Mindful Eating at Holiday Gatherings

Hi Georgie,   I’m wondering if you can share any tips for mindful eating and holiday gatherings. During my daily routine I rarely overdo it but when I’m with friends and family (who eat/drink a lot more) I tend to follow suit and end up feeling sick! It doesn’t feel like I’m excuse eating but more so a need to “fit in”. I’m about to go home where my family tends to not only eat more food but also much richer food…Any advice is greatly appreciated!  – Katy

Christmas partyThanks for writing Katy! Lots of people face extra challenges with healthy eating this time of year thanks to social engagements and staying with family. You’re around lots of tempting food (Christmas cookies, egg nog, more Christmas cookies….) plus exposed to the eating habits of others. Research supports that social cues heavily influence food intake for almost everyone. If the people you’re staying with are snacking, you’re more likely to snack. Plus, if your friends diet or restrict food, you’re more likely to do the same, even when you’re alone again afterward! (1). Bear that in mind come New Years, when your pals might swing from overeating to crash dieting, okay?

Perceived norms also can influence your eating habits (2), so even overhearing conversations about how we ALL gain so much weight at holiday time can sway you to have seconds when you might not have, otherwise. As you pointed out yourself, psychology experts interpret this social tendency toward overeating to being a way to garner social acceptance (3.) The information we receive from our peers is so powerful that it can completely override our internal signals, leading us to hold back if no one else is eating (even if we’re really hungry) or overeat until we end up with a nightmarish bellyache (4).

So what can be done?

Research indicates that women who feel higher self-esteem and greater empathy are less prone to matching their intake to their social group (3). Feeling warmth and connection to social company before food enters the picture further lessens a person’s tendency to match other people’s food intake, probably because initial acceptance puts us at greater ease. To put this research to use this holiday season, boost your confidence and self-esteem by reminding yourself often of how capable you are of eating the right amount for you (after all, you do it daily without much trouble). Connect with people in conversation and dole out some warm hugs at the beginning of the night; that warmth and connection will feel good to everyone else, and help you avoid overeating. Be a good listener.  Remember why and what you are celebrating during the holidays, and don’t fall for any sneaky sabotaging thoughts that imply you’ll actually have more fun if you have seconds of fruitcake.

Distraction contributes to mindless eating, big time (5). What is a holiday party but a plethora of distractions? Friends, twinkling lights, colorful gifts, music, memories, decorations and trees … all of which contribute sensory stimuli and detract from our brain’s ability to self-monitor and process food intake. My advice: set some behavioral guidelines so that you don’t have to count up that you had eighteen pieces of moose munch, or was it nineteen? Here are some helpful guidelines that prevent mindless overeating:

  • Avoid eating out of a big bag or serving bowl; instead, put a portion on a plate or napkin, and move out of arm’s reach.
  • Bookend your meals. By that, I mean have a beginning and an end to an eating occasion. The holiday season often involves a lot of grazing, but your appetite and satisfaction cues (not to mention fat metabolism) can get skewed by little bites of this and that, like eating mini hotdog appetizers and gingerbread nibbles all afternoon. As much as you can, try to eat in meals, instead of grazing. At a party, fill a plate, eat it, and be done.  Instead of picking at leftover food on the table after you’ve “finished”, decide when you’re through eating and get rid of your plate. Pop a piece of gum in your mouth or get a cup of coffee. Be done with eating and go back to enjoying the company with your full attention.
  • Don’t linger next to the holiday bowl of M&Ms, especially if you’re nervous and don’t know many people at the party. Ask me how I know. No, actually…. please don’t.

The holidays aren’t all merriment and carols for everybody, either. There can be some family tension, awkward moments, stress-inducing crowds, or even loneliness. If you think you’re the only one who overeats when facing these factors, you’re wrong. Social stress increases calorie intake, even in animals (6-7). And the best antidote to that social stress is getting some exercise (6). So bring your sneakers with you and try to get outside for a brisk walk daily, not only for the calorie burn but for the greater benefits of boosted self-esteem and decreased stress levels. Physical activity also helps us stay connected with our bodies and their internal signals of hunger and satiety.

I hope this helps you have a joyous holiday season with your family and friends, without the discomfort of overeating.

1. Appetite. 2012 Oct;59(2):505-9.

2. Appetite. 2013 Jun;65:20-4.

3. Appetite. 2011 Jun;56(3):747-52.

4. Appetite. 1991 Oct;17(2):129-40.

5.  Appetite. 2013 Mar;62:119-26.

6. Cell Biochem Funct. 2013 Jun 5.

7. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012 Jun;37(6):729-41.

 

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