Eating smart during the holidays is all mind over matter

Picture yourself at your most recent big holiday meal.

Did you pile your plate with food served from bowls and platters at the table?

Did you take some - or a lot - of everything, whether or not each food was a particular favorite?

Did you dig in when everyone else did and chat while eating, never even pausing to put down your fork?

And, when that first plate of food was gone, did you automatically seek seconds?

If that sounds familiar, you ate more than you actually wanted or needed. And you probably didn't enjoy it as much as you thought you would, especially when the meal was over and you were left feeling uncomfortably full.

Now picture this: At your next festive gathering, you serve yourself from bowls and platters in the kitchen, taking just the amount you want of only those foods you love best. Before digging in, you sit for a moment, even as those around you start eating, and you take in all the sights, scents and sounds of the holiday table. Then you lift your fork and taste, pausing to notice exactly how your food smells, its temperature, how it feels in your mouth, savoring its flavors. As you chew, you set down your fork. Only when you've fully enjoyed and eventually swallowed that first bite do you take another. By the end of the meal - which you are the last to finish - you are not just full but truly satisfied.

Which scenario sounds more celebratory?

I suppose an argument could be made for either. But proponents of a practice known as "mindful eating" are convinced that the second approach not only allows you to enjoy your food more but also can help you manage your weight during the holiday season and beyond.

Mindful eating is an outgrowth of a practice called mindfulness, itself an outgrowth of Zen Buddhism (but one that can easily be embraced without adopting Zen or any other philosophy). Mindfulness involves slowing down to savor all of life's details, to notice small things and appreciate every sensation. As applied to eating, mindfulness offers a means of making the most of every calorie you choose to ingest and can help you make those choices.

Psychologist Susan Albers has written extensively about mindful eating, particularly in her book "Eating Mindfully: How to End Mindless Eating and Enjoy a Balanced Relationship With Food" (New Harbinger, 2003). She defines the practice as "a calm, focused, nonjudgmental awareness of what you eat. It focuses more on the way you eat rather than what you eat." Mindful eating, Albers adds, "is not a diet. There are no menus or recipes."

It takes three steps, she says. First, train yourself to really taste food, using all of your senses. Next, become aware of the habits and routines that govern your eating. Finally, tune in to your hunger and fullness, learning to distinguish between psychological and emotional hunger and true physical hunger.

Mindful eating might be just the tool to get you through the calorie-fest we call the holidays. "Too many people decide to diet during the holiday season," Albers notes. "This isn't realistic. In fact, creating a rule to steer clear of holiday treats is a setup for failure, shame and guilt. Instead," she recommends, "work on eating cookies and other holiday treats mindfully. Before you take a bite, ask yourself, 'Am I eating this mindfully? Am I hungry, and would I really enjoy it?' "

Adopting mindful eating takes time and practice, Albers acknowledges. Even though the eating season is well under way, you can still commit. But don't try it for the first time at the office holiday party. "It is like building any other skill," Albers says. "You don't want to learn to swim when you are drowning. ... Initially, practice the skill when you are feeling calm and relaxed rather than in the midst of a strong craving or too many holiday treats."

Brian Wansink wrote the groundbreaking book "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think" (Bantam, 2007), which showed how our eating habits are governed by myriad environmental cues, such as the size of our plates and the company we keep. He has a slogan: "The best diet is the one you don't know you're on."

Wansink says he believes we can harness our awareness of environmental cues to create conditions that allow us to relax and eat without fear of overindulging. The goal, he says, is to "help people mindlessly eat right."

That means scouring your surroundings for all the little things that encourage you to overeat. Swap your mammoth dinner plates for modestly sized ones to make healthful food portions seem substantial. Use tall, thin glasses instead of short, squat ones so you pour less liquid. Plate your food in the kitchen rather than at the table so you're forced to get up for second helpings. You might not.

The idea is to remove all of the subtle obstacles to healthful eating so that you don't have to think about whether you're eating smart: Doing so becomes the only option.

"We have tremendous control over our personal environment," Wansink says. Exerting that control is a sound strategy "for anyone who doesn't want to be a full-time dieter."

Instead of devoting ourselves to lives of mindfulness, he suggests, we can just work on changing the cues that trigger our overeating. "For someone who really wants (mindful eating) to be their entire life mission, they can study it and eat mindfully," Wansink says.

"But most of us are too busy for that."


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