Mindful Eating Key to Healthy Holidays

With the end of the year marked by holiday get-togethers and celebrations, Monarch’s Mindfulness Instructor Dr. Karen S. Holst, MSW, LCSW, Ed.D., shared why savoring meals is key. 

The holiday rush with often endless to-do lists and parties, can often add more stress to our already busy lives, along with plenty of opportunities to overeat during parties and family gatherings. 

During the holidays, overeating can be a distraction from uncomfortable thoughts or feelingssimilar to smoking or having a drink. Dr. Holst said that just as with using cigarettes or alcohol to help manage what is currently going on, stress eating can lead to unintentional consequences that affect overall health and well-being. 

“If you’re at a holiday event and everyone is gathered around food eating and talking, eating can become mindless because we’re engaged in other activities. We’re distracted. The holidays can also be a very stressful time and many of us reach for food to feel better. It’s a way to cope with the stress,” Dr. Holst indicated. 

Why Do We Overeat?

Dr. Holst explained that when foods high in fat and sugar are consumed, there is a surge of dopamine released in our brains which is a chemical, or neurotransmitter, that helps control the reward and pleasure function in our brains. So, when we eat, dopamine is released and we momentarily feel pleasure, experiencing temporary relief from stress.  

“If we’re eating healthy, we don’t have that drastic fluctuation in dopamine. And when we’re mindful, we can be aware of and work differently with our feelings. We can learn that difficult or uncomfortable feelings will pass and that we don’t need to respond to them with food. You no longer need food to make yourself feel better,” said Dr. Holst. 

mindful eating quote box

Practice Mindfulness and Key Behaviors

Mindfulness can be described as a way of teaching us to pay attention on purpose, Dr. Holst said, to be aware of our feelings even if it’s uncomfortable so we can become more familiar with them: “With the practice of mindfulness, we no longer have to rely on reactive and often times addictive behaviors to manage our feelings.”  

Eating mindfully means taking a moment to notice: 

  • Color 
  • Smell 
  • Textures 
  • Your body’s response as you prepare to eat, like salivating. 

Dr. Holst suggested participating in a variety of events that don’t have to revolve around food such as spending time with your family or friends which can mean enjoying an activity to help avoid mindless eating. 

Additional Suggestions for Mindful Eating  

  • Eliminate distractions to the greatest extent possible. Turn off the television or radio, put away books or newspapers and sit at the table with the intention of simply eating. 
  • Think about your intention (eating) and give yourself the gift of being present in the moment to yourself. 
  • Sit in silence for a moment and then observe the food in front of you. Think about all the hands and resources it took for this food to be where it is now. 
  • As you eat, see if you can make body movements purposeful and pay close attention to the flavors, the textures and taste of the food. 
  • Continue to eat until you no longer experience hunger. Being aware of, but not reacting to, any desires to finish quickly and move on to the next item on your to-do list. 
  • Stick to your regular routines of exercise and sleep. 
  • Enjoy and savor your favorite holiday treats rather than using them to cope with stress. Mindful eating can begin with a cup of tea or coffee before moving on to an entire meal. 
  • Eating mindfully gives the gift to yourself of being in the present moment and enjoying your favorite holiday foods and traditions without overeating now and throughout the year. 

list of mindful eating resources