Surviving the Holiday with Mindful Eating

Most people look forward to the holidays—it’s a time to connect with family and friends, and to disconnect from work and other life stresses. Alas for many people, the holidays can be stressful. People get exhausted and stressed out with all the preparations and social obligations leading up to the holidays. For the health conscious and those concerned with their weight or following special diets, there can be added stress regarding food and over-eating during the holiday season.

Some folks get so busy and caught up in the holidays that they barely have time for themselves and often say “oh well, it’s the holidays, I’m allowed to enjoy myself” and they enter into a period of what is called, “mindless eating”. This basically means eating foods for enjoyment, over eating foods that they may not normally eat, just because it’s there and everyone else is eating it too! The main problem is that it isn’t just for a day or two. Nowadays the holidays start with Thanksgiving and continue into the New Year. That’s over a whole month! By eating just 200 extra calories a day—which is easy to do with holiday desserts and alcohol—you could pack on two to three pounds over this five- to six-week period. Surviving the Holiday with Mindful Eating.

One strategy used by nutritionists and dietitians to help their clients achieve nutritional and caloric balance while still enjoying food is called “Mindful Eating”. “Mindful Eating” can help you if you want to avoid overeating and gaining those extra pounds, or you need to control your blood sugar, or simply wish to consume only what your body requires.

Mindfulness refers to the practice of being aware and in the moment. All too often, our thoughts wander, perhaps we are preoccupied with what happened at work, or worried about what might happen tomorrow. Mindfulness encourages us to notice these preoccupations, and then to gently bring ourselves back to the now. Mindfulness can help you fully enjoy a meal and the experience of eating—with moderation and restraint. Some studies suggest that mindfulnessbased practices help improve eating habits. Ideally it is best to start learning and using these techniques before the holidays but they can be utilized at any time.

Mindful Eating is all about allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your inner wisdom. It also practices using all of your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body. Basically it means that you are fully aware of what you put in your mouth in that moment of eating it and you make conscious decisions about what to eat and how much to eat. For those who binge-eat or eat for comfort or out of stress, mindful eating can be helpful with weight management and weight loss.

Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA, CEDRD, coauthor of Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works and a private practice nutrition counselor in Beverly Hills, California, says that for many patients, taking an intuitive eating approach is a paradigm shift from the typical approach of counting calories and watching fat or carbs. “The old stuff that they’ve done, it doesn’t work at all,” she says. “It takes a lot of time to fully trust their body signals.”

Here are some simple step to help you start eating mindfully:

1. Slow down. Eat more slowly, chew your food properly, wait for 10 minutes to assess your fullness.

2. Eat away from electronic and other distractions, such as the TV, computer, etc.

3. Avoid eating on the run, such as in the car, while running errands or multi–tasking at work.

4. Listen to your body, know the difference between appetite and hunger (appetite is your head desiring food versus hunger signals such as stomach pangs). Only eat when you are hungry—but not too hungry. Honoring hunger is a core principle of intuitive eating and staying nourished throughout the day is essential.

5. Take notes on how your body lets you know when it’s hungry and full so you recognize these cues more easily.

6. Use these cues to guide your decision on when to begin and end eating.

7. Notice your responses to food (likes, dislikes, neutral) without judgement.

8. Choose to eat food that is both pleasing and nourishing by using all of your senses (smell, taste, sight, sound) while eating.

9. Become aware of and reflect on the effects caused by mindless eating (e.g. eating out of boredom or sadness, overeating to the point of feeling uncomfortable).

Once you’ve got the hang of this, mindful eating will become more natural. Then you can focus on implementing this over the holidays. Get into the habit of thinking; Am I really hungry? Have I had enough? Do I really want to eat this? What is the better choice?

“It’s important to not make holiday foods off limits—because the allure of forbidden fruit will only get stronger,” says Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, coauthor of Intuitive Eating.

According to Dietitian Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD “Mindful and intuitive eating can help patients avoid the “anything and everything goes” vacation mentality as well as the pendulum swing from restriction to excess. It can guide them to choose foods they truly want and leave the rest, ultimately increasing satisfaction. When patients give themselves permission to have—and enjoy—the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, they may be more likely to say “no thank you” to the store-bought sugar cookies in the break room.”

With that being said here are some other general practical tips for surviving the holidays:

1. Don’t go to the party hungry. It can be very hard to resist a plateful of hors d’oeuvres or buffet of desserts if attending a party on an empty stomach. Eating a small, nutritious meal prior to attending an event eases hunger while allowing for a small, reasonable indulgence later. A Garden of Life protein shake is a great way to set you up with some quality protein to help slow down your appetite and stabilize your blood sugar. Protein also helps to slow the drop in blood sugar linked to hunger when on the rebound from bingeing at a party.

2. Avoid alcohol on an empty stomach. Alcohol increases your appetite and diminishes your ability to control what you eat.

