The holidays aren't the time for dieting, tracking your nine servings of vegetables, or watching the scale like a hawk. Rather, mindful eating during the holidays is about recognizing the difference between savoring well-deserved treats and hurtling down the slippery slope to a place of stomach-gurgling misery. These seven steps will help you keep the season's reveling in check.
1. Schedule Strategically
Research has found that when we go to parties that fall outside our normal mealtimes, we don't hold back, even if we've just had lunch or dinner, says Jack Yanovski, M.D., Ph.D., head of the Unit on Growth and Obesity at the National Institutes of Health. The occasional extra indulgence isn't a crisis; what you want to avoid is a midwinter epiphany that your three square meals have become four -- or five. If you're headed to a cocktail party after work, don't plan to have a big dinner with your family later that night. And when throwing your own holiday parties, consider scheduling them at mealtimes, not before or after.
2. Work the Room
One strategy for avoiding mindless munching at holiday parties "is to visit with the people, not the food," says Wendy Bazilian, R.D., nutrition specialist at the Golden Door spa and fitness resort in Escondido, California. To that end, back away from the buffet table. Fill a small plate with a few appetizers, then migrate and mingle. "My number one strategy is to hang out with the talkers, not the eaters," says Joy Bauer, dietitian and author of "Food Cures." If you need extra help, says Bazilian, keep something in your hands -- even an empty glass. "We tend to be more comfortable with our hands occupied."
3. Nurse Your Drinks
The power of the proverbial beer goggles extends beyond the usual romantic targets. If you're not careful, your holiday spirits can convince you that an entire plate of canapes equals a single serving or that whipped cream is an essential food group. You don't need to avoid alcohol altogether, say experts, but pace yourself. At a holiday dinner party, for instance, "have water or club soda first," says Bauer. "Then at the meal or even the end of the meal, have a glass of wine." If a one-drink maximum isn't realistic, alternate between alcohol and water. As for cocktails, keep in mind that the sweet ones go down much easier -- and faster. And eggnog? "If you can consider it dessert, enjoy it," says Bauer.
4. Savor, Don't Stuff
The opposite of mindless gorging isn't not eating, but savoring -- and you can do that only with satisfying food. "How many times have you eaten something that was nutritionally perfect, but unsatisfying because it didn't taste good?" says Bazilian. By contrast, if you experience psychological nourishment, "you'll feel sated more readily." And don't stop with the food. "There's so much to savor during the typical holiday meal -- music, lighting, scents, people. Take it all in as you eat," Bazilian says. Not only will you reduce your consumption, you'll increase your genuine holiday cheer, pie-related or otherwise. If slowing down to savor doesn't come naturally, start paying attention to how much you chew. "Counting 15 chews per bite is enough to make you conscious of what you're eating, and not so much that it becomes annoying," she says.
5. Tune In
The typical family holiday spread -- your basic bacchanalia of fat and carbs -- inspires fear and longing in equal measure. Inevitably, you'll cave in to your cravings and pile your plate high with baked brie and mini-quiches. But there's still time to prevent the downward spiral, if you take a moment to tune in before chowing down. When you've eaten half your food, says Bauer, rate your hunger on a scale of one to five -- one being hungry, five being full. If you're at four or five, stop; one to three, continue eating. If you keep eating, rerate your hunger when another quarter of the food is gone. "This technique creates an awareness of how you're feeling," explains Bauer, "and you may even find that at the first check-in, you're done."
6. Remember the Basics
Maintaining key healthy habits will help you enjoy your holiday treats. For starters, make sure you're well hydrated (at least six glasses a day), since "we sometimes get a hunger signal when we really need water," says Bazilian. And don't forgo fruits and vegetables, which play a particularly important role this time of year. "When you eat, two kinds of information reach your brain about the meal's size: information about the chemical content of your blood and about the physical distension, or stretching, of your stomach," explains Don Katz, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brandeis University. "And as it turns out, the brain pays more attention to stomach distension." In other words, when it comes to flipping your stomach's off-switch, the volume of food you eat matters more than the number of calories. With their high fiber content, copious amounts of crudites before the meal will help your body send "uncle!" signals once you've moved on to, say, the mashed potatoes.
7. Get Back on Track
"If you overdo it at one meal, get back on track at the next meal -- or at least the next day," says Bauer. Don't wait to "start fresh on Monday" if it's only Tuesday or Wednesday. "The problem with stuffing yourself again and again is that your stomach isn't perfectly elastic," says Katz. "You'll tend to eat larger meals even after the holidays." How to rebound after an eating spree? "Eat small, frequent meals that won't leave you bloated," suggests Bauer. Taking a post-meal walk will also help. "There are some 25 feet of digestive tract between your rib cage and pelvic bone," notes Bazilian. "Every time we take a step and swing our arms, we twist a bit and move things along." Whatever you do, don't punish yourself. "Guilt leads to restriction that can't be maintained, and thus to a vicious cycle," explains Yanovski. Remember that "food is cultural, social, religious, spiritual, familial -- you can't separate it from all of these things," notes Bazilian. With practice, she says, we can embrace all the reasons we eat -- without embracing every bowl of guac we encounter.
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