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How to Eat Less Crap During the Holidays

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Over the entire calendar year I probably eat a little more than I should. But it only becomes a crisis in December, when every semblance of moderation goes out the window, for a number of reasons.

The biggest problem is holiday get-togethers—for Christmas, or certain sports events, or just because a lot of people are off work. Usually each person brings 15,000 calories in a casserole dish for everyone to share. Most of these recipes call for one or more bricks of cream cheese, or bacon wrappings for foods that are normally not wrapped in anything.

There are always dainty little desserts that could be eaten in sets of two or three, each piece smaller than a deck of cards but somehow containing 350 calories. There are little bowls of nuts beside wherever you happen to sit, and you eat them for the same reason George Mallory climbed Everest. (He died.)

Egg nog reappears, which would be a shame to miss even though it contains eight thousand calories per glass. While you’re finishing your main pile of food, someone’s aunt is circulating, telling people to “Eat more, there’s lots!” and you want to help them out so you do.

And because you know defending against this festive onslaught is futile, you give yourself an official hall pass for the evening, and double down on your consumption to take advantage. You have a few drinks to dull the guilt. During the second round of Apples to Apples you decide you will take a cab home, which means you must have three or four more drinks. And because everybody brought five or ten times as much food as they eat, you get sent home with several pounds of leftovers, and end up eating crab dip and carrot cake for breakfast. 

This dietary chaos seems okay because we know it’s a temporary, seasonal condition. December is an easy time to start coasting in many areas of our lives, from food discipline to financial discipline, because there’s nothing to do in January except straighten ourselves out.

Not everybody has this tendency to eat more than their bodies need, but a good proportion of us do, and December is our month of trials. We need strategies.

One common but completely nonsensical strategy is to declare to ourselves that certain days “don’t count”, which works as well as telling yourself that the days you spent the most money are days that won’t appear on your statement.

Abstinence isn’t really an option when it comes to food, so moderation is the holy grail. But we tend to regard moderation as a kind of martyrdom, which undermines the whole idea of festivity. How sad is it to be that guy, allowing himself a half a glass of wine and one brownie, eating it in callous little bites with a pickle fork? Look how merry he is!

Moderation’s missing ingredient

Moderation is possible, but it we need to bring something new to our eating experience.

For all of my interest in awareness and mindfulness, until this year I barely noticed how unconscious an activity eating usually is for me. It’s almost robotic, how easily my hand, mouth, taste buds and reptile brain collaborate to fill my body with needless fat, salt and carbs.

This near-automatic mode of eating isn’t driven by a desire for the rich and nuanced experience of eating itself. If it were, we’d take our time. Each bite would be a place to linger, to fully explore the sensations each one offers.

Instead we’re often already leaning in our minds toward the next bite, in order to avoid a break in the pleasure. Moderation is quite hopeless when melted-snowmanwe’re more interested in the next bite than the current one, because that creates a perpetual eating cycle that stops only when it becomes physically (or perhaps emotionally) uncomfortable to continue.

Overindulgence doesn’t reflect an appreciation for food, but rather a primal, senseless desire to make the thrill of consumption last forever. To conquer more lands without ever cultivating any. Eating is a realm of strong cravings and compulsive behaviors. But cravings only pull you forward from where you are, never towards the experience you’re currently having.

That’s why I’m reaching for another chip while the first is still in my mouth, and why I’m planning a second helping halfway through the first plate. It’s not because I love chips, or because two plates is more fulfilling than one.

One simple rule for yourself

To cross the gap from overindulgence to healthy appreciation, we need to dedicate some real attention to the current bite of food—more than we’re probably used to—and less to everything else.

Eating attentively makes it much easier to eat less, for several reasons. The pace of eating slows down, giving the stomach enough time to signal you to stop. You get much more enjoyment out of small amounts of food. You also lose your desire for junkier foods because you start to notice how awful they make your body feel, in exchange for the overpowering sugary or salty taste they deliver.

It’s easy to overcomplicate this. Essentially, the idea is to give your undivided attention to each bite of food. You take your time with it, fully exploring the taste and texture with no rushing, no leaning towards the next bite. To signal this intention to yourself, and to interrupt the habitual reflex to move forward too quickly, you put your fork down.

gingerfamilyThis is not the way most of us learned to eat. Except when we’re in fancy restaurants with tiny portions, we seldom actively explore the sensory experience of eating. Rather than see each bite as a rich experience with its own beginning, middle and end, we tend to view the whole meal as a continuous stream of basic pleasure that eventually runs out. It’s virtually automatic, and it’s pleasurable but not necessarily satisfying. In fact, we’re often quite unsatisfied afterward, even if we’re stuffed.

