Interpreting Holiday Eating Advice with a Mindful Eye

It wouldn’t be December without the songs, sparkly decorations, and yes, advice about what to eat during the holidays. Much of which you might want to ignore if you’re trying to become a mindful eater. Or if you are already one and want to stay that way.

No matter which description fits you, it can be hard sometimes to stay clear on what to stay clear of.

Here’s an example of one snippet I recently read.

If you overate at Thanksgiving, don’t feel guilty. You know you’ll eat poorly at times during the holiday so just roll with it. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can go hog-wild just because it’s the holidays. You still have to be moderate.

On the face of it, it might seem like good advice. But is it really?

Let’s break it apart and examine each sentence.

If you overate at Thanksgiving, don’t feel guilty.

How that sentence reads to me: Overeating isn’t healthy but beating yourself up over it isn’t either.

What I think is right with it: Absolutely give up the guilt. It doesn’t help.

What I think is wrong with it: Overeating is part of normal eating. It’s really only unhealthy if we do it too often, and that usually means there’s something going on that has nothing to do with Thanksgiving per se. The worry that we can’t have everything we want, or as much of it as we want, frequently drives significant overeating at Thanksgiving or any other time.

You know you’ll eat poorly at times during the holidays so just roll with it.

How that sentence reads to me: Nutrition isn’t always the top priority.

What I think is right with it: So true that sometimes we eat for other reasons than nutrition. The holidays are a good example of that with all the food traditions that add so much to our enjoyment of the season.

What I think is wrong with it: I’m not sure what their definition of eating poorly is. If it’s what I suspect, then they’re labeling an evening of rich party fare as an episode of bad-for-you eating. But an evening of pleasure that features wonderful foods doesn’t have to be bad for us. Our bodies are perfectly capable of managing rich foods without negative effects when we eat mindfully.

…this doesn’t mean you can go hog-wild…You still have to be moderate.

How those sentences read to me: Stay on guard!

What I think is right with them: Not much. It just screams “be careful, be very careful”. Refer back to what I think is right with the previous sentence as to why I think that’s a problem.

What I think is wrong with them: The tendency to “go hog-wild” often reflects scarcity, whether it be real or perceived. If a person is starving, they’ll eat large amounts when they get the chance to eat. If they have been deprived, such as when they restrict their eating in an attempt to manage their weight, they’ll often eat large amounts once they start to eat what they’ve been deprived of. Telling us we still have to be moderate, and waving a finger in our faces about not enjoying holiday food without worrying about it, fosters feelings of deprivation and guilt.

I am sure some people will read this post and wonder, is she telling us to just eat with abandon?

In a sense, yes, I am.

But with an abandon that hinges on eating mindfully, which means listening to our bodies to guide us in eating in a way that makes us feel well. And also means no worry — just eating well, enjoying what comes our way without concern how it will affect our waistline. Because concern over weight can trigger thoughts and behaviors that actually drive overeating.

When we eat mindfully— whether it be during the holidays or the rest of the year — our eating will most likely have no negative effect on our waistline.

Marsha Hudnall is president and co-owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a women’s retreat for healthy weight and well-being, where she has been teaching mindful eating for over 30 years. She is also the president of The Center for Mindful Eating.

A version of this post first appeared on the Green Mountain at Fox Run blog A Weight Lifted.

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