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Six Ways to Eat Healthier During the Holidays

Mind-body approaches can make holiday meals more enjoyable.

Key points

  • Self-talk can be a powerful way to help you avoid overindulging tempting foods.
  • Mindful attention can help us enjoy the food we eat more, and prompt us to eat less.
Davey Gravy/Unsplash
Source: Davey Gravy/Unsplash

I’m already thinking about the slice of pumpkin pie slathered in whipped cream that I'll eat for breakfast, the day after Thanksgiving. That is actually one of my favorite holiday traditions.

There are many others. Tree decorating, silly gift wrapping, romantic holiday movies. And, I do love the big holiday meals with family. But, I don't always like how I feel after.

It’s fun to indulge in sweet and savory treats served during the holiday season that we may not eat any other time of year, and I'm not about to take a pass this year. But, I do want to feel good all season long and I know too much of anything leaves me lethargic and uncomfortable. And gaining weight isn't good for my body or my brain.

I've researched some mind-body approaches that I'm using to eat well, feel good, and enjoy all the traditions of the season. They might work for you, too.

Six Ways to Eat Healthier During the Holidays

1. Talk back to temptation. Temptation can take over when we are surrounded by delicious foods that are often high in fat, sugar, and calories that can add to weight gain and tank our moods. But research from Celina Furman, Ethan Kross, and Ashley Gearhardt indicates that “distanced self-talk” can make it easier to make healthy food choices.

Next time you are tempted, have a dialogue with your inner voices. Use your name, or pronouns like he, she, or you. Distanced self-talk can help us reflect on our decisions to shift our focus from the tempting foods to our health goals. I know when it comes to returning for a second helping, I'll start talking to myself, "Polly, you don't want more because then you'll too full." Or, "Hey, you, put down the fork."

2. Create physical distance. Distanced self-talk helps us create psychological space to avoid temptation, but we can also move our bodies away from the buffet to shift focus and avoid over-eating. If you are surrounded by tantalizing appetizers or hot dishes, your self-control can become depleted; take a smaller portion on your plate or napkin, then move away from the food table. Once we are in a new space, we are likely to get swept up into a conversation, or a football game, or other activity; the food becomes less of a focus. Keeping some physical distance also means we'll be less likely to get up and return for a refill.

3. Become present. Pay attention to what you are putting on your plate and in your mouth. Don’t judge. Eat what you like, but if you pay attention to how your body feels, how the food looks and feels and tastes, not only will you enjoy it more, but you’ll be attuned to your body’s signals when you've had enough. Mindless eating—tossing a handful of nuts in your mouth, or another cookie without thinking—contributes to weight gain. When we are deliberate and mindful about what we are putting in our mouths, we eat less and enjoy the food a lot more.

4. Plan your portions. I take a little bit of the things I want and remind myself I can always have more. Then I eat my vegetables first, drink water, and eat slowly. By the end of it, everyone else is done eating and I’m usually full and comfortable.

Another reframe is to remember, pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes—or any of your favorites—don’t have to be limited to one day a year. I don’t need to go crazy all in one sitting. I can enjoy a reasonable portion now and if I'm craving mashers in March, I can make myself a pot.

5. Use your words. The words we choose when talking to ourselves also matter. Just as using distant pronouns to create psychological space, words like “don’t” can empower us to make healthier choices, without feeling as though we are missing out. Research by Vanessa Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt shows that how we talk to ourselves impacts our choices.

“I don’t want stuffing” is a different experience than “I can’t have stuffing.” One feels punishing, limited. The other makes me feel in control and empowered and that’s just what the research found. You might have a similar experience around words like should and could. "I should" exercise today, feels like an obligation and none of us like to be told what to do. "I could" exercise today, feels more positive, like an idea, or option worth considering.

6. Build in balance. Find a blend of ways to celebrate the winter season that doesn't involve a focus on food. Drive around and look at the lights, participate in a local turkey trot or walking event, attend a festival or concert, watch romantic holiday movies. And when you are coming up on a food-centric celebration, plan healthier, lighter meals throughout the week.

Nourish your body with the foods and thoughts that support both your physical and emotional health and not only will you enjoy the festive treats more, but you’ll feel less anxious and more energized all season long.