day over the holidays. You might also find it helpful to write down why you want to stick to your plan (more about this in Step 2).

Consider viewing your plan from time-to-time during the day. This will serve as a quick reminder and can also provide some personal accountability.


Know your ‘why.’

Having a compelling reason for why you want to make a change makes it easier to stick to your goal.

During the holidays, once off track, it can be easy to tell yourself that you'll wait until the new year to start eating healthy—and end up eating more than you had planned.

To help keep holiday eating under control, you'll want to have emotional reasons for doing things differently this year. For instance, think of reasons that make avoiding change painful, and that makes pursuing change pleasurable.

Examples of reasons that make avoiding change painful:

  • “I hate how I feel after I overeat.”
  • “I don’t want to have to deal with an extra 10 pounds in January.”
  • “I do this every year, and it's getting harder to take the weight off.”

 Examples of reasons that make pursuing change pleasurable:

  • “I feel so much better when I'm not carrying around extra weight."
  • “I want to enjoy good health in the new year.”
  • “I'm my best self when I am healthy and active.”

It's important to find reasons that are personally relevant to you. Keep in mind, reasons that elicit strong feelings of emotion typically work best.


Think long-term.

When we set short-term goals, we can be overly rigid and feel we must follow the plan perfectly. Interestingly, research shows that the ‘What-the-Hell Effect’ is more common with short-term goals, suggesting that a long-term approach would work best.

So, instead of a strict "healthy eating plan," opt for a more flexible "eating in moderation plan."

Eating in moderation is a more realistic long-term goal that minimizes the 'What-the-Hell Effect' while allowing you to enjoy delicious meals and sweet treats over the holidays.


Manage your emotions.

Think about how your emotions influence your food choices. Chances are that negative mood states, such as sadness, anger, anxiety, or boredom, affect what you eat.

In a recent survey, 1328 registered Psychologists were asked about the most common barrier to weight loss. The vast majority (92%) of respondents identified emotional eating as the most significant challenge.

To help limit emotional eating over the holidays, make a plan for managing your emotions ahead of time. For instance, if you tend to eat when you feel bored or stressed, think of activities you can engage in other than turning to the Christmas goodies.

Incorporate stress-reducing activities, such as deep breathing, mindfulness, and exercise.


Have a contingency plan.

To combat the ‘What-the-Hell Effect,’ have a contingency plan for when things don't go as planned.

For instance, you planned on having only one slice of pie; however, you ended up eating more. You may be tempted to say, 'What-the-Hell,' and abort your goal of eating in moderation.

It's time to turn to your contingency plan. Take a brief time-out and review your reasons for sticking to eating in moderation. Remind yourself that just because you ate more than you planned, that doesn't mean you've failed. You can easily get right back on track.


To avoid out-of-control eating this holiday season, stay vigilant for the 'What-the-Hell Effect,' and try incorporating the strategies outlined above. You're sure to find success this year and in the years to come!

Have a happy and healthy holiday season!


Article by

Trevor Sullivan, MA, RP

Registered Psychotherapist

December 21, 2020