Mindful Eating During the Holiday Season

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Pumpkin Pie. Mashed Potatoes. Stuffing. As Thanksgiving approaches, tantalizing food is at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

Some individuals may characterize guilt in the days following holiday food gatherings. This guilt often stems from the sensationalized media claims that most Americans gain 5-10 pounds during the holiday season. However, many of these assertions are an extension of self-reporting, which typically tends to be skewed with a robust helping of post-holiday remorse.

However, scientific studies demonstrate that the average generalized weight gain during the holidays is less than what one may initially think.

The New England Journal of Medicine sought a comparative analysis of weight gain during the holidays in three countries–America, Germany, and Japan. The study was conducted over the course of a year from Aug. 1, 2012, to July 31, 2013.

The results from the study found that in all three countries, the participants’ weight rose within 10 days after Christmas as compared with 10 days before Christmas day. The average weight increase was one pound collectively.

Another study conducted by researchers at the University of Oklahoma produced results that closely aligned with the data in The New England Journal of Medicine’s study. The study focused on weight gain for college students during Thanksgiving break. The students were weighed the day before Thanksgiving and then two weeks after Thanksgiving. The average weight gain for the 94 participants was about one pound. Students who were of normal weight gained about half a pound. Students who were overweight, meaning that their body mass index was 25 or more, gained about two pounds.

While one to two pounds may not seem like something to worry about, Holly Hull, research expert at the University of Oklahoma, expresses that it can have long-term effects on one’s health.

“I think the number of people who only overeat at the Thanksgiving meal is slim to none. The holiday season doesn’t represent one day of overeating. You have this period that extends through the new year where there’s more alcohol, more snacks, more finger food, and appetizers that are energy dense,” Hull said in an interview.

Hull’s assertion and study findings raises a conflicting question: How can I enjoy holiday foods without feeling guilty about indulgence?

Experts explain that planning in advance about the number of indulgences you plan to partake in during the holiday season is beneficial. They suggest to leave wiggle room for one dessert per week. This suggestion is rooted in the idea that the day will not feel spoiled if you indulge in that hefty helping of your grandma’s pumpkin pie because you’ve planned for that one decadent treat.

Erica Giovinazzo, head coach and nutritionist at Brick CrossFit and BodyChange Dietitian, says that “the biggest mistake people make at the holidays is making Thanksgiving a four-day feast instead of a one-day indulgence. Then the holiday parties come, and all of the sudden you’re giving yourself an excuse to have treats nearly every day. Rather than letting your holiday feast roll into pie for breakfast, limit your splurges to one event per week”

Another way to plan in advance for social gatherings is to eat beforehand–that way you will avoid overeating.

“A good idea is to ‘pre-eat’ something with protein and vegetables to stabilize your blood sugar so you can keep your focus where it belongs: on present company,” suggests Ana Goldseker, director of nutrition for Nava Health and Vitality Centers.

Similarly, according to Harvard Health Publications, low blood sugar from hunger increases cortisol levels, which leads to cravings for fatty, salty, and sugary foods.

Moreover, cravings for fatty, salty, and sugary stem from a pattern of eating hyperpalatable foods. As individuals become accustomed to eating hyperpalatable foods over time that are high in fat, high in salt, or high in sugar (or all three) they erode the ability of their taste buds to appreciate subtler flavors and train themselves to regularly reach for fattening foods.

“The good news is that you can reset taste buds by cutting out processed foods for just one week. Then when you do indulge in a treat, you’ll be able to appreciate all the flavors and be sated with just a few bites. You may even find that processed foods you used to love don’t even appeal anymore,” says Andrea Szebeni, nutritionist for the Lighthouse Recovery Institute.

Overall, while the holidays may be a tempting time to engorge in rich, processed foods, the effects it can have long-term are harmful to one’s health. However, by planning accordingly, one can enjoy and savor each blissful bite without sending their body into a food coma.