Christmas is again upon us and with it the eating and drinking which are an integral part of the season. Normally we might try eat healthily but over the holiday season this is somewhat difficult. We take a look at the cultural aspects of eating and how these might affect our dieting attempts.
Eat to live or live to eat?
We eat for nutrition, to stay alive. This is the most basic aspect of eating but food goes far beyond nutrition. Eating is fun, it is part of who we are and it makes us who we are. Robin Fox of the Social Issues Research Centre, an independent, non-profit organisation founded to conduct research on social and lifestyle issues examines precisely this point in a fascinating report called Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective. He explains that eating is more than something we do in order to ensure our survival. In his words, it is a "profoundly social urge" that is almost always shared. What we eat is a powerful symbol of culture, a throwback to tribal belonging. This is even more so with ceremonial meals, such as Christmas dinner and other formal seasonal gatherings. However important healthy eating may be, it is extremely difficult for anyone to abstain from traditional foods which might be unhealthy but which in a way define your ‘tribal affiliation’. Fox quotes French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss who says that there are ‘rich foods’ which have nothing to do with “the mere satisfaction of physiological needs”. We could safely say that many of the traditional foods we have at Christmas, from the Christmas pudding to the goose that is eaten by many in the traditional Christmas dinner can be classified under this heading. Whether or not you are religious, and you may not even realise it, many traditional Christmas foods are so part of us that giving them up for health reasons is for many, out of the question.
So how can we fully partake in all the seasonal rituals without overdoing it?
Mindfulness is a state where you live not in the past or in the future but in the moment. When you live or behave mindfully, you are making it a point to be aware of your thoughts in the present and to give attention to what is happening in the here and now without letting your mind wander. Mindfulness teaches you to recognise and overcoming negative thoughts and not to worry or thinking about anything that is not what you are doing in the present.
Mindfulness is often used by psychological therapists to battle a range of conditions including anxiety; depression; addictions and stress. A study published in July 2015 in The Lancet showed that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and antidepressants offer similar level of protection against depression. MBCT works by teaching people who have experienced depression, the skills to identify thoughts and feelings linked with depression when they encounter them, thereby reducing depressive thoughts which may cause a relapse.
How does this affect my eating?
We tend to eat mindlessly, tucking in and munching as an automaton, not fully feeling the taste of the food. This is often the situation over the holiday season. We often eat not because we are hungry but because food is available and ever so tempting.
According to the US based 'Center for Mindful Eating' research shows that when you eat distractedly, not concentrating on the food, you are actually stopping yourself from enjoying what you are eating. Mindless eating has also been linked to overeating. Eating mindfully will by necessity make you eat slowly and by extension enjoy your food more and eat less.
Use all your senses
Use all of your five senses when eating. Look at and your eyes what is on your plate. Smell the aroma. Chew slowly so you can appreciate the flavours and experience the textures. Turn off the television and telephone. Enjoy the experience.
No more emotional eating
Pay attention to why you are eating? Are you genuinely hungry or are you eating in response to stress, anxiety, depression, boredom, loneliness, anger or frustration?
Thought does not mean action
If we want a bar of chocolate or a second helping of pudding, instead of acting it out, be mindful that it is just a thought. You have the choice: you can still follow the thought and have the second helping, but you can also choose not to.
Do not eat:
- while watching television, in front of the computer or just because food 'is there'?
- when not hungry or until you feel uncomfortably full.
- very quickly, consuming a meal in less than ten minutes?
- standing up, walking or driving?
- convenience and fast foods because you haven’t planned ahead?
- just because others are eating or because the clock says it’s time to eat?
Cravings are not a sign of weakness
The hardest part of keeping to a healthy regime is to ignore those cravings. Food manufactures know that the most difficult foods to resist are those with complex flavours (such as sweet and salt, like salted caramel) because the brain takes longer to register 'taste satiety' with multiple tastes.
Processed foods are also ‘addictive’ and many of them are engineered to have such complex combination of flavours that our bodies never get to the point of feeling full. They are also loaded with large amount of refined sweeteners and salt, which, when eaten on a daily basis dull your taste buds, meaning you require ever-increasing levels of flavour to achieve the same taste satisfaction.
Mindfulness will help you resist temptation. Living mindfully slows your life and lets you live for the present and enjoy the present.
This festive season, there is absolutely no need to deprive yourself because after all, food is part of the Christmas and New Year ritual. Just eat with your head and not with your eyes.