Applying this dedicated attention to eating is usually called “mindful eating”. The essential book on the topic is called Mindful Eating, written by Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and Zen teacher.

There’s much more to it than I have time to go into here (I highly recommend Dr Bays’s book) but you can get a lot of mileage out of the basic principle. You can significantly alter the way you eat (as well as the quantity) this holiday season by holding yourself to one simple rule: “If I’m not going to pay full attention to it, I’m not going to eat it.”

A satisfying version of “enough”

One thing you’ll notice right away is that a lot of the treats you think you like are actually kind of gross. Dr Bays identifies seven perceivable types of “hunger”, and often a food that’s appealing to one of our sensibilities is uninteresting or even revolting to another.

For example, your nostalgic centers may perk up at the sight of shortbread, and you eat three or four pieces. But bringing full attention to the experience reveals that the hard, dry cookies deliver almost no satisfaction to your mouth anymore, and perhaps that’s why you end up eating so many.

I’ve discovered that brand name boxed chocolates, while still so appealing to the eye, aren’t something I want in my mouth very long. They’re oversweet, cheap, harsh. Yet their little swirls still look so damn good every time I see them sitting their little plastic dimples. I probably haven’t truly loved one since I was a kid. And in the mean time I’ve eaten hundreds. Attentive eating dispels mirages like these, and there are many.

You’ll also start to spot diminishing returns more quickly. By being attentive to the bodily experience of eating kettle-cooked chips, it becomes obvious that 90% of the enjoyment is in the first ten chips. Yet you could easily put away an entire bag, which is twelve times as many, by eating inattentively.

Return on investment—enjoyment per calorie—skyrockets. The amount of enjoyment you can get out of even a single cashew is incredible when you slow down and refuse to rush the experience.

Most importantly, eating this way actually delivers real satisfaction. Binge eating is all about trying to sustain an endless stream of pleasure, which is impossible. Attentive eating allows you to actually reach a satisfying version of “enough”. Instead of simply stopping out of discomfort, you feel satisfied from having given the eating experience itself more space to unfold.

With far fewer calories consumed, the desire to eat more subsides, because the mind—the part of our system that does the desiring—finally got a fair chance to experience the food.

I wish I’d discovered Dr Bays’s work many Christmases ago. I wouldn’t have needed to make so many New Year’s Resolutions.

***

Photos by Tom Ipri, looopeeelisa, and Patrick Freebern

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Arthur Guerrero December 11, 2016 at 11:36 pm

This is going to be a real issue, especially in the upcoming weeks haha.

Some other tactics I find useful are showing up to the party already full. Don’t show up really hungry. This will keep you level headed, and you’ll be able to logically choose what you eat (higher willpower). You won’t be relying on your hungry reptilian brain to choose your dishes & sweets.

Also, stay social. When I get bored, there is usually a higher chance of me looking for something to eat and fill my time with.

David Cain December 12, 2016 at 9:37 am

That’s a good one. One trick I learned from Leil Lowndes’s books was to talk to everybody before you even approach the food. Food is kind of a life preserver that makes it easy to avoid talking. So she says to get social before eating anything.

Elisa Winter December 12, 2016 at 3:46 am

There is something to be said for aging here. Being in your middle to late 50s. I may not have a terribly protective attitude toward my waistline, but I sure have developed one toward my stomach. I am so much nicer to it lately because, when I am inconsiderate and oblivious, it’s upset and complaining. Who wants that at 1 am and again at 4 am? A sour, grumbly belly begging for yet another Tums, or cup of tea when I should be sleeping soundly? Turns out 1 or 2 teaspoons of that cheese dip is lovely… but that’s really all I can handle. And cookies, not at all. And I am not the slightest bit sad about any of my recently developed curbs. I kinda like them. Weird but true. Merry Happy y’all!

David Cain December 12, 2016 at 9:40 am

I’ve noticed this too, my body doing a better job of telling me when I’m making a mistake. It makes for an interesting conflict sometimes, because often I eat certain foods just because I used to be able to eat them with impunity. Now they make me feel bad, but it takes a while for the reward pathways to convince me it’s not worth it.

Ron December 12, 2016 at 3:58 am

I hope people don’t pass this over because the title makes it sound like it’s about what not to do, and only during the holidays. This is excellent, clear advice on what TO do, and not just this month. Eating consciously, bite by bite, is the best possible eating advice every day of the year. And it has the dual benefit of improving your physical health while training your attention. Great article, thanks.

