Hanukkah starts this week and Christmas is right around the corner. While the holidays can be exciting time of year, they can also be stressful for people who tend to overeat, binge eat, or eat mindlessly. Almost every holiday party and event offers an abundance of delicious sweet and savoury goodies, and the holidays tend to create a joyful and permissive environment that promotes overindulgence.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the holiday season with a little pleasurable overindulgence, but overeating that leaves us feeling sick or upset can be avoided by practicing mindful eating.
Many of us eat mindlessly much of the time. Examples include eating on the go, eating too quickly, eating everything that’s put before us, eating even when we’re full, and snacking simply because food is available. Even when we’re eating food that’s good for us and aren’t overeating, we often fail to be present when we eat.
Eating mindfully simply means bringing mindful awareness to the table whenever you eat. It’s not a rule or a diet, rather, it means becoming more aware of our eating habits, particularly those that sabotage eating well. In so doing, we learn to make better decisions surrounding food–and to have compassion for ourselves when we make less helpful choices.
Mindful eating author Susan Albers outlines three steps to mindful eating using the mind and the body. Together, these steps direct our attention and awareness directly toward our food and toward our thoughts and feelings about our food.
1) Tune in to the physical characteristics of food and to physical feedback about satiety. Use your senses to pay attention to how your food smells and tastes, and to how it feels in your mouth. Is it hot, cold, or lukewarm? What are the different textures? Can you identify distinct notes of spicy, salty, sweet, and tangy? Notice whether or not the food you’re eating satisfies your taste buds, whether it’s something your body really wants to take in. At the same time, keep track of the feedback from your body about fullness. Are you 50% full? 80% full? How do you know?
2) Tune in to repetitive habits and eating on autopilot. Notice how you eat by tuning in when you’re eating on autopilot. This includes things like having a snack at the same time every day; eating something every time you walk into the kitchen, even if you were simply intending to pour yourself a glass of water; or eating the same foods every day. You might notice autopilot habits like always eating if others are eating, stopping only when your plate is empty, or multitasking while you eat.
3) Tune in to emotional triggers for mindless eating. Become an expert on the emotional triggers that prompt mindless eating. Do you head to the vending machines when you’re frustrated with a problem at work? Do you always overeat when you’re with a certain friend, or when you visit your childhood home? Does a bad day trigger the desire for comfort food or do do you head to the buffet table when you’re feeling uncomfortable at a party? When you eat, ask yourself “What am I feeling? Am I emotionally or physically hungry?”
Getting in touch with the sensory experience of eating can help us take pleasure in foods we eat so frequently we don’t taste them anymore (e.g., our morning toast, cereal, coffee). Furthermore, paying close attention to the experience of eating often helps us slow down, giving us the chance to notice often-ignored internal feedback about hunger and fullness.
Identifying our autopilot habits can trigger reflection and help us make different choices based on awareness. Getting to know the emotional triggers that push us to eat when we aren’t hungry can help us anticipate and understand the urge to eat. Knowing that the urge doesn’t necessarily correspond with physical hunger can help us respond more effectively to our emotional needs.
The practice of mindful eating can transform food from a source of stress into a source of nourishment and pleasure, allowing us to be fully present to enjoy the holidays.
This article is based on Dr. Susan Albers’ Eat, Drink, and be Mindful.