This content originally appeared on Everyday Health. Republished with permission.
By Elizabeth Narins
Medically Reviewed by Alison Ozgur, MHS, RDN of American College of Lifestyle Medicine
Ah, the holiday season. A time of year when indulgence abounds. Along with parties, gifts, and decorations, the festive season tends to be associated with food. It can be easy to get so caught up in celebratory feasts and nostalgic treats that we lose track of regular, balanced meals and the other healthy eating habits that serve us so well the rest of the year.
“Overeating a bit over the holidays is very normal and not something to freak out about,” says Rachael Hartley, RD, the owner of Rachael Hartley Nutrition and author of Gentle Nutrition who is based in Lexington County, South Carolina. “We have food-related celebrations and connections, and sometimes eating a little more than you normally would is a fun part of celebrating.” What’s more important, she says, is enjoying those moments of excess without feeling guilty. Mindful eating is a tool that can help you do that.
Paying more attention to what, when, and how you eat allows you to better tune in to your body’s true physiological hunger cues and make choices that keep your energy and spirits up. You’ll even savor your food more, whether it’s an extra Christmas cookie or a kale salad.
While most experts recommend against setting lofty goals during the holiday season — simply getting through it is more than sufficient — practicing mindful eating beginning now can slowly but surely improve your relationship with food. “It pushes judgmental thoughts out of the way while you eat,” says Rachel Goldman, PhD, a New York City-based licensed psychologist and clinical assistant psychiatry professor at the New York University School of Medicine. And because thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are linked, sidestepping self-criticism and focusing on the food on your plate without judgment can even change your eating behaviors for the better.
What Is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating, or tuning in to your food, body, and thoughts while eating, can help you establish a healthier relationship with food by encouraging you to appreciate the sensory experience of eating, notice hunger and fullness cues, and get in touch with the feelings you associate with certain foods, says Dallas-based Christyna Johnson, RDN, of EncouragingDietitian.com.
Being mindful has been shown to be surprisingly effective at curbing harmful eating habits and fostering overall healthier behavior. A systematic review and meta-analysis found that practicing mindfulness decreased binge and impulsive eating, and increased physical activity among study participants.
Another review found that not only did people who practiced mindful eating lose weight, but the vast majority of them did not gain it back over time, as is usually the case with other weight loss methods.
“When you’re more aware, you’re more likely to find more enjoyment in every bite,” Johnson says.
So how exactly do you practice this technique? We asked experts for their tips on how to bring mindfulness into your meals throughout the holiday season.
Mindful Eating Strategies to Improve Your Relationship With Food During the Holidays
1. Recognize Signs of Hunger
Do you feel tired, sluggish, nauseous, or faint? Is your stomach growling and your mind wandering to thoughts of food, making it difficult to focus on tasks at hand? “These can all be signs of hunger that are often ignored,” Johnson says. It sounds simple, but recognizing what actual hunger feels like can help you eat more mindfully.
To do so, think about the last time you ate. “If it’s been more than a few hours or what you last ate was a lighter meal or snack, you’re probably physically hungry,” says Hartley.
2. Sit to Eat
It’s easy to lose track of how much you’re eating when you’re grazing the holiday buffet while chatting with friends. Ditto when you’re eating leftovers standing in front of the open refrigerator. When you sit down to eat, however, it can help you connect with the experience so you can better gauge how much time is passing and pay attention to what and why you’re eating, Johnson says.
“Avoid eating while you are distracted, as you will have a harder time eating mindfully when you are distracted by other tasks,” says Laura Cordella, RD, CDN, ambulatory dietitian at NewYork-Presbyterian Westchester Behavioral Health Center in White Plains, New York. “While it is sometimes hard to take a moment to eat when you are busy with various holiday activities, it is so important that you take that time.”
So what happens when things are so hectic that you physically can’t eat a proper meal? “What’s most important is that you’re feeding yourself consistently and adequately,” Hartley says. So pack a snack or two to sustain you between errands when a sitting down isn’t on the table.
3. Breathe Deeply
Taking a deep breath before eating can help you achieve some degree of mindfulness throughout your meal, Hartley says. And it’s not rocket science.
“Deep breathing allows us to become more in tune with our bodies in the present,” Dr. Goldman says. A simple inhale and exhale gives you a chance to inventory your surroundings and check in with your body and emotions, so you can recognize hunger signals and respond with intention rather than react impulsively by refilling your plate. It’s a tip that literally everyone has time for — even during the busiest day of the craziest holiday season.
