Restoring balance to eating and stress levels can be especially difficult during the holiday season. Most people struggle during the holidays with too much to do, too much stress, too little time, and too much food. Over the next few weeks I will post 12 tips on intuitive eating and self-care can help you navigate smoothly through the holidays feeling healthy in body, mind and spirit. Here are the first 4 tips.
1. Eat WHEN your body signals hunger.
Whenever your mind or hand reaches for food, always check in with your body about your hunger level—are you physically hungry, or do you want to eat when you are not physically hungry? When you experience light-to-moderate physical hunger, your body can tell you what and how much food it needs, called nutritional cravings. However, if you let yourself get too hungry, either by being too busy to eat, or by consciously restricting foods to avoid weight gain, chances are that you’ll probably want to eat the first thing you can get, and the tendency is to overcompensate with more food than you need at the time, or for some, to restrict even more when the cravings get intense. The desire to overeat hat inevitably follows restricting, can lead to more restricting; even thoughts of restricting creates a stress response in the body and raises cortisol, not to mention the psychological law of physics: for every deprivation, there tends to be an equal and opposite urge to indulge, sooner or later, and what happens is either the “cave” and a “binge” (whether a little or a lot) or even tighter restricting that continues the cycle.
To prevent this cycle, planning ahead is key. Imagine the event, (when, where, who, what will be served). Categorize the foods you most want, those that don’t matter so much, and those that may cause anxiety or stress. Identify those with protein, carbohydrate and fat and good sources of vitamins and minerals so that you create a nutritionally sound meal, including the foods you want. On the holiday event, eat as you normally would eat your meals—about 3-4 hours apart—usually the time it takes for true physical hunger to signal, as this grounds you in present time (see tip 4), and helps to prevent skipping meals and saving hunger for grazing on party foods where you may be likely to overindulge.
Reaching for food when you are not physically hungry–symbolic hunger–is usually an attempt to satisfy some other need—emotional, spiritual or social. When this happens, it is important to be an observer, not a judge. The holidays may bring up hidden emotions and longings to the surface. Eating, or avoiding eating, is one way that many of us have learned to cope with uncomfortable feelings, to calm ourselves down and to feel better. Sometimes you may be aware of feelings that trigger eating or restricting, and you might find a more appropriate way of dealing with the feeling (sitting with it, talking about it with someone else, expressing it, etc.). But when you are not aware of feelings related to the symbolic hunger, or are unable to choose differently at that time, the most important thing is to not judge the behavior (because this can feed the food-weight obsession cycle), but to put to use the skills below.
2. Eat WHAT you really want, not what calories dictate.
If we don’t let ourselves have what we really want, we will usually continue to eat “chasing the satisfaction” with additional foods, to compensate for not getting the desired result (enjoyment and gratification). We also need to trust the reasons we want certain foods, whether for physical requirements or for mental, emotional or even social or spiritual needs. When you are a guest at a party or buffet, survey the foods offered ahead of time, and choose the foods that you really want and that will be most gratifying. Check in with hunger (Tip #1 above) and decide how much to eat to satisfy your hunger right now (Tip #4 below). Remember, without judgment of yourself or the food, overeating isn’t likely. And, by practicing the technique of “Eating from the Neck Down”, below, you can learn to eat just the right amounts of the foods you want at any given time. Then, you can get on with the spirit of the party or social event and enjoy yourself!
3. Eat HOW MUCH you need in the present moment.
Portions are an inside job with intuitive eating. Envisioning the type of food and the amount of that food in your stomach before you eat it, signals the body to stop at the amount that feels “just right” in the body ahead of time. Listening to the body in this way is like “eating from the neck down”; a way to connect mind and body, and “program” your body like a computer—to stop with the feeling satiety, but not overly full. Checking in with your hunger level during eating also helps you to remember to stop eating when your physical hunger is just satisfied. Remember, you can have more later when physical hunger returns—but you might want to think about that ahead of time as well, repeating Tips 1,2,3 and 4 when thinking of eating returns.
4. Give yourself full permission to eat in full view.
Choices of foods, or the size of your body does not dictate how deserving one is to eat. Many people do not eat what they want in front of others only to eat secretively later, and often overeat or binge due to feeling deprived. Why hide what you are entitled to? Eating out in the open can prevent disordered eating later. What would keep you from eating what you want in front of others?
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Dr. Barbara Birsinger is a Registered Dietitian with a Masters Degree in Public Health Nutrition and a Doctorate Degree in Spiritual Healing and Energy Medicine. She works as a consultant in private practice at the Integrative Medical Clinic in Santa Rosa, The Body Positive Institute Counseling Center in San Rafael, and at Riverside Counseling in Petaluma. Barbara offers her workshop, Decoding the Symbolic Meaning in Hungers, Food Cravings, Body Language and Weight as both a live weekend event, and as a live online Webinar Weekly Series starting in early 2013. For more details, click here to email Barbara.