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Better holiday eating without losing a thing

The holidays are here, and everywhere you go or look the focus is on feasting.
Fabulous foods tantalize from the covers of magazines while the workplace and marketplace are filled with holiday treats.
There are platters of cookies at the hair dressers; food samples at the grocery store; pie at the neighbors’; holiday drinks at your local café; gingerbread at school functions; finger food at parties; food talk on the radio, on television, and among friends and family members. Food, food, food.
For some, this is a great celebratory experience. But for many, it can be very difficult.
If you have a problem with overeating, or eating poorly — and millions do — there’s no harder time than the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years. And even if you don’t normally have a problem, holidays are fraught with stressors that can push your eating habits into the red zone.
“This is a classic time of year for anxiety,” said Mark Mincolla, Ph.D., a well-known Cohasset-based nutritionist and natural health care practitioner. “Old memories, family connections, traveling — can all trigger emotion-based eating. Food and alcohol are first in line for self-medicating.”
Hey, I know that not everybody has a problem with overeating. Plenty of people aren’t bothered by it — either because they don’t overeat (through some natural or cultivated habit), or simply because if they do overeat it doesn’t bother them.
But thousands of others really suffer — plunging into cycles of self-hatred, guilt, and physical pain when they eat too much.
I love that Frank Bruni, the former New York Times food critic, quit his job and published a book about his struggles with food earlier this year. It was very brave of him and helped thousands to acknowledge a problem that still carries much shame with it — like alcoholism and drug addiction do.

I know a little about how difficult it can be to overeat. For a couple years after college, I used to get up every morning with a vague plan to eat well, then end up breaking my promise to myself. But I found a way through. Now, I’m one of the lucky ones (or the very blessed): through some miracle, I never overeat and can consequently really enjoy and love food. And because I changed, I know that other people can change, too.
But I don’t for an instant underestimate the tricky complex of factors involved with transforming one’s eating habits. Behind all the pretty frosting, food exerts as raw and animalistic a force on our psyches as anything. Its associations are many, its roots deep in our minds and bodies. Will alone generally won’t work at dismantling the problem any better than it would if the task were getting a wild animal to sit.
But, small, gentle changes might.
So, I have a suggestion for anyone looking for a way through the next few weeks.
All it involves is choosing one good little eating behavior and doing it every single day until New Year’s Day.
That’s all. You don’t have to give up or change anything else.

“Don’t make dramatic changes this time of year,” said Mincolla, who highly values balance. “Dramatic change is destabilizing.”
This is how the two-step process works:
Step One: Don’t force changes in any of your eating habits, holiday eating obligations, or eating problems between now and the New Year. Accept them and let them be. Eat what you want.
Step two: Choose one — just one — of the following eating-based actions and do it every day along with everything else you do.

Here are your four choices, most of which Mincolla suggested:

  1. Eat breakfast, no matter what.
    According to Mincolla, eating breakfast keeps us stable and centered physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Numerous studies link missing breakfast with great increases in the incidence of obesity. If this is something you want to do but find hard, here are a couple quick and easy breakfasts: 

    • Greek-style non-fat yogurt with fruit. (Mincolla says that this thick, strained yogurt has a greater ratio of protein to carbohydrates than regular yogurt.) 
    • Spiru-tein protein powder with plain Silk soy milk (or, my suggestion, non-fat milk.)
    • One or two hard-boiled eggs with a slice of high-quality whole-grain bread and a piece of fruit (my suggestion).
  2. Fill each of two plastic bags with a quarter-cup of one or more of the following (raw or unsalted roasted) nuts and seeds, and eat them for morning and afternoon snacks: Almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, or soy nuts. Aside from their protein, these nuts and seeds are high in tryptophan, which increases serotonin levels in the brain and promotes relaxation.
  3. Drink a cup of rooibus (red bush) tea every afternoon, or any of the non-caffeinated Yogi (or similar) brand teas. Sit quietly for 10 minutes while you sip.
  4. After dinner, eat a cup of this fruit dish, even if you’re going to eat dessert later: Fill a baking dish with a mixture of frozen berries, unsweetened canned peaches, and unsweetened canned pears. Sprinkle the mixture with cinnamon and some oatmeal and bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes.
    That’s it. Chose one action and do it every day until Jan. 1. Then see what you’ve got.
    Taking small steps in the right direction, consistently, is a powerful way to build good habits than can, eventually, replace the old.
    May you be aware of the love around you this holiday season and enjoy some good food!
  5. Mark Mincolla, Santi Holistic Healing, 12 Parking Way, Cohasset, 02025; 781-383-3393