4. Focus on Sensory Cues
This time of year, your senses can easily get overloaded by the sheer indulgence of the season, with its fancy cocktails, dazzling desserts, and nostalgic flavors. Taking time to really focus on the scent, taste, texture, and temperature of food is one way to practice mindful eating.
Hartley says that it’s smart to check in with how your food tastes a few times throughout your meal: If you can, pause in the beginning, middle, and end of the meal for a mindful bite or two when you can savor the food — identify a flavor you particularly like or appreciate the fluffiness of your dinner bun. The exercise will help you avoid slipping into the mindless eating mode that leaves you feeling stuffed.
“Think of it like wine tasting your food,” Hartley says. “You don’t have to wine taste your entire meal, but even just a few bites can improve mindfulness.”
And, suggests Cordella, “Be intentional about what you choose to eat. Eat the foods that you enjoy with confidence. This will allow you to feel more in control of your eating.”
5. Stick to a Schedule
“Treat holidays and days with holiday functions like any other day of the year in terms of following your usual eating schedule,” says Cordella. “Don’t skip meals to ‘save up’ for a holiday meal and make sure to include nourishing and satisfying snacks throughout the day in between meals. Ideally, try to avoid going more than four hours without eating as going too long without eating will increase the likelihood of mindless eating and eating past fullness at the holiday event,” she adds.
While you might think it’s smart to bank calories by skipping meals in anticipation of a holiday meal, forgoing breakfast or lunch could actually trigger mindless eating — and overeating. “We make more informed decisions about what to eat when we aren’t uncomfortably hungry,” says Johnson.
6. Pack Your To-Go Plate First
There’s no question that we tend to overeat foods we only get once a year. Before settling down for a holiday meal, pack up all the things you think you’ll want more of later. The practice will help you remember this isn’t your last opportunity to enjoy holiday foods, which can decrease the pressure to eat opportunistically and past the point of fullness, Johnson says. If hoarding food ahead of a hosted meal sounds a tad awkward, bring a to-go box to fill later on, and fill it mentally before you make up your dinner plate.
7. Indulge Outside of Holidays
“If you allow yourself to have certain foods all the time, then you are more likely to be mindful of how much you are having,” Johnson points out. Just imagine eating latkes every Saturday morning or keeping a fresh batch of Christmas cookies on hand in the freezer as opposed to enjoying them once a year — chances are, you’ll be less likely to overindulge when it’s time to sit down for a holiday meal. And remember, Johnson says: “You are always allowed to eat what sounds good to you.”
8. Practice Coping Mechanisms
Spending time with family members you don’t typically see can stir up emotions ranging from sadness to straight-up anger. “Emotional eating is a normal human response, especially when we don’t have the skills and tools to manage our emotions,” Johnson says.
Don’t typically inventory your emotions at the dinner table? Hear us out: Recognizing an unenjoyable eating experience can help you understand whether you’re eating for the right reasons or in response to a particular feeling — a bad idea, according to Johnson, since it’s less satisfying than you might think. “The negative emotions are typically still there after you finish your food, along with some feelings of guilt, shame, or self-judgment,” she says. And that’s no way to end a meal.
When you practice the coping mechanisms you know you’re going to need before you blow up at your mom or flip the table, you’ll be an expert when the time comes to whip them out of your toolbox, Goldman says. She recommends keeping at least three tools in your back pocket to help you calm down, including one that you can do anytime, anywhere. For instance, deep breathing or meditation can be helpful before you sit down to a holiday meal or whenever you need a break from the festivities — just slip into the restroom and do your thing.
“This way, you’ll always have something to do besides eat in social situations when a go-to steam-blower such as running isn’t realistic,” she says. It’s best to practice this tool first thing in the morning and right before you go to bed throughout holiday season and beyond to lower stress levels and prepare yourself for inevitable emotions and the mindless food fest that may otherwise follow.
RELATED: The 10 Best Foods to Fight Stress
9. Set an Alarm
Practicing mindfulness throughout the day can set the stage for mindful eating during mealtimes, says Hartley. So set a reminder or alarm on your smartphone for a few times a day, and when it goes off, pause for 30 seconds to recognize what’s going on in your body: Is there anything you need to do to make yourself more comfortable, like stretching your shoulders after hours of being hunched over your desk or putting on a pair of cozy socks to warm your feet? Taking care of these needs can help you sidestep the mindless eating we sometimes do for comfort. And hey, you just might notice that you’re hungry and actually do need a snack.
