Mindful Eating for the Holidays

Even for those who practice mindful eating, the holidays present some additional challenges. Typically, during the holiday season, people find themselves attending more parties and social gatherings with an abundance of not-so-healthy food and beverages. Couple the increased availability of food with the stress of the holiday season (and the societal acceptance of holiday indulgence), and mindfulness if often thrown out the window!

Eating mindfully is essential during the holiday season to help keep you on track with your health goals, but what does it mean?

Mindful eating is having an awareness of your eating habits, being fully present and savoring your meals. It helps you to be aware of triggers that cause you to eat in an unhealthy manner.  When you are mindful, you assess the cues that cause you to make food choices. Are you eating because of physical hunger or “emotional” hunger?

Is your hunger driven by your body’s need for nutrition or your mind’s need for something to “soothe” your mood, whether it be stress, loneliness, anxiety, boredom or fatigue? When we differentiate between the two forms of hunger, we can begin to manage the latter by finding alternatives to food to alleviate or cope with the emotion.

When the urge strikes to eat, take a moment to assess what is driving the urge. Take a few minutes and ask yourself if you truly are “hungry.” Is your stomach growling, do you feel your energy level decreasing, are you even a little irritable and do you feel a true sense of hunger? Or, perhaps, are you upset about something, sad, stressed or lonely. Ask yourself if eating will help any of those scenarios. In fact, eating to relieve stress or other emotions tends to result in feeling even worse. 

Once we’ve identified and managed our triggers, we can focus on enjoying our meal. How many times a week do you eat your meals in a car, eat while preparing a meal, eat in front of the television or while doing work?  Most of us do it, but multitasking while eating leads to overeating and poor eating habits. We’ve all had that feeling of having just “inhaled” a meal in a rush. It usually results in a sense of extreme fullness, bloating and heartburn.

If you’ve just invested valuable time in preparing a meal, or valuable money purchasing a meal, make an effort to actually enjoy it! Sit in a relaxed atmosphere free of distraction. Pay attention to your food. Engage all your senses. How does your food look, smell, even sound in some instances? When eating, is your food crispy, smooth, spicy or sweet? Pay attention to the multiple flavors you encounter and hints of certain spices or flavor profiles.

Set aside enough time to eat slowly. Pace yourself. Allow a minimum of at least 20 minutes. Try eating with your non-dominant hand and put down your utensils or handheld food down after each bite. Take small bites, and focus on chewing each mouthful. The more time you take to chew, the more you will notice the flavors and textures of the food. 

Periodically, ask how you are feeling. Are you starting to feel full? If so, it is probably a good time to stop eating.  You can always save the rest for another time. Step away from the table before reaching for seconds or dessert.

Like anything else, awareness is key to making healthy behavioral changes.

Registered dietitian Barb Walsh is the community nutrition educator in the Tevis Center for Wellness.

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