David Cain December 12, 2016 at 9:45 am

My hope is that the problem implied in the title is a common one, and that people will investigate and discover how useful mindful eating is.

Naomi December 12, 2016 at 4:26 am

I find the mindful eating much easier to do when I’m alone though. At gatherings, when everyone is chatting and socialising I find I don’t even taste what I’m eating because my brain is so focussed on the conversation and activities. This is actually helpful when it comes to drinking less booze: intermittent glasses of water between alcoholic beverages are easier to down (I think constant chatting means drinking more – of anything – as your mouth gets drier) and mean the hangover isn’t so bad!

David Cain December 12, 2016 at 9:51 am

It helps to separate the eating from the talking/listening, and in fact you kind of have to. Smaller portions, putting the fork down more often, and spending a lot of time completely away from the food is helpful.

Chris December 12, 2016 at 5:59 am

Well this hits home for two reasons. 1st, am I the only one who feels gypped if they go to a fancy restaurant and get a small portion? I want to have quality AND quantity if I pay a lot of money! And 2nd, my wife and I are completely different people. She has the willpower of a Buddhist monk and can let food sit there on the counter and just not eat it. Desserts can last for weeks. Bags of chips are the same. But then there’s me, eating a bag of doritos in the weekend. My method is to not buy these treats. But this doesn’t jive with the wife. Oh, and she’s an amazing baker too. I’m basically screwed… Even though she’s not the one putting the food directly into my mouth its easier if I blame her for my over indulgence…

David Cain December 12, 2016 at 9:54 am

My first line of defense is not to keep anything in the house that is appetizing without some prep work. I have potatoes and I have oil, but fried potatoes do not exist until I provide some labor. But maybe this is backfiring, as I never get a chance to leave dessert around uneaten for a while.

As for restaurants, I find I’m more and more attracted to small rich portions, and fine dining food is one kind that I find it easy to eat very slowly and mindfully. And I find that the slower you eat something, the less of it is necessary to be fulfilling.

Cassie December 12, 2016 at 12:05 pm

Oh! I am the same! My rule is I won’t buy it but instead I have to make it. That sure stops those mindless inhaling sessions in its tracks. I have to make the cookies, chips, etc.

Zoe December 12, 2016 at 6:43 am

Yep, needed this. I’ve tried to eat more mindfully before… and I really struggle with it. My body yoyos between wanting lots of food or very little. At the moment, it seems to want to hoover up everything that’s on the plate in seconds and it makes me feel awful afterwards. So yes… I’ll be keeping this in mind!

David Cain December 12, 2016 at 9:55 am

Check out the book I mentioned. It is extremely helpful and I didn’t have time to share many of the ideas in it.

Zoe December 12, 2016 at 11:23 am

I will!

Rebecca December 12, 2016 at 7:05 am

Mindfulness did nothing for me. Shaming did nothing for me. Eating beforehand only insured that I’d eat even more at a party. What DID do something for me was discovering that, at least for some of us, sugar (in all its forms) acts on our bodies as a drug that causes us to lose all eating inhibitions and convinces us we’re hungry, even when our bellies are bursting. See the YouTube talks of Robert Lustig, and the concepts of “bright line eating.” Now, I can go to any gathering, and, if I avoid the sugar, I have complete control over what I eat. And, after 57 years of struggling with overreacting, I’m finally steadily losing weight with no effort whatsoever. Sure, it means no Christmas candies or cookies, but that’s a small price to pay for control. And if you don’t WANT something, it’s not difficult to give it up.

David Cain December 12, 2016 at 9:57 am

This is something to try, thank you. Other people have said similar things about the hunger-inducing properties of sugar. It was a rare commodity until only about 300 years ago, and now it is cheap as dirt and we eat way too much of it.

Rebecca Stucki December 12, 2016 at 2:03 pm

I was kind of hoping you’d be inspired to do a trial sugar free! Be aware that all sugars count, even artificial ones – everything except fresh whole fruit.

David Cain December 13, 2016 at 3:54 pm

I may do that next. The topic of sugar is fascinating to me, particularly that it’s so abundant today and was as rare as gold only 400 years ago.

Aneirin December 14, 2016 at 2:39 pm

I generally try to keep my sugar intake at a minimum, because I become rabid with it. It’s insane because after about 4 days I go into a detox rebound or something, I start getting really angry and cranky. If I can stick it out, by 6 days I’m good. Eating a piece of fruit a day seems to keep me under control, but you know how it is, eventually I decide to “treat myself” to a donut. Or 4.

Rebecca December 12, 2016 at 7:07 am

Ha! That should have read “overeating,” not “overreacting”! Oh, and I meant to point out that alcohol is also a form of sugar, so I avoid that, too.

