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 we’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.
This 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.