With all the holiday parties, food and fun, gaining a few pounds is inevitable. Or is it? What if this holiday season you can have your cake and eat it, too, without the extra pounds?
Research shows that weight gain during the holidays is real, and it often starts back in October — think leftover Halloween candy. Furthermore, studies have found that it can take up to five months to get back to your normal weight. If you continue to add a few holiday pounds annually, over the years, that can add up to a significant weight gain.
But food is an important part of what makes the holidays special. This year, instead of a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, have a December resolution not to gain too much in the first place. This doesn’t mean you should start a “diet,” the four-letter word no one likes. Diets are seen as temporary and may make you feel deprived because you don’t get to eat what and how much you like. A diet may help you take off a few pounds, but once it ends, your weight will probably creep back up. It is simply better to prevent gaining weight in the first place.
One way to do that is called mindful eating, which means paying detailed attention to what you are eating at that moment. You start by appreciating the way the food is presented, taking in the aroma, savoring both the texture and the taste. Eating slowly while being in the moment may help you to enjoy smaller amounts of the high-calorie foods so many of us crave. Then you can fill up on healthier fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. The bottom line for weight gain ultimately is calories.
My research on mindful eating and dietary self-management has found that using mindful eating as a component of weight management not only can keep you from gaining weight, but it also can facilitate weight loss, even if you eat out a lot.
Mindful eating may sound simple and easy, but how does one get started?
Start with a plan. If you are a chocolate lover, start with chocolate. Take an individually wrapped piece of chocolate or three chocolate chips and mindfully eat them. One study found eating chocolate in this way improved mood as compared with eating chocolate without paying attention. Make it a habit by practicing mindful eating daily. You need to be purposeful in order to make it into a habit and may need to come up with a reminder system.
When celebrating by dining out, be sure to ask for a “to go” box when you order. When the box and your food arrive, immediately put half of your order into the box before you start eating. Putting half the food away stops you from encroaching on what you planned to take home to enjoy later.
Mindful eating also includes paying attention to your body cues. Use a 1-to-10 rating scale to ask yourself how hungry or how full you are. Let your body help guide you in eating. Try not to eat until you’re about a 5 or 6 on the scale, but don’t wait until you are ravenous.
For those foods without high nutritional value, make sure you love it if you are going to eat it. If you don’t really care whether you have cheese on your sandwich, skip it and save 100 calories. Feel neutral about the rice that comes with your Tex-Mex? Ask them not to bring it with your meal and save those calories for the food you really want, such as guacamole.
And finally, change your food environment. Make healthy foods convenient and visible, and keep unhealthy options stashed somewhere that’s difficult to get to. You’ll be more successful if you don’t have to fight against your biology to eat what you should and avoid what you shouldn’t.
We can all enjoy the activities and merriment of the season. Just be sure to make small changes and enjoy your special holiday treats by eating mindfully. Mindful eating may help you arrive on the other side of the New Year’s celebration without the usual weight gain guilt trip.
Gayle M. Timmerman is an associate professor and associate dean of academic affairs in the School of Nursing at the University of Texas at Austin. She has more than 20 years of research experience on eating patterns as it relates to weight, with the past 11 years focused on mindful eating.