Mindful Eating for the Holidays

How many times have we looked at the scale after the holidays and cringed? While the holidays often offer a cornucopia of delicious foods, eating with abandon can cause January distress. Is there a way to enjoy the delectable tastes of the holidays while not tipping the scales in the new year? I believe there is a way: Mindful Eating.

Mindfulness is paying attention to one’s experience in the present moment, on purpose, non-judgmentally, with kindness and compassion, according to Jon Kabat- Zinn. When eating, however, we often eat out of habit, barely registering the tastes and textures of the foods we eat. Dr. Pavel Somov, in his book, Eating the Moment, discusses four reasons why we might overeat.
All four reasons stem from mindlessness:
1) Mindlessness of the environmental triggers of eating,
2) Mindlessness of the process of eating,
3) Mindlessness of the sensations of fullness, and
4) Mindlessness of emotional eating. Pavel writes that mindless eating can make sense if we conceptualize it as a way to conserve energy and optimize performance by not having to constantly focus on a myriad of sensations and choices.

For example, mindless eating can help us through a business lunch where we focus on the business at hand, instead of the tastes on our palate, and mindless eating can allow us to enjoy the suspenseful movie while devouring a box of candy. However, this automated, mindless eating can lead to overeating and unhealthy lives.

Mindful eating allows us to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food preparation and consumption, allows our senses to take in the smells and tastes of our food, allows us to acknowledge our responses to the foods we eat without judgment, and helps us learn to be aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide our decisions to begin and end our eating. It also helps us to be aware of environmentally and emotionally triggered eating. Mindful eating helps us to be more aware of when we are hungry and full so that we are less apt to overeat. It helps us to be more aware of the tastes and smells of our food so that we might enjoy the experience of eating more. And, it helps to make us aware of all that goes into the food that is now sitting on our plates (the farmer who grew the food, the trucker who transported the food, the store workers who stocked the food, and the person who prepared our food) which nurtures feelings of gratitude, which is also linked to positive mental health.

Mindless eating occurs when we eat out of habit. How many meals or snacks have we all gobbled up, barely chewing, and barely being aware of the tastes we are consuming? When we eat out of habit, possibly being triggered by emotion, or environmental cues (it’s time for my favorite show, let me grab a bag of chips, or downing appetizers at a party…), we are more apt to overeat and put on the pounds. Dr. Somov lists eight common environmental triggers of eating: food characteristics (smells, sights, sounds), activities (TV, reading, entertainment, socializing), settings (barbecue, picnic), events (holidays, birthdays, weddings, parties), time (breakfast time, brunch time, lunch time…), people (foodie friends, comfort/support people, stress people) , words (brand names, taste words, food words), and weather (inclement weather, picnic weather). Increasing our awareness of these triggers and our mindless habits is the first step toward promoting mindful eating.

As we approach the holiday season, we can see the potential for many of these eight environmental triggers. Mindful eating can increase our capacity to enjoy the yummy seasonal foods, help us make healthy choices, and prevent post-holiday scale distress. Bon Appetit!

Marcia Kaufman, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist