It’s hard to believe the holiday season is already upon us. This means celebrating good times with family, friends, and co-workers with lots of food, drink, and relaxation. Many of us love this joyous time of year… but for others it can be stressful and trigger emotional eating. The planning, preparing and cooking of meals, entertaining, shopping, traveling, hosting house-guests, and eating out results in eating too much and exercising too little. Thus, it comes as no surprise that many of us stack on a few pounds during the holiday season, which kicks into high gear with the Thanksgiving feast. In preparation for the abundance of food at Thanksgiving, many of us engage in strange behaviors. Do any of these look familiar?
- Skip all meals that day so you are hungry to eat more
- Exercise feverishly to burn extra calories
- Get coached by 7 time Hot Dog Eating Contest Winner Joey Chestnut on how to really “stuff” yourself
- Pick an outfit (dress or pants) that is at least 1 size too big to allow “belly expansion”
Those of us who have had no experience with these pre-Thanksgiving rituals (well, hopefully not “C”!), it means we have a healthy relationship with food and value the gathering with friends and family above the eating experience – this is good. But, for many of us, the Thanksgiving meal signifies an opportunity to indulge beyond our pant-size! I have been guilty of this at various times in my life. As one of seven kids, food was not necessarily scarce on our dinner table growing up, but there were times when it was ‘slim-pickins’ at meal times when we all rushed to fill our plates. When Thanksgiving arrived at our house, it was usually filled with relatives, friends, and an abundance of food which made it easy to adopt a mindset of “feasting”. My four brothers and I would treat the Thanksgiving meal as an Olympic-style sport to see which one of us would release the belt buckle first and “win”! As a growing boy, eating until our bellies were full was ‘as good as it gets’. Fortunately, my parents were ahead of their time when it came to nourishing us and most of our food, including our Thanksgiving fare, was super healthy, unprocessed, whole-foods such as wild rice and whole wheat bread stuffing, yams with fresh pineapple and brown sugar, real cranberries with diced orange and apple, walnuts, and a hint of local honey, and tons of fresh greens. And, I remember peeling and cutting the fresh-picked apples and whole pumpkins for tasty, homemade pies. Even still, we trained ourselves to eat, albeit healthy, a lot of food.
This finally brings me to the Thanksgiving Myth… I am not debating the often-accepted origin of Thanksgiving dating back to 1621 that took place over 3 days and marked the Pilgrims first successful corn harvest when they celebrated with the Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe in Plymouth, MA. The myth I wish to debunk is the apparent mandatory requirement for a ‘gut-busting – fill your belly’ feeding frenzy that many of us feel the need to achieve. At Thanksgiving and other holidays and special events, the act of eating has become more important than the celebration itself, and as a result we strive for “belly-fullness” instead of “mind-fullness”. Mindfulness during the holidays is the act of being present with family and friends, as well as the food you eat. It’s about being mindful of how the food smells, looks, and tastes and most importantly how the food feels inside your body. Too often, the Thanksgiving feast sabotages our good intentions to be nourished and healthy because we choose to put ‘on-hold’ healthy eating until after the special occasion, when we convince ourselves to begin anew our healthy diet, only to fail the next day with the leftovers. Consequences of this overindulgence are obvious – too many unhealthy calories eaten, poor energy, feelings of over-stuffed, and worst of all, the self-inflicted emotions of guilt, shame and disappointment due to lack of self-control and will-power.
Alas, it doesn’t need to be this way because we are in control of our actions and we all have within us the power to change our behavior and adopt a healthier mindset. One strategy science says works is people who maintain a consistent healthy diet regimen across all eating occasions show a greater likelihood to maintain a healthy weight, compared to those who diet more strictly during normal weeks but overindulge during holidays, vacations and special occasions. Thus, the best strategy for a healthy body and weight is to approach every day, regardless of whether it’s a holiday or special event, the same in terms of how we nourish our bodies. So, this Thanksgiving embrace the opportunity to be mindful and thankful for friends, family, and health, and take time to nourish our bodies to boost our health, not our bellies.
The best way to make this happen is to practice mindfulness of our body, emotions, thoughts, and surroundings. One effective method to learning mindfulness is the “body visit”. It’s similar to a “doctor’s visit”, except instead of having the doctor observe us from the outside, we ‘visit’ with ourselves from the inside. It’s actually simple to perform and takes only 8-10 minutes a day… here are the steps:
When you first start, it’s best to perform in a dimly lit, quiet room.
- Either lie on your back with arms and legs slightly spread apart from your body, with your spine relaxed on the earth beneath you and your palms facing skyward, or, you may sit comfortably in a chair with your spine straight and free from touching the back of the chair, feet on the floor, arms relaxed gently by your side with hands facing skyward, resting softly on your thighs
- Begin paying attention to your breath, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth
- Feel your breath raise your belly as you inhale and lower your belly as you exhale
- Allow all your thoughts to pass or stream by your mind, holding on to none of them. Imagine as though each thought is a rain drop softly landing on your car windshield and the wiper blades gently removes all of them as they swipe over the windshield.
- Once you have allowed your mind to empty, bring your awareness to each part of your body, beginning with the crown of your head and working all the way down to your toes.
- As you move from one part of your body to the next, bring your breath and your mind’s eye to that area, and with each inhalation, feel the renewed sense of relaxation, and with each exhalation, begin to eliminate any stress or tension in that area.
I teach the body visit to all my students, clients, and research study participants. Eventually, with consistent practice and growing confidence, the body visit may be used any time during the day and allow us to truly enjoy this holiday season!