Mind Your Meals

If you’ve ever polished off a bag of chips while watching your favorite Netflix show, you’ll be familiar with the practice of mindless eating.  We all do it more than we realize or care to admit.  What you may be less familiar with is the concept of Mindful eating, or more specifically, how Mindful eating can help you plug back in to your internal cues for hunger and satiety.

The body is incredible.  It was designed to notify, or “cue” us to eat when we’re hungry, and cue us to stop eating when we’re full.  It does this through the action of the nervous system and hormone messengers.  Grehlin, for example, is a hormone secreted by the gut and it essentially yells, “hey, I’m hungry!  Feed me now!”  On the other hand, the hormone Leptin is secreted by adipose cells and its role is to whisper, “hey, I’m full now.  Human, you may stop eating.” These are 2 of the more well-known hormone regulators of appetite and I share this with you to help you understanding that minding what you eat is more complex than simply exerting willpower.  Sometimes your intention of mindfully eating only 1 cookie will be overridden by the brains executive decision to binge, since the parts of your brain involved in reward are powerful drivers of your eating behavior.

So what is Mindful Eating?  Mindful eating is the practice (emphasis on the word “practice”) to consciously eat in way that nourishes you.  Mindful Eating means that you focus your attention on the experiences involved with eating, free from any distractions.  Mindful eating means you are fully present while eating. not driving, texting or watching TV.  When you are consciously tuned in and aware, the idea is that you will be able to know when you are full.  The reality, however, is more complex for two reasons:  One, in our modern culture, it’s nearly impossible to be mindful every time we eat or drink (unless you happen to be a Buddhist Monk).  Secondly, mindful eating doesn’t hold up too well when it comes to hyperpalatable foods that are high in sugar.  Appetite regulation was designed to work perfectly for our ancestors, who ate whole, natural foods when food wasn’t always readily available.  In our modern culture, processed food is ubiquitous.  Whereas our ancestors faced periods of feast and famine, our modern lives are shaped by life-long relationships with junk food, in a constant state of feasting.

Modern Mindful Eating
This doesn’t mean we should abandon the practice of Mindful Eating, but we need to acknowledge its limitations.  Mindful eating is an excellent way to free yourself from the guilt and shame involved in eating and dieting.  The practice of Mindful Eating may look different for each person, but what is important is that we each take time to prepare our own meals and slow down when we’re eating.  Get curious about your eating behaviors and pay attention.  Your body is always talking to you.  Are you listening?

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Try Mindful Eating This Thanksgiving

As a dietitian and personal trainer, I’m acutely aware of the challenges we all face during the holiday season.  If the experts are correct, Americans may gain a few pounds during the months stretching from Halloween to New Year’s Day, and those few pounds will hang around for the following year.  You don’t have to be a mathematician to realize that 2-3 lbs. each year will add up over the years.  Often, insidious weight gain is the norm for many.  Fortunately, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  With the right plan, holiday weight gain can be prevented.

Before we get into diet tips and strategies, let’s talk about mindset, habits, and intentions.  It’s important to know what your intentions and goals are for Thanksgiving, because without this awareness, you’ll lack direction.  Without direction, you won’t have a winning game plan.  Don’t walk into the Thanksgiving week naively assuming you can rely on willpower and motivation alone.  Willpower is limited, and motivation wanes so use your mental resources wisely.  Do you want to avoid overeating? Maintain weight during the holidays?  Stick to 1 dessert?  What is your intention and more importantly why?  Some non-obvious benefits of eating balanced during the holiday season are improved energy and a sense of balance and well-being, which is priceless if you really think about it.  If we’re honest, overeating and over-indulgence ultimately doesn’t feel good.

Rather than looking for magical tips and tricks to avoid weight gain during the holidays, a better approach is to focus on mindful eating strategies and get clear about the pros and cons of adopting healthy habits during this very difficult time.  Recognize cues to eat inappropriately such as stress, lack of sleep, or increased food cues in your environment (well-meaning co-workers who bring you tempting junk food so they don’t have to deal with it).

As for nutritional strategies, that’s actually much more straight-forward.  First of all, you want to avoid sitting down to the holiday meal overly-hungry.  It’s easier to make mindful choices when you’re not dealing with a ravenous appetite.  Secondly, you want to pay attention to portion sizes.  A simple mantra I tell my clients is to focus on “lean and clean protein and vegetables.”  When you fill up your plate with lean protein and vegetables, you will fill up on nutrient-dense foods and naturally “crowd out” some of the more savory, albeit calorie and sugar-laden options.  You can still enjoy some of these foods, but you’ll do so in much less quantities. Other strategies must be personalized to you, but they include:

  • Eating on a salad plate or flimsy paper plate
  • Don’t drink your calories. Try club soda, herbal teas, or unsweetened coffee or tea
  • Enjoy appetizers of crudités, a protein such as shrimp, grilled chicken, or ahi tuna as this will help induce satiety
  • Chew gum after eating!

Behavioral strategies include:

  • Manage stress during the holidays
  • Get 7-8 hours of sleep each night
  • Be active and exercise daily
  • Commit to surrounding yourself with healthy people—peer pressure works!
  • Practice mindfulness in your daily activities, and let this spill over into your eating habits
  • Avoid “all or nothing” mentality. Changing habits is hard—it requires lots of practice

The holiday season is a wonderful time to connect with family, friends, and people in your community.  Try to make the time focused on relationships and experiences, instead of only the food.  With the right intentions and proper planning, you can be sure to have a happy and healthy holiday season.

If you know you need a little help in the cooking department, consider utilizing the chefs at Nutrition Solutions Culinary.  At their Better Bites café located inside the GHS Family YMCA, they can do your catering, or even prepare your individual or family meals.  Visit the website, or call 676-1248.

From all of us at Nutrition Solutions, Happy Holidays!