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A Taste of Mindful Eating During the Holidays

Mindful Eating RESIZEDWith Thanksgiving and Christmas around the corner, Monarch therapist Dr. Karen S. Holst, MSW, LCSW, Ed.D. shares why savoring your meals is key.

The rush of the holidays is almost here. With the endless to-do lists and holiday parties, it can often add more stress to our already busy lives, along with plenty of opportunities to overeat during parties and family gatherings.

During the holidays, we often overeat in an effort to distract us from uncomfortable thoughts or feelings we may be experiencing in the moment; similar to smoking or having a drink. Holst said that just as with using cigarettes or alcohol to help us manage what is currently going on in our minds, chronic eating can lead to undesirable consequences that affect our overall health and wellbeing.

“If you’re at a holiday event and everyone is gathered around food eating and talking, that’s when eating becomes mindless because we’re engaged in the conversation, we’re distracted. If we feel stressed or uncomfortable we reach for more food to make ourselves feel better. It can be an endless cycle this time of year,” said Holst.

When we eat foods loaded with fat and sugar, which is abundant during the holidays, there is a surge of dopamine released in our brains. Dopamine is a chemical, or neurotransmitter, that helps control our reward and pleasure function in our brains. When we eat, dopamine is released and we momentarily feel pleasure; we get temporary relief. When that surge then turns to a crash, we want more of the unhealthy food. Eating enough protein and vegetables just before going to a holiday party can help fight the urge to indulge and begin the cycle of emotional eating.

“If we’re eating healthy we don’t have that drastic drop in dopamine. And when we’re mindful, we’re aware of our feelings and we learn that they’ll pass and we don’t need to respond to them with food. You no longer need food to make yourself feel better.”

The practice of mindfulness teaches us to learn to pay attention on purpose, to be aware of our feelings even if it’s uncomfortable so we can become more familiar with them. With the practice of mindfulness, we no longer have to rely on reactive and often times addictive behaviors to manage our feelings. Growing research also suggests mindful eating can help with weight issues.

“Mindful eating is when we focus on just having our meal as the only task in front of us. We notice the color of the food, the smell, we pay attention to where the food came from and our bodies’ response as it prepares to eat like salivating. How we can take the fork or spoon to our mouths to feed ourselves. That alone is something we can think about and be grateful for.”

Holst also says it’s important to do other things besides having events that revolve around food. Spending time with your family or friends with a game or another activity can help avoid mindless eating.

For beginners, Holst recommends practicing mindful eating with a cup of tea or coffee before moving on to an entire meal. Here are more tips to get started:

Eliminate distractions to the greatest extent possible. Turn off the television or radio, put away books or newspapers, and sit at the table with the intention of simply eating.
Think about your intention (eating) and give yourself the gift of being present in the moment to yourself.
Sit in silence for a moment and then observe the food before you, notice the colors, the textures, the smells coming from the plate. Think about all the hands and resources it took for this food to be where it is now.
Continue eating until you no longer experience hunger. Being aware of, but not reacting to, any desires to finish quickly and move on to the next item on your to-do list.
Stick to your regular routines of exercise and sleep.
Enjoy and savor your favorite holiday treats rather than using them to cope with stress.
Eating mindfully gives the gift of being in the present moment to yourself to enjoy your favorite holiday foods and traditions without overeating now and throughout the year.

Check out these other resources to learn more:

Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, by Jan Chozen Bays, with an introduction by Jon Kabat-Zinn, released February 3, 2009 by Shambhala Publishing.
Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, by Brian Wansink, published 2006 by Bantam Books.

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