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Mindful Eating for the Holidays

Who isn’t busy, distracted, and eating on the run during the holidays, not to mention all the holiday buffets, dinners, and parties? We often put pressure on ourselves to prepare and eat traditional holiday foods which are typically high in fat, sugar, and calories; and at the same time feel guilty about not following healthier eating habits.

Mindfulness is one strategy that can help decrease stress around holiday celebrations and foods. According to Jan Chozen Bays, MD, author of “Mindful Eating”, mindfulness is:

“…deliberately paying attention, being fully aware of what is happening both inside yourself – in your body, heart, and mind – and outside yourself, in your environment. Mindfulness is awareness without judgment or criticism.”1

Instead of following external rules about what to eat – or not eat – eating mindfully encourages paying attention to our thoughts and feelings, and treating ourselves with self-compassion. Use these 8 tips to practice mindfulness during the holidays.

Sit down to eat meals and snacks – and not in front of the TV, computer, or other device. When we eat while watching TV or working at the computer we’re not paying attention to the taste of our food or our hunger and fullness levels making it likely that we’ll overeat.2 Sit down at the table every time you eat and you’ll find you enjoy your food more and eat less. At a holiday party find a chair where you can sit and eat while talking with friends.

During holiday celebrations focus on the people more than the food. We eat every day, but how often do we have the opportunity to talk with relatives who live far away or meet someone new at a neighborhood party? Before you go to a holiday gathering, take a minute to remind yourself that the food is secondary to the conversation with friends and family.3

Eat balanced meals at regular times throughout the day, even with a big party in the evening or a lunchtime holiday celebration.4 Plan good-tasting meals that contain protein, vegetables or fruit, and whole grains. Breakfast especially is important since a balanced breakfast will help decrease cravings later in the day.5 Skipping breakfast or lunch because you have a holiday party in the evening will only set you up to feel ravenous when you arrive at the party, which almost always leads to overeating.

Give yourself time to notice hunger. Often we get so busy that we don’t notice we’re hungry. Or we drink coffee, tea, or other beverages to fool ourselves into believing we don’t need to eat. When you notice hunger and eat a balanced meal or snack, you’re also helping your body manage stress more effectively.

Think about the ingredients and calories of your favorite holiday beverages. A Starbucks 16 ounce Eggnog Latte can contain up to 480 calories and 52 grams of sugar, McDonald’s small Hot Chocolate has 360 calories and 45 grams of sugar, and Dunkin Donuts’ large Vanilla Chai has 450 calories and 64 grams of sugar. Skip whipped cream to save 80-110 calories and ask for a ‘skinny’ version with fat-free milk to reduce calories even more. Or enjoy the smallest size of your favorite beverage and cut the calories and sugar in half.

Before you start eating a holiday meal, think about how you want to feel at the end of the meal. Do you want to feel overstuffed and so full all you want to do is take a nap? Or do you want to feel satisfied and comfortable? As Michele May, MD, suggests in her blog Am I Hungry?:  “Eating the right amount of food is not about being good but about feeling good.”6

Decide in advance how much alcohol, if any, you choose to drink. Drinking alcohol is associated with eating larger amounts of high calorie foods, and favorite holiday beverages are often high in sugar and calories.2 8 ounces of eggnog made with alcohol contains about 400 calories, one-quarter of your total daily fat allowance, and 20 grams of added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends men consume no more than 24 grams of added sugar per day for women, and no more than 36 grams of added sugar per day for men.7

Slow down. The daily pace of life seems to speed up to warp-speed during the holidays. Chronically rushing through the day increases our feelings of anxiety and stress, which often leads to unwanted eating. Slowing down and giving yourself a minute or two to take a few deep breaths helps bring everything into perspective, allowing you to reflect on what you really want at that particular moment. You may find you need sleep, a few quiet minutes to yourself, help with a project, or a brisk walk outside and not food.


  1. Mindful Eating:  A guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food. Jan Chozen Bays, MD. Shambhala, Boston & London. 2009.
  2. Muñoz-Pareja M, Guallar-Castillón P, Mesas AE, López-García E, Rodríguez-Artalejo F. Obesity-Related Eating Behaviors Are Associated with Higher Food Energy Density and Higher Consumption of Sugary and Alcoholic Beverages: A Cross-Sectional Study. Andrews Z, ed. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(10):e77137. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0077137.
  3. Principles of Mindfulness. The Center for Mindful Eating. http://thecenterformindfuleating.org/Principles-Mindful-Eating Accessed 11-20-16.
  4. Stay Mindful with 4 Tips for Holiday Eating. American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. http://www.eatright.org/resource/health/lifestyle/holidays/a-healthy-approach-to-holiday-eating Reviewed by Wendy Marcason, RD December 22, 2015. Accessed November 14, 2016.
  5. Hoertel HA, Will MJ, Leidy HJ. A randomized crossover, pilot study examining the effects of a normal protein vs. high protein breakfast on food cravings and reward signals in overweight/obese “breakfast skipping”, late-adolescent girls. Nutrition Journal. 2014;13:80. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-13-80.
  6. Am I Hungry? “Saving the Stuffing for the Turkey; Eating Mindfully on Thanksgiving”. Michelle May, MD. http://amihungry.com/save-the-stuffing-for-the-turkey-eating-mindfully-on-thanksgiving/ Accessed 11-21-16
  7. American Heart Association. Added Sugars. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Added-Sugars_UCM_305858_Article.jsp#.WDNz8_krL4c  Accessed 11-20-16

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