John December 12, 2016 at 9:13 am

Absolute knockout read. This and ‘The elegant secret to self-discipline’ are your two strongest pieces that I’ve read, in my opinion.

Thank you.

David Cain December 12, 2016 at 9:58 am

Thanks John. The banana article! I forgot about that one :)

Estelle December 12, 2016 at 9:50 am

I’ve started doing exactly that a few weeks ago as a means to start deprogramming my emotional eating patterns. Just like you described, for me, such patterns manifest by a tendancy to mindlessly eat to create a shallow, uninterrupted consumption high. When I realized that, I started telling myself the “If I’m not gonna pay attention to it fully, then I’m not eating it” thing and it really helped. A lot of my overeating happened just because I didn’t pay attention to the way I ate food, even though I spent so much time feeling guilty about how I ate and how powerless I felt. As it turns out, making eating an activity of its own really was the best way for me to avoid letting my emotions dictate what and how much I ate. I still find my own thoughts to be extremely distracting however – even if I sit down quietly to eat, I have trouble being truly present in the instant. But hey, they don’t call mindfulness a “journey” for nothing.

David Cain December 12, 2016 at 10:01 am

Applied attention short-circuits unconscious behaviors, and eating is a very unconscious behavior for many of us. It’s almost impossible to eat an entire bag of chips mindfully — it’s just too much. That’s why they strongly recommend we don’t watch any entertainment while we eat. If the food itself isn’t entertaining enough, then how much do we really like it?

Brenda December 12, 2016 at 10:01 am

I was prepared to hate this post. I thought it was going to be another set of food/eating rules. As someone with a background of disordered eating I can tell you how completely unhelpful and even dangerous that can be. But lo and behold you instead championed mindful eating! Learning to eat mindfully and intuitively has restored my sanity and brought me back into a healthy relationship with food. I only wish I had learned this decades ago. I didn’t come to grips with this until I was 50!

David Cain December 12, 2016 at 10:04 am

Mindful eating really seems to be the only healthy relationship with food I’ve ever had. It really does seem to realign us with what our bodies actually want us to do.

Frau_Mahlzahn December 12, 2016 at 10:13 am

Wow, and I thought it was just me, but here you are describing the way I’ve been observing my eating habits (without having been able to break them) down to the last detail! Thank you… And off to my favorite book-dealer I am, checking out your reading suggestion, :-).

So long,
Corinna

Heather Carroll December 12, 2016 at 10:33 am

A perfect post for this month. At holiday gatherings there are always a bounty of delicious looking foods to sample and overeat. A friend once gave me a different perspective when it comes to sweets: I’ve had those before and I enjoyed them, but since I’ve had them in the past, I don’t need to sample them again. I know what they taste like and now I can try new things. This has been very helpful to me and helped me to pass up that slice of pumpkin pie with whipped cream. I’ve had that experience and treasure it but I don’t need to repeat it. Thank you David, I always look forward to your posts.

David Cain December 13, 2016 at 3:24 pm

I like this philosophy, because it values curiosity towards the food experience more than repeating basic, predictable pleasures.

randy hendrix December 12, 2016 at 10:42 am

“Because there’s nothing to do in January except straighten ourselves out”…really hit home right there David! I do away with any November/December guilt by remembering that I’ll be fixing everything in January anyway so why not?
By the way, the three articles written since you got back from Ecuador have been both thought-provoking and extremely insightful. Your humorous examples today were a great way to start my Monday morning! As always, thanks!

David Cain December 13, 2016 at 3:21 pm

Thanks Randy!

Jacob Zoller December 12, 2016 at 3:49 pm

This is really great and helpful, David!

I read “Mindful Eating” and have had intermittent success with it, which is much better than none. This helped me go deeper and encouraged me to double down on mindful eating this month rather than “taking a pass.”

Eating more slowly and with presence of mind has really opened my eyes to the emotional reasons I eat. It’s not an easy thing to confront. Oh, and I try not to eat anything while I’m consuming media (except fruits and veggies, which are always allowed).

David Cain December 13, 2016 at 3:26 pm

There is a whole world of emotional history wrapped up in our eating behaviors, just waiting to be discovered. In fact, emotional motives behind eating have such a huge effect on our lives it’s amazing we’re able to be so oblivious to them. A little bit of curiosity goes a long way.

sandybt December 12, 2016 at 6:43 pm

Attempting to practice the Five Contemplations from Thich Nhat Hanh during this season:

This food is the gift of the whole universe: the earth, the sky, numerous living beings and much hard, loving work.
May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.
May we recognize and transform our unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed, and learn to eat with moderation.
May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, preserve our planet, and reverse the process of global warming.
We accept this food so that we may nurture our sisterhood and brotherhood, strengthen our community, and nourish our ideal of serving all living beings.

