The holidays are over, and not a moment too soon. You can always count on an abundance of high-fat, high-sugar foods. Whether it’s cookies, pies, mashed potatoes, or gingerbread pancakes—a favorite with my kids—it’s all there for the eating.
The problem is that this influx of holiday treats coincides perfectly with holiday stress—year-end work deadlines, the frenzy of shopping, and hosting large family dinners, for example. And research shows that stress is one of the potent precursors to overeating. Chronic stress causes us to crave high calorie foods, which can lead to a higher body mass index, and it may also cause our bodies to retain excess calories as fat—perhaps a mechanism leftover from evolution, when stress alerted us to danger and our bodies responded by preparing us for quick energy or possible scarcity.
So, what is the answer to all of this food temptation? Mindfulness, according to a new book by behavioral medicine researcher Jean Kristeller called The Joy of Half a Cookie. Drawing on the success of her Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training program, which has been tested on a wide-range of populations, Kristeller provides guidance for how we can use mindfulness practices to not only eat wisely during the holidays—or any day, really—but to enjoy our special treats more in the process.
According to Kristeller, you don’t have to eat a particular diet or willpower your way through a program of self-deprivation to eat healthily or to lose weight, if that’s your goal. You don’t even have to avoid certain high calorie foods, which are a celebratory part of the holiday season. The key is learning to pay attention to your body’s physical signals around eating—for example, recognizing what internal hunger and satiation actually feels like—and mindfully tying food intake to those signals. Rather than thinking food is an enemy to be conquered, mindfulness can help you transform eating into a nurturing, important, and enjoyable part of living.
“When you connect with your body and mind and engage your natural powers of self-regulation…you can choose to take [a] cookie or you can leave it,” writes Kristeller. “You’re using the wisdom of your body and your mind to make choices that are balanced, are easy, and surprisingly, require little effort.”
There are several principles of mindful eating that Kristeller outlines in her book, many of which purposefully fly in the face of conventional wisdom around dieting and are designed to help readers savor their food more:
- Only you know what your mind and body needs. In other words, no one can tell you how hungry you are or what your body needs to feel full. That means you need to learn to trust yourself to make decisions around what and how much to eat and not leave them to diet programs.
- You can use your thoughts and feelings to inform yourself, not punish yourself. It’s best to approach your thoughts and feelings with nonjudgmental awareness and compassion rather than trying to bully yourself into compliance around eating.
- There are no bad foods. Some foods contain more nutrients than others, yes; but no foods are completely off-limits. You can indulge sometimes, as long as you do so mindfully.
- Calories count. Understanding calories is part of developing external wisdom, which is also important for mindful eating; but it’s not the only thing. Still, it helps to know which foods are more nutritious for you so that you can choose ones that nourish you.
- Your inner and outer wisdoms need to work together. By being aware of your thoughts, emotions, and triggers to eat as they arise, you can create space to make wiser decisions around eating.
- Relying on willpower and guilt leads to dissatisfaction and struggle. Exchanging willpower and guilt for exploration and understanding around eating is what will help you to eat mindfully.
- Joy can be found in every bite. You can bring joy to eating as you learn to savor your food.
- Your life is about much more than how you eat. Rather than struggling with eating, you can gain a sense of freedom around food, freeing you up to focus more on other areas of your life.
Kristeller gives specific instructions on how to develop a mindful eating practice that will help readers to find pleasure in eating without succumbing to guilt. By trying out the exercises in her book, readers can learn to pay attention to their moment to moment experience of food, appreciate the differences between physical hunger and other triggers for eating—like strong emotions, thoughts, and social pressures—in order to learn alternative responses to those triggers, and free themselves from excessive worry around eating.
One of the attractions of mindful eating is that you don’t have to have hard and fast rules around foods—like never eating cake or never eating when you’re not hungry. Instead, if you see a piece of cake you may want, you mindfully stop and ask yourself how hungry you are, how special the treat really is, or how easy it would be to get it some other time if you happen to be full. If you decide it’s special but you’re not that hungry, you can still mindfully choose to eat half of a portion and save the rest, or you may decide to eat the whole thing without guilt. The key is making eating a choice and mindfully savoring every bite—or perhaps discovering that you actually don’t like the taste after the first few bites and deciding to stop. It’s all about awareness.
Kristeller’s program has been research tested to be effective, which makes it more appealing than most dieting protocols, and it can be used by anyone. Studies have shown that mindful eating can reduce binge eating, help diabetics to control their glucose intake and weight, and decrease cortisol (stress) reactivity and belly fat in people with obesity. Considering how difficult it can be to effect lasting change in these populations, mindful eating seems truly remarkable in its efficacy.
But, most importantly, mindful eating can help you to enjoy eating—even those supposedly forbidden holiday treats. Much of mindful eating comes down to simply slowing down eating enough so you can become more aware of what you are eating, pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, find compassion for yourself, discover alternatives to food for soothing difficult emotions, and savor the food you love. With the guidance of Kristeller’s book, you truly can find joy in half a cookie—right in time for the post-holiday season.