by Fran Benedict: Discover how cultivating mindfulness can help you enjoy the special treats of the holiday season and still avoid overeating…
The holidays are a time to enjoy delicious mouth-watering meals and sweet delights. From seasonal pies, cookies, treats, and festive alcoholic drinks that abound in our homes and workplaces to delightful gifts of homemade goodness—we are surrounded by an abundance of opportunities to engage in the holiday spirit of mingling, merrymaking, and munching. It’s both delectable and downright difficult to avoid getting swept away by the edible delights this time of year.
What are the best ways to avoid overeating and to navigating the endless array of goodies at your fingertips? And how can you enjoy them without adding a helping of guilt and remorse? Cultivating awareness, peace, and joy is the key.
Bring Awareness to Your Eating
As the rhythm of life seems to get faster and faster, it’s easy to lose track of the ability to check in with yourself. Be mindful of your experiences, including the experience of eating, can help you feel calmer and more fully alive, and with this special attention, you are able to activate a simple yet powerful force, enabling you to reconnect with your own inner wisdom. Mindfulness is a practice that helps you to tune in to your body, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. It can also help you enjoy the delicious flavors of your food and eat just enough to feel satisfied, rather than stuffing yourself with food that you barely taste. Here are some practical tips that will help you do just that.
1. Be Mindful of Your Appetite
When you are considering eating, tune in to your body and ask yourself if you are physically hungry or if you are about to eat simply because it’s mealtime or for some other reason. Often, people indulge when they are actually hungry for something other than food, such as comfort, connection, joy, or rest.
Once you have determined that you actually have a hunger for food, gauge your appetite. The Chopra Center’s Perfect Health program teaches people to use a hunger scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is feeling ravenous and 10 is completely stuffed. It’s best to eat when your appetite reaches a 2 or 3, and you want to stop eating when you reach a 7, so that you feel satisfied yet light and energetic.
As you eat, periodically check in with yourself and ask, Am I still hungry, or am I at a 7 on the appetite gauge? Do I need more food or something else?
2. Be Present for Your Sensory Experience
When you indulge in food, create a relaxed, comfortable environment that will allow you to savor your food. Turn off the TV, put away your phone, and step away from the computer. These distractions will prevent you from fully experiencing eating and make it more likely that you will miss the bodily cues that you have eaten enough.
As you eat mindfully, notice the flavors, aromas, textures, and colors of the food. Eat slowly and enjoy the rich sensory experience. When you are truly present, you can appreciate your food choices and are less likely to mindlessly overindulge on a big meal.
3. Observe Your Thoughts and Beliefs
Another way to practice mindfulness with food is to become an observer of your thoughts and beliefs about different kinds of food. When you are at a buffet or party, do you label some foods as good and others as bad? Do you feel anxious when you eat something that you have deemed bad, such as your favorite baked goods or a rich appetizer?
These beliefs could be triggering your body’s fight-or-flight response in your body, releasing a cascade of hormones that can affect your metabolism, and body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Pay attention and take note. No matter what you discover, what’s most important is to bring a presence that’s both gentle, allowing, and kind to whatever arises. If you really want the chocolate mousse, let go of any ideas that it is “bad.” Take your time, eat slowly, and enjoy the experience without judgment or worry. If your mind drifts to negative places, or you begin to think about how much sugar is in it, bring it back to the taste, texture, and flavors you are experiencing. Fully savor your holiday treat.
4. Shift from Stress to Relaxation
During the holidays, when your life is filled with stimulation such as family drama, shopping frenzies, and travel, stress can push you towards the next round of drinks, the third helping of mashed potatoes, or another slice of pie. When you become aware of the triggers that lead to mindless eating, you can pause and take a few deep breaths. The simple practice of breathing activates your body’s rest and digest response, helping you shift into a state of relaxation that supports healthy digestion. In Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, breath is considered one of the most critical metabolic functions.
As you breathe with awareness, you experience greater peace, quiet, and perspective. You get in touch with how you are really feeling and are less likely to let your emotions push you in the direction of the buffet table when you aren’t really hungry.
Practice: Deep Belly Breathing
At your next meal (and any time you feel your stress levels rising), try pausing and taking five deep, full breaths from deep within your stomach. This simple, intentional act stimulates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” system, decreasing your heart rate and blood pressure and helping you feel calm and relaxed.
5. Choose Nourishment Over Deprivation
Food is essential for life. It helps you feel healthy and energized, fueling your mind and your body. Eating a big meal, especially in the holiday season, is also a celebration and can give you a sense of connection to your family, friends, and culture. For example, the mouth-watering homemade pecan pie that grandma makes every year symbolizes her love and warmth, nourishing you at the deepest levels. Even if pie isn’t “nutritious” in dietary terms, it has the power to nourish your soul and connect you to your family’s traditions.
Giving yourself permission to take in what the season has to offer can be an extraordinary and sacred act. It’s an invitation to step away from the typical routines and disciplined ways of daily life to celebrate and enjoy the presence of the people you hold dear. This is an excellent opportunity to savor special moments, which is a necessary form of nourishment for the body and mind.
With an attitude of self-compassion and gratitude, allow yourself to enjoy the festivities and tasty delights as you cultivate an awareness of your body, experiences, and emotions. This will allow you to avoid overeating and enjoy a fulfilling holiday season full of merriment and nourishment in all its forms.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center’s Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.