The holiday season is upon us, and many of us are still adjusting our waistbands from Thanksgiving.
It’s normal and festive to indulge during the holidays. Far be it for me to spoil the fun.
But anything we routinely do is ripe for review. And overeating from November to January has become a national habit.
Research shows Americans gain an average of a pound during the holiday season. That’s far less than the scale tipping and, apparently, erroneous headlines reporting we gain five pounds or more during the holiday season.
But it’s also a lump of coal in our stockings. According to researchers, that solitary pound we put on tends to stay long after the holidays, contributing to the weight we gain as we age.
Rather than punish ourselves with diets or intense exercise in the New Year, a kinder, more holistic approach to dealing with the holiday food glut – for those of us fortunate enough to have one – is to practice mindful eating.
Mindful eating isn’t about rules or restrictions or even losing weight. Though, as we bring more awareness to what we eat, the shape of our bodies might naturally change.
Instead, mindful eating is about bringing attention and intention to what we eat and kind awareness to our relationship to food. It’s also about asking ourselves an essential question: What am I hungry for?
The answer might not be as straightforward as peering into the fridge to see what satisfies.
Food is nourishment, but it’s also cultural and familial, social and emotional. And often, what we’re hungry for isn’t food at all, but for something, food represents to us.
Mindful eating expert Jan Chozen Bays says the intuitive, body-based hunger that guided us as children can get altered by our environment and our minds as adults. (Anyone who has ever eaten a bowl of popcorn or two or three out of boredom knows this.) The point is there are numerous forces and types of hungers that drive our eating, says Bays.
Here’s a brief example: When I was 16 years old, I sprained my ankle badly, and my Dad was the only one on hand to help. Not quite knowing what to do with a tearful teenager wincing with pain, my Dad did the only thing he could think of to comfort me. He ran up to the grocery store and bought me a pint of peppermint ice cream. It was literally sweet of him. But it wasn’t the comfort I needed. Nonetheless, the relationship between peppermint ice cream and love was forged, and when I’m upset, I sometimes find myself hunting for it at the grocery store.
Bringing mindfulness to those kinds of associations and urges for certain foods helps us better understand our relationship to eating. It also helps us untangle strands of emotional hunger from body-based hunger, giving us more choice about whether to dig into our pint of peppermint ice cream or call a friend for comfort instead.
If we wind up going for the ice cream, at least we’ve increased our awareness around what else we might be hungry for and how we might meet that need in the future. For tips on how to mindfully answer the question – What am I hungry for? – see below.
On My Mind
In her classic book on mindful eating, (See right) Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician, and practitioner of Zen meditation identifies nine kinds of hungers that affect our eating.
Four of them stand out as primary drivers of both body-based and mental and emotional hunger.
Next time you want to eat ask yourself: What am I hungry for? Then, check-in with the four hungers below and gauge them on a scale of one to five. If mind or heart hunger outweigh body-based hungers, pause and see if you can meet mind and heart hungers in other ways whether it’s by calling a friend, reading a book, taking a bath, or going for a run.
- Stomach Hunger: The stomach sends us signals when we’re hungry and also when we’re full. It growls, complains, and pangs when empty. It constricts and expands when full. Listening to stomach hunger helps align us with our body’s natural urges for food.
- Cellular Hunger: When I was pregnant I couldn’t get enough dairy – cheese, ice cream, even milk which I normally detest. My body was telling me I needed calcium to support my growing baby. Cellular hunger prompts us to crave what our body needs. Listening to it can help us stay nutritionally balanced.
- Heart Hunger: There’s a reason why comfort food is part of our lexicon. Food warms the heart. It’s also an emotional salve. While it’s wonderful to take comfort in a cup of tea or a childhood dish that delights, heart hunger can distract us from our emotions, prompting us to use food to avoid what we’re feeling.
- Mind Hunger: If you hear a chorus of mental chatter when you contemplate what to eat: “I shouldn’t eat that” or “I deserve a treat” that’s mind hunger. It’s based on right and wrong, restrictions and rules, and often comes with a serving of guilt. Allow your mental chatter to settle, by connecting with your body and asking it whether it’s truly hungry.
If you’re interested in learning more about the practice of mindful eating I recommend Bays’ book along with “Savor Every Bite: Mindful Ways to Eat, Love Your Body and Live with Joy,” by Lynn Rossy, Ph.D.