The Secret to Healthy Indulgence at Holiday Meals

Mindfulness practices can help you survive the traditional season of overeating

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The holiday season is upon us, and while indeed it is “the most wonderful time of the year” as the carol goes, it can also be riddled with minefields for people wanting to stay on track with their health goals. This year presents the unique challenge of figuring out how to observe traditions in new, socially distanced ways. But no matter how or where or with whom you celebrate your holidays, food is always an essential, phenomenally enjoyable part of the festivities.

It’s important to realize that indulging isn’t overeating into a “food coma.” Indulging may just mean trying a new, hotly anticipated dish, or savoring a traditional food that you don’t often get to enjoy. And it can be any type of food, not just a rich dessert. The important thing is that it satisfies you.

Here are my five pieces of advice for mindful indulgence at a holiday meal.

  1. Balance your schedule and plate

Start the practice of mindful eating by setting yourself up to succeed. It’s hard to eat mindfully if you’re ravenous. If you go too long without eating, your body gets nervous about when it’s going to be refueled, and it wants to gobble everything, and a lot of it. That’s due to low blood sugar, which causes you to lose rational decision-making ability about what you actually want to eat and how much of it. You end up overeating and feeling stuffed afterwards because you absorbed all your calories for the day in one sitting. Instead of “saving up” calories for the big holiday meal, eat small amounts regularly throughout the day to keep your blood sugar stable, so your body can continue to make logical decisions.

In addition to balancing your eating schedule so your body feels safe, take a look at balancing your plate. During the holidays, food can often be very rich and high in calories, with more meat than usual and a lot of breads, crackers and pie crusts using refined flour products. What may be in short supply on your plate is vegetables. Or, if you do have them on your plate, they may mainly offer starchy carbohydrates, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash. It’s important to balance your plate with non-starchy vegetables that are crunchy and leafy, like broccoli, green beans, and spinach.

2. Take a deep breath

However your holiday celebrations look this year, there will probably still be the usual hustle and bustle to make sure everything’s done. When you’re stressed, experiencing that feeling of overwhelming busy-ness, your sympathetic nervous system pumps adrenaline so your body is in its fight-or-flight mode. It’s not ready for digestion and you may forget to eat or feel you can skip a meal.

But there are two different parts of the nervous system, and it’s important to activate the other one before your higher-calorie holiday meal. Your parasympathetic nervous system is where you feel calm, and your body can do maintenance, repair and also digestion. Mindful eating helps get your body into a relaxed, optimal state for digesting a big, rich meal.

And so I recommend taking a few deep breaths before you eat to calm yourself down and move into the parasympathetic nervous system. This could be while you say grace or otherwise acknowledge being together at the meal. Even if you’re alone, taking deep breaths will slow you down and better prepare your body for digestion. (You can read more tips for relieving stress in my earlier Thrive Global article.)

3. Use your five senses

By paying attention to your meal, you tend to eat less. Admire the presentation and colors; inhale the aroma; listen carefully to the crunch or sizzle; feel the texture of the food in your hands and/or mouth; and finally, savor the taste. So often you jump directly to taste as you’re multitasking or talking with companions and then realize, too late, that the food is gone without your taste buds really appreciating it. And you completely skip indulging your other four senses. Honoring all five senses helps you slow down and better enjoy what you’re eating, which also gives your body time to let your mind know that it’s had enough fuel. This contributes to a feeling of satiety so you don’t overeat.

4. Make sure it’s worth it

Have you had the experience at a holiday meal where a friend or family member insists that you try the favorite casserole they brought? And you end up eating a big helping of a high-calorie something you don’t like just to be polite? Of course you have! But eating is about you, not them. Is what you’re eating really worth it in terms of taste and caloric intake? Decide what you want to give your body for its fuel that day, and what will tickle your taste buds. Think about the quality as well as the quantity. Whatever you’re taking in — the side dish, the pie, the drink — is it phenomenal? Or are you just eating it because it ended up on your plate? If you’re at a meal with a lot of different dishes, fill your plate with small, two-bite sample servings if possible. In that way, you can try everyone’s dishes and then go back for more of your favorites.

5. Take care of yourself

This year the holidays will be unusual and accompanied by a heightened level of stress, so cut yourself some slack and don’t try to be perfect as you figure out how you’ll adjust your traditions. It may be the time for some extra self-care so that you can be at a place where you can mindfully enjoy the actual days of celebrations. That may mean that you change your exercise routine a little, give yourself some extra downtime, and get plenty of sleep. Be kind to yourself as well as others!

If you follow these five points, you’ll be able to enjoy your holiday festivities without worry or guilt. So start planning your meals and mindful indulgences now!

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