Anna December 12, 2016 at 11:33 pm

Those photos were brilliant! Its a subject i havent thought much about since i never put any significant weight on but actually i do completely get what youre saying. We Watch tv sometimes when we’re eating and i often gobble down food so i can get up and do the washing up. i will Watch these tendancies from now on.
Something ive noticed….
I have a friend who always leaves two chips on her plate and i just dont get it!! How can you not just fit in two more chips? Why waste them? This must come from my childhood when my parents made me finish everything on my plate and told me that i had to eat it because of the starving kids in Africa. Even thinking about stopping before ive finished whats on my plate brings out strong feelings. I think i will try it and see.
Thanks for your article.

David Cain December 13, 2016 at 3:31 pm

Thanks Anna. Each of us has extremely strong feelings about what is good and bad food behavior. I am *extremely* averse to packing up a half-portion of food for leftovers. Even if I’ve clearly made too much and I’m full, I’ll eat it anyway, so that it doesn’t become shrunken, dried out “leftovers” in a container in my fridge. Clearly it would help me to get over it but it’s such a strong feeling.

Rick Rose December 13, 2016 at 11:44 am

Perfectly-timed post. I’ve heard variations on this theme before, not necessarily evoking the “mindfulness” angle so much as simply the admonition to slow down, a la the “slow food” movement. Like all good advice, I need to be reminded of it regularly, because I so quickly forget. Thanks!

randy hendrix December 13, 2016 at 1:06 pm

Correction to my above comment…it should read “four” articles since you returned from Ecuador.

Aneirin December 14, 2016 at 2:35 pm

I recently went to a work holiday party, just a small in office thing with lots of food. Now, I’m vegan but there are things I’ll cheat on. Nothing huge, like steak, but a cupcake (or two.) I skipped lunch and ate so much at that party, I was sick all night. :( I get completely sugar crazed at Christmas…. and I run long distance so I tend to fall into the “well I’ll burn it off” trap. Never mind the fact I’d have to run 3 marathons that week. Definitely going to keep this in mind, mindfulness has helped with my anxiety, so maybe my overeating can be helped. Also, I particularly enjoyed this line “I’ve discovered that brand name boxed chocolates, while still so appealing to the eye, aren’t something I want in my mouth very long. They’re oversweet, cheap, harsh.”

David Cain December 15, 2016 at 3:29 pm

That was a real revelation, that there are so many treats we are conditioned to look on with desire, but don’t actually deliver on that promise, and we don’t notice because we’re not really examining the experience. Pot of Gold is anything but!

Natalia December 14, 2016 at 4:56 pm

Mindfulness doesn’t work when you are short on sleep. Why not start with that?

Emily December 14, 2016 at 8:52 pm

Your post was the first thing I read on Monday morning when I was in bed waking myself up. I bought the book you referenced and read it in a day and holy crap….has seriously changed the way I interact with food.
I’ve found it so easy to now have a small “taste” of a food – but really taste it and enjoy it – and stop. I’ve found myself so much more satisfied by the same meals I’ve always had – instead of finishing my lunch with a feeling of dissatisfaction like I haven’t eaten at all.
It’s only been 3 days but I know this has permanently changed my relationship with food. So thank you!!

David Cain December 15, 2016 at 3:30 pm

Oh good! What a great book. I wish I had room to write more about the different kinds of hunger. Just noticing that my eyes often want what my stomach doesn’t is enough to defuse a craving.

Holly December 22, 2016 at 4:23 pm

This reminds me of Hemingway’s “Hunger Was Good Discipline” from A Moveable Feast. He talks about being in Paris and starving because the little money he had was going to feed his wife and children. He spends all day walking around a city famous for its food, unable to buy anything to eat.
Then he gets an unexpected royalty check and he goes to his favorite cafe and orders a giant meal. He savors every bite, then leaves it half-uneaten, because that is the true wealth. To have enough, and know it.

Rukmini December 23, 2016 at 7:25 am

Quite helpful to avoid seasonal binge eating..just brings home the fact that in India, we defined a wise person as one who knew where to stop eating (or a fool as someone who overeats)..so the practice was (and still is) to sit down on the floor to eat (cross legged) and eat with your bare hands (to bring in all the senses while eating). Another helpful tip is that a clean body craves clean food, and a detox program helps in doing just that!

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