While this week marks the beginning of a cheery time of year filled with loved ones and celebrations, it is not all fun and games for most of us. I asked on instagram what some common holiday struggles are, and here are the most common responses:
“All the treats”
“Pressure to eat what someone makes"
Sound familiar? You are not alone! However, time with loved ones is more sacred than ever this year, so I am letting you in on a few of my nutritionist-approved tips on taking back control this holiday season.
Here are my top 10 tips for a mindful holiday season:
Holidays are usually filled with more treats than normal. Humans naturally gravitate toward whats easy and accessible to us, so if more treats are in front of us, more treats will be eaten. (FYI: this goes along with nutritious foods too; if you keep them within eyesight, you’re more likely to reach for them — a fruit bowl can actually serve this purpose).
That being said, I want you to enjoy these holiday treats mindfully. This means being present and using most of your senses while you eat the pumpkin bread (I said most—please do not waste your time “listening” to your food). Notice the smell of the sweet potato casserole before it even gets to your lips. Taste the texture of the pecan pie. This is SO important for inducing satisfaction. When we pay attention to our bites, we pick up on something called “sensory specific satiety.” That’s the idea that each bite becomes less and less special to our taste buds and we end up needing less of a certain food to satisfy a craving. So this year when you are going for your aunt’s famous brownies, I want you to try to focus on the brownie. Smell it. Taste it. Savor it.
Another part of mindful eating encourages you to tune into those hunger and fullness cues. Regardless of what you’re eating, start to notice how much you actually need. Using hunger/fullness to guide mealtimes can be hard for many of us who are used to eating based on the clock or following serving sizes as indicated by a nutrition facts label or what the restaurant feeds you. This is a skill that comes with time and practice, but the more curious you get about it, the more natural it ultimately comes.
It sounds so simple, but the act of putting your food on a plate holds you accountable. Think about it like this: have you ever been to a party and parked yourself at the counter, next to the cheeseboard? What happens in that situation? You’re chatting and picking, and the next thing you know you ate half a wheel of brie and two cups of cashews. Instead, try surveying the appetizer situation, grabbing a plate and filling it with the food you want to be eating and then moving away to another part of the room to enjoy it.
Now that we’ve established you will be plating your food, I want you to think about balancing your plate. In simple terms, a balanced plate is about 1/2 non-starchy veggies, 1/4 protein, and 1/4 carb/starches with some healthy fats mixed in. To give you a holiday example, this would be half your plate filled with string beans and brussels sprouts (cooked in olive oil for some fat), 1/4 with a few slices of turkey and 1/4 with some sweet potatoes or stuffing. Obviously this plate example can waver a bit on the holidays, but use it as a rough guide to ensure you are nourishing yourself properly.
Recipes do not have to be the way grandma always made them. Swapping Greek yogurt for sour cream or using swapping bean/legume pasta, spaghetti squash, or zoodles for traditional spaghetti are simple ways to up the nutrition of your dish. You can also see if there’s a place you can sneak in extra veggies or maybe use half cream/half broth in a traditionally creamy soup. Get creative here!
That being said, we don’t want to completely sacrifice flavor. Holidays happen once a year, so in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t make any difference if your soup is creamy and your dip is filled with mayo for one night. If the enjoyment of it is compromised by making a healthy swap, then forget it and stick to the real deal.
Holidays mean more family and more obligations, which for many of us tends to equal more stress. While food can be a comfort once in a while, we do not want to spend all of November and December turning to ice cream every single time we feel an emotion.
Instead, start thinking about other coping mechanisms you can have in your “tool box” the next time an emotion comes on. Feeling lonely? Call a friend. Feeling frustrated? Go for a walk. Feeling stressed? Light a lavender candle and take 3 slow deep breaths.
Food is totally an okay comfort when you need it, but if it is our only comfort this holiday season, we are probably going to wake up feeling pretty crappy come January 1st.
While the holidays may fill our schedule with varying activities and throw us off our normal routine, don’t forget the basics: hydration, movement, and sleep. Food is a huge part of health, but if those other three components are forgotten about, we are not going to feel the greatest.
Hunger and dehydration tend to have similar signs, so lots of times people think they are hungry when they are really just thirsty. Carry your water bottle around and set a hydration goal for yourself. I personally keep a 1L bottle next to me and make sure to finish the first by noon, another by 3 and another before the day ends. If 3 liters sounds too far off for you right now, start small by increasing 1-2 cups at a time and work yourself up to more.
While we’re on the topic of hydration, let’s briefly mention alcohol. My few mini rules here: name your number of drinks, hydrate extra pre-alcohol, and save your sugar for dessert. That being said, if egg nog is something you look forward to all year, please have it! But have just one. Sip it. Savor it. Alcohol leaves us feeling crappy on its own, but adding all that sugar is typically is a recipe for a rough morning.