3. Drink smarter. Since cutting out alcohol is not realistic for most during the holiday season, limiting intake is crucial for moderating calories. A glass of eggnog can set you back 500 calories; wine, beer, and mixed drinks range from 150 to 225 calories. Alternating each drink with a glass of water helps avoid over-indulging. Next, cut out sugary mixers and choose to sip a drink neat (on the rocks) or mixed with soda water. In addition, avoid the common plan to avoid eating all day and “save up calories” for drinking later on. Harvard researchers explain that since most cocktails contain simple carbohydrates, which cause a spike in blood sugar, the “crash” after leads to a ravenous appetite (and high likelihood to over-eat). Therefore, it is wiser to plan to have less to drink and eat food as normal throughout the day.

4. Stay hydrated. While dashing to and from events, it can be easy to forget to drink enough water. However, according to WebMD, drinking water helps maintain the balance of fluids in the body, responsible for many different vital functions. From digestion to transportation and absorption of nutrients, drinking water can also help control calories. Foods with a high water content, such as fruits and vegetables, are absorbed more slowly by the body, aiding fullness.

5. Keep Food out of sight. At parties or other holiday gatherings, sit or stand where food isn’t constantly in the line of sight. At home, have people serve themselves from the kitchen or a sideboard, not the dining table.

6. Check out the buffet table or menu before deciding what to have. At a buffet, walk around round the entire table before putting anything on your plate. By checking out all of your options, you might be less inclined to pile everything on to your plate as you go down the line.

7. Choose a smaller plate. Smaller plates help you with portion control—a good strategy for those all-you-can-eat buffets. Fill at least half your plate with low calorie vegetables avoiding rich salad dressing and creamy sauces/dips.

8. Make a healthy dish to take the party. This way you know there is always something you can eat, especially if you are vegan, or a restricted diet (such as low sodium) or have food allergies.

9. Steer clear of an “all-or-nothing” approach. A detour from usual healthful eating habits doesn’t mean you’ve jumped off a cliff. At the same time just because it’s the holiday season, doesn’t mean you should completely ignore how your food choices influence your energy and your health.

10. Start each meal with a soup or salad. Holiday foods tend to be richer and heavier than normal meals, which can lead to excessive caloric intake. By starting with a broth-based soup (not cream) or a salad (minus heavy dressing), it is easier to eat a smaller portion of a heartier food without going hungry. Minestrone and vegetable soups are healthy options.

11. Before you start to eat, pause and take a moment to acknowledge the labor that went into providing your food—be it thanks to the farmers, the workers, the animals, mother Earth, the chefs, or even your companions at the table.

12. Chew the food properly, up to 30 times for each bite if possible. Take time to enjoy the flavors and textures in your mouth before you swallow. This may also help prevent overeating by giving your gut time to send messages to the brain to say you’re full.

13. Put down your utensil. Try putting down your utensils after each bite, and don’t pick them back up until you have enjoyed and swallowed what you already have in your mouth.

14. Take digestive enzymes with your meal. Should you over indulge, Dr. Formulated Organic Digest Enzymes will help you to digest your food properly. 

15. Indulge a little. Deprivation of favorite holiday-only treats can lead to an unplanned binge, especially when stress levels are elevated. Treat yourself a bit during the festive season, always following the rule of moderation.

16. Take a 10-minute beak before having seconds. It takes a few minutes for your stomach’s “full” signal to get to your brain. After finishing your first helping, take a 10-minute break. Make conversation. Drink some water. Then recheck your appetite. You might realize you are full or want only a small portion of seconds.

17. Rehearse responses to family and friends who continue offering food…"That is delicious, but I am full,” “I’d love to take some leftovers home later” or just a simple “No, thank you.”

18. Get adequate sleep. Sleep deprivation interferes with hunger and fullness cues. While late nights make it hard to stick to a regular sleep schedule, sleep deprivation can cause not only drowsiness the following day, but also lead to overeating. A study by the Mayo Clinic found that men and women who slept less than five hours a night were more likely to crave (and end up eating) more high-calorie foods. Sleep duration has a significant impact on the hormones which regulate hunger—ghrelin and leptin—thereby stimulating the appetite. A study from Columbia University and St. Luke’sRoosevelt Hospital found that sleep-deprived subjects had activated reward centers in their brains after viewing pictures of unhealthy foods–explaining why a piece of cake is downright irresistible after little sleep.

19. Self-care. Take care of yourself during the holidays—it’s stressful for many people, between juggling busy schedules, shopping, and more social obligations. Be sure to take time to engage in physical activities that you enjoy as well. Try to plan family activities that focus on some physical activity rather than solely on siting around eating holiday foods.

20. Remember what really matters. Although food is a big part of the holidays, put the focus on family and friends, making memories and having fun.



2. 12 Tips for Holiday Eating Patrick J Skerrett, Former Executive Editor Harvard Health posted Dec24 2012, updated Aug 29 2019

3. 10 Tips for Mindful Eating – Just in time for the holidays by Wynne Armand MD, Contributing Editor, Harvard Health Blog, Nov 24, 2015

4. Holiday Eating by Carrie Dennett MPH, RDN, CD, Today’s Dietitian Nov 2016, Vol 18, , No.11, P.22