10. Slow Down
“It can take time for the stomach to send the message to your brain that you are full,” Goldman says. Eat too quickly and you could miss the memo until it’s too late — that is, after you’ve scarfed down your seconds or thirds. It’s why Goldman recommends putting down your utensils or finger food between bites. “Many times people who overeat and feel guilty afterward feel out of control in the moment,” Goldman explains. “But eating more slowly puts you in control and helps you enjoy every mouthful, so you feel more satisfied and give yourself the opportunity to stop before you overeat.”
“Take breaks to stay in tune with your level of fullness,” adds Cordella. “Don’t beat yourself up if you occasionally eat past fullness at holiday functions, as long as it is not happening regularly, and you are mindful of what you are doing. Do not try to compensate for over-eating by skipping your next meal. This likely will create a vicious cycle of restricting and then over-eating.”
The health benefits of eating slowly are well-documented: Taking your time during meals may actually prevent obesity and reduce associated risks, according to a study of more than 700 adults who’d been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
Part of eating mindfully is appreciating your very favorite dishes. “It’s essential to having a healthy relationship with food, even when the food you love is something you might not consider healthy,” Hartley says. There’s a reason we don’t eat kale all day every day: “Eating is more than the delivery of nutrients,” she says. “We have cultural and emotional connections with the food we put into our body and need to regularly eat foods we love to feel not just full but satisfied.” So yes, Aunt Barbara’s mashed potatoes and your cousin’s famous pecan pie can remain on the menu.
“Going into the day with a positive mindset and giving yourself permission to enjoy these foods will allow for a more mindful experience, both in regard to the food as well as your ability to enjoy the holiday, in general,” says Cordella. “Focus on what you can add to your plate rather than what needs to be avoided or taken away. Actively trying to avoid foods you genuinely enjoy only makes you think about those foods more. That feeling of deprivation puts you at increased risk of eating more of the food than you would have eaten if you simply gave yourself permission to eat the food mindfully from the start.”
12. Aim for Balance
When possible, try to incorporate a good balance of starch, protein, fat and fiber at meals, suggests Cordella. “For example, if pasta is on the menu, add some protein and veggies, if they are available. A side salad with beans or some grilled chicken and sautéed veggies are great additions to any pasta meal. These are great ways to balance your meals but remember if this doesn’t happen at every single meal it is not the end of the world.” Move on and try to obtain the nutrients you were lacking the next time you eat.
“With focus on food during the holidays, there can be a lot of comments about dieting and inaccurate nutritional information being shared among friends and family. Be sure to take care of yourself in these situations and know that eating healthfully may look different for different people,” says Cordella. “You should always seek advice on nutrition from a registered dietitian-nutritionist or other trusted medical professional.”
13. Cut Yourself Some Slack
Real life dictates that we can’t always eat 100 percent mindfully 100 percent of the time. But mindful eating can still be a helpful tool. Hartley says it’s helpful to think of mindful eating as a spectrum rather than a thing you do or do not practice all the time. It’s better off to eat more mindfully when you can than stress out over eating every meal and snack with utmost concentration, particularly during the holidays.
“For many people, just worrying about getting through the holidays is enough,” Hartley says. After all, eating mindlessly every once in a while doesn’t necessarily mean you have an unhealthy relationship with food; it’s just that paying attention to your feelings and the food on your plate can improve that relationship.
Practicing mindful eating during the holidays may even improve your eating habits in general. “My approach to holiday eating,” says Cordella, is similar to my recommended mentality for any other day of the year: Eat every three to four hours while awake to keep yourself satisfied and energized throughout the day, eat slowly to honor your fullness, give yourself permission to enjoy food that tastes good to you and try and make meals balanced with a variety of nutrients.”
Additional reporting by Deborah Shapiro.
Learn more about how to make snacking a healthy habit from NewYork-Presbyterian Health Matters.
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Hurst Y, Fukuda H. Effects of Changes in Eating Speed on Obesity in Patients With Diabetes: A Secondary Analysis of Longitudinal Health Check-Up Data. BMJ Open. February 12, 2018.