Next, when it comes to basics, don’t forget movement. Exercise seems to dwindle as the weather gets colder. Try to schedule in movement throughout the day (notice I didn’t say exercise, just get moving!) as you would a meeting. Whether it’s walking to the grocery store, vacuuming your living room or doing a 10 minute yoga flow, getting your body moving will do wonders for your mental and physical health. Make it non-negotiable and build it into your day. Please remember: exercise is never a punishment for overindulging. Instead, it is a celebration of what your body CAN do.
And lastly, do not compromise sleep. When we don’t sleep enough our hormones are out of whack, making our cravings wild along with them. Try to get 7 hours each night at a minimum (bonus points if you can make it to 8-9). If you need a little help with falling asleep, establish a nighttime routine for yourself to help you wind down and relax (light a candle, take magnesium, no scrolling an hour before bed, etc.). Keeping up these three simple keys of hydration, movement and sleep will keep you feeling good, regardless of the food.
We have all been there—enjoying our slice of cheesecake when Aunt Barb sits down next to us and tells us about her new keto diet. Next thing you know Uncle Ted is joining in to tell you about his newfound success with Weight Watchers. They’re both comparing notes, while looking at your cheesecake with despair.
My first word of advice? Disengage. If there is a conversation going on that doesn’t support your mental health, don’t join in on it. You can either move seats or try to change the conversation. If those hungry dieters start to get pushy, you can simply tell them you are taking a break from diets. You do not have to be involved in any conversation you do not want to be.
Another tool is to lead by example. Sadly, diet talk has been normalized in recent years. By continuing the conversation, we’re saying it is okay. Instead, start making it clear to your friends and family it is not something you care to talk about. Don’t comment on others’ looks or food choices and don’t join in when the conversation is happening. If you are feeling brave enough, start making your opinion on it clear to others. Start expressing that you don’t appreciate comments on your body, your plate or anything else that might make you uncomfortable. You will be surprised to learn how many others are feeling similar to you and will follow.
The same way you can control what conversations you are a part of, you also get to choose what you are and are not eating. We’ve all been in that situation when a loved one is basically forcing food down your throat and you feel bad saying no, so you have a second helping even though you’re already pretty full. While this may seem like the polite thing to do in the moment, you leavingthe party feeling stuffed and sick it is not benefiting anyone.
Instead, this holiday season build your plate for you and only you! Really tune into what YOU want. Ever notice you eat stuffing out of habit but you really don’t enjoy it? Maybe you would rather have more of the sweet potatoes and skip the stuffing all together? Get curious here and challenge yourself to honor what your body is telling you.
If it’ll make your aunt happy if you try her pie but you are really not in the mood for it, politely say you are too full now, but you would love to take a piece home for later. Show appreciation for the time she put into the food. Express interest in the recipe and ask her to send it your way. This way, you are still being respectful to her cooking and your sense of fullness. Win/win.
When I asked my clients what they struggle with the most during the holiday, the most common answer was “overeating all the treats.” Let me cue you into a little secret: when food is restricted, we’re more likely to binge on it.
When you restrict a food, you feel deprived and you end up with intense cravings for it. And while you normally might wade off these cravings by not keeping the food around, these “restricted foods” are typically common attendees to your holiday party. So suddenly, after strict restriction, the cravings are too strong and you go for it. But instead of having a little bit of the treat mindfully, we tend to completely overdo it because in our heads this is a “one time only occurrence.” Think about it like the last supper. If this is the last time you are “allowed” said food, you are way more likely to overdo it.
What happens after we overdo it? Typically guilt sets in and you feel “bad” for having “no will power”. What is our usual response to this? We restrict again and the hamster wheel of the diet cycle is in full swing.
How do we end this cycle? It is actually much simpler than one would think. It’s simply making the mental shift towards understanding that all foods fit. Instead of touting some foods as “good” and others as “bad,” start to understand food is not moral. You are no better of a person for eating salmon and you are no worse for eating chocolate. Many things you do throughout the day make you morally good or bad, but food choices are not one of them.
Next, start to recognize that you can have any food, whenever you want. When you allow all foods, you don’t ever need to overeat them since you know you can go back for more when you want it. Whenever you want it. Even just saying that is freeing.
When I first say this many people say that if they allowed all foods they would start to survive on cookies and potato chips. However, if you allow all foods mindfully, you start to notice how foods make your body feel and ultimately gravitate towards more nutritious foods for the energy they provide you. It works. I promise.
The last and most important point I will make is to ditch black and white thinking. Forget the days of “I feel so guilty I ate ____” or “I already had X so I might as well have Y.” Every single time you eat is a chance to feel your best. It doesn’t matter if you ate a donut for breakfast—having veggies at lunch is going to make you feel more energized. Holidays can prevent more challenges to our normal nutritious routines, so if you get thrown off, get right back on.
Our end goal is to wake up January 1st ready for the new year. So what if you overdo it at Friendsgiving? Christmas is a new day. Every meal is a new chance.
MPM Nutrition is a nutrition private practice run by NYC registered dietitian Marissa Meshulam. Marissa coaches clients (both in person and virtually) towards their individual wellness goals by taking a mindful approach to the world of food and nutrition. You can learn more about MPM Nutrition or make an appointment at their location inside HealthQuarters here.