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November 27, 2019

A psychologist's guide to holiday eating

Here's how to enjoy all those treats without regretting it

Healthy Eating Holidays
Thanksgiving dinner Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

The holidays are a time to celebrate, says Laura Frank, a dietitian and psychologist at La Salle University. She encourages people to enjoy the food but to avoid overeating.

Laura Frank enters the holidays with a unique perspective – particularly when it comes to eating.

The director of La Salle University's didactic program in dietetics, Frank is both a dietitian and a psychologist. And, as she put it, she's "somebody who really loves food."

So don't expect her to tell someone to ignore all those tempting holiday treats. Instead, she tells people to dig in – within reason.

"It's a holiday – it's a celebration," Frank says. "I have this motto: It's everything in moderation, including moderation. That means sometimes you're not totally moderate because you're celebrating."

Frank encourages people to enjoy the turkey at Thanksgiving. Reach for the mashed potatoes and stuffing. Don't pass on the pumpkin pie. And as the holiday parties mount, enjoy a cookie or two.

But though Frank advocates for allowing people to taste whatever they wish, that doesn't mean overindulging.

"I'm much more interested in having people approach a holiday meal with the idea that they're going to enjoy it as much as possible, in a way that they can feel good about when it's done," Frank says.

Frank offers several tips to help people enjoy all the flavors of the holidays without feeling bad about what they eat.

SCAN THE OPTIONS

The first thing Frank does prior to any holiday meal or party is to get a feel for the variety of food available.

Frank makes note of the foods that she definitely wants to try. But she also identifies the foods that she could go without eating – and she'll leave them be. In doing so, she makes her meal as enjoyable as possible without feeling as if she overate.

"My goal is to maximize how much I enjoy what I'm eating," Frank says. "If you think about it from that perspective, instead of 'I'm going to deprive myself of XYZ,' it's just a whole different relationship with food. I don't feel deprived."

PAUSE BEFORE GETTING SECONDS

Frank paces herself while eating, taking time to savor the flavor, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy conversing with those around her. Once she's finished eating, she makes a point of waiting for about 20 minutes, digesting the food physically and mentally, before considering seconds.

This gives her brain a chance to receive signals from her gut. She might realize she's full. Or she may decide she has room for a little more.

"You can pack a lot of stuff in there before you brain gets that signal," Frank says. If you keep eating, "you end up after this meal feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And that takes all the fun out of eating."

If Frank decides she wants seconds, she again determines exactly what she wants before refilling her plate.

GIVE LEFTOVERS AWAY

It's not uncommon for the host of holiday parties to be left with all sorts of food, much of it unhealthy.

When Frank plays host, she makes a point of sending food home with others. She also splits leftovers up into smaller portions, piecing together future lunches. That helps prevent her from eating through a bunch of food in the days after the event.

"If I have a whole pie leftover, I'm probably not going to leave that whole pie in my refrigerator," Frank says. "I'm going to take some of it and freeze some of it."

DON'T SKIP MEALS BEFORE ARRIVING

The philosophy of avoiding food prior to a big meal leads many people astray, Frank says.

"When you do that, you don't have good judgment when you get there," Frank says. "You're starving. You'll eat anything and you'll eat too fast. It's really a setup to overdo it."

Instead, Frank recommends eating lightly throughout the day – enough to leave room for dinner but not enough to be craving food the moment one arrives at the party.

EAT THESE FOODS FIRST

Start by eating foods with high water content, like a cup of soup or some fruits or vegetables, Frank said. The body will be forced to digest them, quelling any hunger. But there will be plenty of room for the good stuff that follows.

"The idea of this is you're trying to eat something that has a lot of volume," Frank says. "It's going to take up space down there, but it doesn't have a lot of calories. It will take the edge off."

UNDERSTAND WHY YOU'RE EATING

Some people eat because they're bored. Others eat when they're stressed. But eating in those scenarios does little to solve the actual issues at hand, Frank says. 

That can be especially challenging during the holidays, when sugary treats never seem far away.

Frank encourages people to ask themselves why they're eating. If you're bored, she suggests trying to find another activity. If you're stressed, Frank recommends spending a few minutes in a quiet space to calm down. 

"I love food. I want to enjoy food," Frank says. "But I don't want to have myself eating all kinds of food for reasons that have nothing to do with that."


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