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Fall doesn’t just mark a change in temperatures. It seems like it’s the start of a season of sweets. It begins with the return of a certain sugar-laden pumpkin-flavored coffee drink and continues through buckets of candy to the seemingly month-long frenzy of cookies, cakes and pies.
Combined with calorie-rich foods like mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing and green bean casseroles, it’s no wonder the season challenges even those with strong willpower.
While it might seem like indulging in the comfort foods can offer at least some emotional benefit – after all, Grandma’s sugar cookies only make an appearance once a year – the problem is that a diet filled with unhealthy foods can make it more difficult for our bodies to handle the stress and illnesses that so often accompany the time of year.
“A consistent pattern of nutrition and eating behaviors that are aligned with these holiday foods can deprive your mind and body of the vital nutrients it needs to buffer the effects of stress, manage emotions, pay attention and achieve restorative sleep,” said clinical health psychologist Dr. Christina Gentile.
She recommends keeping the mind and body well-nourished by focusing on wholesome food choices that support brain function and stress resilience. Ensure an adequate intake of major mood vitamins, specifically vitamin D in foods such as salmon, eggs, wild mushrooms, and vitamin B12 in foods like chicken, clams, cottage cheese, nuts and beans.
“Optimize the mind-body benefits of brain-boosting molecules by consuming a range of colorful plants - fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and by embracing seasonal winter fruits and vegetables, such as pomegranates, oranges, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, kale and turnips,” she said.
Focusing on meals that are nourishing bring the additional benefit of stimulating your senses with a variety of tastes, textures and smells. She adds that using plant-based ingredients enhances flavor and nutritional value of foods, as well as smelling and tasting delicious. Consider using pecans or walnuts, chia seeds or hulled hemp seeds, pureed pumpkin, dark chocolate, cacao nibs, cinnamon, ginger root powder or unsweetened coconut in recipes. Even sweet treats can be made a little healthier with a few nutrient-rich additions.
“Build a mood-nourishing and stress-resilient cookie recipe this holiday season by using almond or hazelnut meal to increase healthy fats, protein and phytonutrients,” Dr. Gentile said.
Mindful eating can help tame holiday weight gain
Engaging the senses during meals serves another purpose, too – it can help bring a greater awareness, or mindfulness, to eating, which can be helpful when managing the temptations of the season.
“Mindful eating can allow you to savor the treats you eat without overindulging. It’s about focusing on the emotions, thoughts, sensations and eating experience to nourish the mind and body to allow them to flourish,” say Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, a distinguished psychologist with UW Health’s Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation.
Mirgain explains that bringing mindfulness to eating is really about bringing an awareness to your body and taking care of the body by focusing on:
Listening to the body and stopping when full
Eating when the body shows signs of hunger (i.e., stomach growling, low energy)
Eating foods that are nutritionally healthy
Paying attention to the process of eating, sensing and savoring food
Considering where food comes from
Understanding emotional triggers
Adopting a non-judgmental mind-set
“When you’re eating mindfully, you’re using all of your senses to savor and taste your food," Mirgain said. "You’re not multi-tasking by doing work or watching television and you’re focused on how your body feels."
To start bringing mindfulness to meals, Mirgain suggests a basic checklist of questions that can help focus attention on the process:
Are you sitting at the table for a meal or eating while on the go?
Are you rushing to eat or taking your time?
Are you mindlessly munching or noticing each bite?
Can you observe hunger and fullness cues?
Are you truly focused on the meal, or multitasking - like driving, working at your desk, reading or watching TV?
Is your stomach rumbling or are you feeling bored, stressed, tired, anxious, etc.?
Holiday meals are often a very social time as well, and it may not be possible to focus solely on eating. And, according to Mirgain, that is just fine. Enjoying time with friends and family – and being present for those discussions – is every bit as valuable and important. And mindful habits can help take the focus off of food, and allow for a more balanced approach.
Take a mindful breath
Before one meal of the day, or even before eating a holiday treat, try taking five deep breaths with focus on the inhale and exhale.
Mirgain said pausing before a meal can allow for more optimal digestive health and helps clear the mind. Slowing down helps set your pace so you can truly savor and feel satisfied with the foods that are a treat. And you become less likely mindlessly overindulge and turn a holiday snack into a "snackccident."
Celebrate the season in non-food ways
Try engaging senses in other ways – the sound of holiday music, the smell of a scented candle, the sight of the snowfall during a quiet night or the feel of being wrapped up in a warm blanket, for a few examples.
Develop an attitude of gratitude
Don’t limit gratitude to the Thanksgiving table. It is easy to get caught up in the negative emotions of the season – such as busy stores, being sick, the stress of extended family, financial pressures.
Whatever the triggers may be, Mirgain suggests finding even small things to be grateful for each day can help, including cultivating gratitude at your plate by feeling appreciative of the foods you are able to enjoy and the people who are accompanying you.
Self-care to deal with 'holi-daze' stress
In addition to focusing on gratitude, Mirgain said self-care is important. Rather than turning to sweet treats or alcohol to soothe a stressful day, consider walking the dog, enjoying a book or maybe even getting a massage.
“We often focus on others throughout the holidays," she said, "but it’s important for our own health and well-being to take care of our emotional needs in positive ways."