Ah, that wonderful time of year after the harvest, when food is abundant and Thanksgiving begins a whole season of eating! Yet for us overfed and diet-obsessed Americans, the season of food can be a time of losing our tenuous hold on sensible eating habits and surrendering completely to more than a month of uncontrolled feasting on rich and sentimental comfort foods.
“But Mom only makes this once a year!” and “It’s only for the holidays…” we tell ourselves, and then in January wonder how that extra ten pounds got there!
If a little cheating on your sensible eating plan morphs into a month-long binge for you at holiday time, consider a different approach, an alternative to deprivation or binging, involving neither guilt nor denial; one that actually results in more gastronomic pleasure than simply eating everything in sight. The secret has to do with replacing quantity with quality and autopilot eating habits with an extra measure of attentiveness.
Conscious eating is all about waking up your taste buds to every sensory delight so that you don’t miss even a second’s worth of enjoyment by falling into unconscious eating habits. It enables you to enjoy your food more while requiring less to feel satisfied.
Binging happens when we’ve stopped paying attention. We may enjoy the first bites but then keep eating to recapture that first moment’s gratification even after the food is no longer delivering. We may eat for reasons other than hunger, to fill an emotional void or to stuff painful feelings. Binging also happens when we’ve developed such a long-term habit of restrictive dieting that one taste of something not our food plan sends us into an out-of-control eating frenzy where we consume enough to hold us through the long drought of deprivation that invariably follows “cheating.”
This holiday plan calls for a softer (in the kinder, not fatter, sense), gentler you. It involves putting down the whip of guilt and discipline and easing up on food restrictions while simultaneously paying more attention to the whole experience of appetite, craving, and satiation. It entails eating exactly what you want exactly when you want, thinking of all foods as equally “good.” This isn’t permission to binge. Rather it’s a challenge to go out of your way to feed yourself exactly what you really want even when eating what’s readily available would be easier. It’s about treating yourself to what will give the greatest possible eating pleasure instead of “treating” yourself with whatever great quantities of sugar and fat happen to cross your path.
This approach isn’t for everyone (and please don’t substitute my suggestions for your doctor’s counsel), but if it’s appealing to you, consider devoting the holiday season to making every eating experience a conscious one where you eliminate as many distractions as possible, like TV, reading material, and eating on the run, in order to savor every bite.
Make eating a meditation: before you put anything in your mouth, become quiet and relaxed, take several deep breaths and say to yourself, “Everything I eat turns to health and beauty.” You can do this even at the holiday table with family and friends. Especially with family where the temptation may be strong to stuff down childhood feelings with another serving of pie. Disconnecting a bit inwardly and putting your attention on the food, your body, your nourishment, and the experience of pleasure can help break the knee-jerk, stuffing-family-feelings-with-food habit.
As you take a moment to be with your food before you consume it, picture it being easily assimilated by your body and turning into health and beauty. Eat slowly, paying attention as you chew and swallow. Stop the minute you feel the first sensation of fullness. If you’re full but can’t stand the thought of leaving all that yummy food on your plate, ask for a doggie bag. After eating, sit quietly for a moment, relax, and take some deep breaths. Imagine a feeling of comfortable fullness and lightness in your body. Imagine that your stomach is filled not just with food, but with peace and well-being that radiates soothing sensations throughout your body.
Don’t eat again until you feel the first sensation of hunger. Then eat immediately, but only until you feel the first sensation of fullness. Pay attention as you eat, chew well, and really notice how food feels in your stomach and what the sensation of fullness is like. Every time you feel hunger, ask yourself what food you most crave. Feed yourself the food or foods that are just what you want. You may find yourself craving previously “forbidden” foods at first because enforced restriction can, in and of itself, create cravings for whatever’s been denied but, as you eat consciously in this way, you’re likely to find yourself satisfied with much less. And, as you eat consciously but not restrictively, you may also be surprised by your cravings becoming more and more balanced. I once saw a perpetually dieting and vegetable-phobic woman, who equated greens with cruel punishment, astonish herself by craving salad after just three days of giving herself permission to eat whatever she wanted.
If you’re tempted to binge, create a healing ritual around eating one of your favorite foods. Set the table, light candles, and eat consciously, savoring each bite. Imagine the food having marvelous healing powers that are making you healthier and more beautiful. Continue eating this way until you feel the first sensation of fullness. (Again, you’ll probably find yourself eating less and enjoying it more.) End by giving thanks for your healing food.
If you do catch yourself eating unconsciously, forgive yourself. Notice what the binge is telling you about your emotional needs. Forgive the eating and address the cause. How are you feeling empty, angry, sad, or scared, and what can you do about it?
After all, the holidays with all their frenetic activity, social obligations, and childhood associations, are prime time for exacerbating emotional eating. As you make a commitment to conscious eating, also make a commitment to self-care. Make a list of other things you can do to nurture and soothe yourself that don’t involve food and give yourself time to do them when the urge to overeat arises. Let conscious eating become just the beginning of a more conscious approach to the holiday season where the frenzy of it all doesn’t override the spirit of celebration and joy.