Yes — you can enjoy all your favourite festive foods and be healthy at the same time! How? Practise mindful eating, as HFG dietitian Melissa Meier explains.
We might be stating the obvious, but the festive season is no time to start a diet. Christmas, of course, is a great time to relax and enjoy good food with your nearest and dearest. But how many times have you felt guilty after you’ve overeaten? Or perhaps you’ve eaten to the point where you feel sick, only to swear that your diet starts tomorrow? Well, the good news is that it’s okay to enjoy all your favourite Christmas foods — provided you do it ‘mindfully’.
If you’re new to this concept of eating, here’s a quick rundown. Mindful eating is a flexible approach to food that focuses on you tuning in to your hunger and fullness cues, without putting into place strict food rules. It’s about telling yourself you can eat or drink whatever you want, but asking yourself whether you really feel like it. Here’s how you can easily apply mindful eating principles to four classic festive season scenarios these holidays.
The Xmas party
“I’m going to eat and drink a lot tonight, so I’d better not eat much today.”
“I’ll eat my usual healthy meals throughout the day, and I’ll enjoy what I feel like eating and drinking when tonight arrives.”
Arriving at a party with gnawing hunger pangs isn’t ideal. With a welcome drink in your hand and a grumbling tummy, you’ll probably find yourself quickly reaching for energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods like party pies and chips. In fact, a 2015 study found that alcohol makes the brain more sensitive to food aromas, increasing the amount of food that people eat by about 30 per cent.
When you practice mindful eating, however, feeding your empty stomach won’t be top of mind. After all, you will already have eaten satisfying meals for breakfast and lunch. So take time to decide exactly what you want to eat at the party, rather than settling for the first thing you see. And if your selection happens to be a ‘treat’ food, enjoy it without feeling guilty — because there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods.
The day after (AKA boxing day)
“I’ve already done the damage, so I may as well polish off the leftovers in the fridge and get back on track in the New Year.”
“I really enjoyed the food yesterday, but I still feel quite full, so I’m going to take it easy today.”
When you restrict foods, they automatically become more appealing. Have you ever noticed how tempting chocolate is when you’ve told yourself you can’t have it? Eventually, sheer willpower will give way and you’ll eat more than just a square or two — followed by the inevitable food guilt and the vow to start dieting again on Monday. Sounds familiar?
This scenario is rife at Christmas time. After you’ve scoffed a few too many gingerbread men or chocolate rum balls, it’s easy to feel you’ve ‘blown it’, and to promise yourself you’ll start again on New Year’s Day.
Mindful eating allows you to train your brain to go about these situations differently. By giving yourself permission to enjoy treat foods if you really feel like them, you let go of the old-style guilt.
So, instead of devouring all of the Christmas leftovers on Boxing Day, listen to your body and opt for a lighter meal and a treat, if you want it. Then, perhaps head outside for a walk, or play a friendly game of backyard or beach cricket!
The buffet table
“There are just so many choices, I don’t know where to start! I’ll pile my plate high with a bit of everything.”
“I’ll scan the entire buffet first and choose a few options that are really appealing. I can always go back for seconds if I’m still hungry.”
The ‘all-you-can-eat’ mentality can really pile on the kilojoules. Even if you’re feeling full halfway through the meal, you’re likely to finish everything on your plate — because that’s what you were taught to do growing up!
Mindfulness lets you rate your hunger before heading to the buffet, and stop when you’re full, even if that means leaving a little bit of food on your plate.
The new year’s resolution
“This year I’ll lose 10kg by cutting out sugar and going to the gym every day.”
“I feel healthy when I move more, so I’ll make going for a walk a couple of times each week my new priority.”
It’s really no surprise that about 80 per cent of our New Year’s resolutions fail by February. After a season of indulgence, it’s quite common to set unrealistic health and weight-loss goals, but are you just setting yourself up for failure?
A more mindful approach is to focus on why you want to reach your goals, not just the end result. Think about why eating better or exercising regularly makes you feel good — not just physically, but mentally too. Write down your intentions, or even better, create a vision board to help you stay on track
And finally, be kind to yourself. Recognise that it’s normal to get distracted and lose focus from time to time, especially at this time of year when your routine is out of synch. But this doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. Stay mindful!
5 ways to celebrate healthily
Eat a healthy, balanced breakfast so that you don’t arrive at Christmas lunch totally famished.
Scan the buffet and choose the items you’ll really enjoy, rather than the first food you see.
Sit down when you eat and truly savour your food — there’s no rush, it’s Christmas, after all!
Set a limit on alcohol to avoid going overboard on kilojoules.
Get your heart pumping by going for a walk after festive feasting.
Melissa is an Accredited Practising Dietitian with a love of healthy, delicious food. She is passionate about helping others to lead healthier lives and teaching people to use nutrition to better their health.