This time of year, the ubiquitous “holiday season,” I notice several themes in the media and on people’s minds: giving thanks for what we have, spending time with those who are important to us, great shopping bargains, and watching our waistlines. I have numerous thoughts about all of these, and I’ll share them with you here.
Our American puritanical roots laid the foundation for our current holiday season, which starts with Thanksgiving preparations and extends through New Year’s Day. Thanksgiving dinner is composed mainly of “New World” foods—that is, foods that, at the time of the original Thanksgiving holiday, were available only on what was to become American soil, such as turkey, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, pumpkin, and cranberries. Over the years, we’ve tinkered with recipes and added all kinds of ingredients, but the traditional fare has its origins in foods native to the northeastern United States. Christmas dinners in the U.S. are based mostly on the Christmas dinners that have been traditional in England since the late 19th century, made up of combinations of meat, fruit, nuts, bread, and sweets.
Given the Christian persuasion of the Pilgrims, Christmas is still considered a big part of the season, even though our increasingly diverse population celebrates holidays other than Christmas or recognizes Christmas in a secular rather than religious spirit, enjoying the Pagan elements of lights and trees and the tradition of gift giving without much thought to their origins.
A common denominator to all of the festivities is food. Special foods speak to the specialness of the season, bringing people together in a spirit of celebration outside the norms of everyday life. Food is an essential part of the holidays.
And while newspapers, magazines, and cyberspace are rife with recipes, they also are filled with articles on portion size, tactics for moderating holiday eating, and weight control. Television talk-show hosts tell us that the average American gains a certain number of pounds over the holidays. (I’ve heard several different numbers. Feel free to research this further online and find a number that suits you.) I walk into my gym, and on the whiteboard is a proclamation that we gain some crazy amount of weight over the holidays and an offer for a personal training package. (OK, full disclosure: This was at my former gym, which went out of business. I’ve not seen this at my current gym!)
This brings me to the “shopping bargains” part of my story: The holidays are a time of consumption; consumption not only of food and goods, but also of ideas. Companies produce and market food and goods such as clothing, video games, and toys, but also magazines, diet products, and services such as weight-loss programs. Weight control has become a national pastime. Savvy folks capitalize on the notion that we gain “X” amount of weight over the holidays by selling us the antidote.
So we hear conflicting messages: Eat! Make this decadent recipe! Buy this precooked, refined, processed item that will save you time in the kitchen! Watch your portions! Don’t gain weight! You will gain weight, so diet and exercise it off!
It seems to me that what I believe to be the intention of holiday celebrations—to break bread with friends and loved ones, to share warmth and cheer in a season of cold and dark—gets lost in a frenzy of consuming, controlling, and repairing. I believe that problem is not that we have so much food around during this time of year that we are bound to overdo it, but that we often lose connection to ourselves in the midst of the frenzy. We purchase and eat foods that are designed to stimulate the pleasure receptors in our brains (it’s more complicated than that, so I ask that neuroscientists reading this cut me some holiday slack!), we ignore our hunger and satiety signals and eat in response to external rather than internal cues, and we restrict our food intake to “save calories” for parties and big meals so we’re overly hungry by the time we get there and then do, in fact, overeat.
So what I am practicing and preaching is this: Enjoy holiday eating! Don’t view it as either a vacation from ordinary restraint or a monster to be feared and fought. Eat things you truly like, and savor and enjoy them. Listen to your body, and don’t eat if you’re not hungry unless what’s there is truly delicious, you really want to have it, and it’s socially appropriate to eat it (by “socially appropriate,” I mean that it’s part of a shared experience with others and involves no shame or hiding). Prepare meals involving foods that are wholesome and minimally processed, yet rich with significance of the holiday.
Notice your thoughts, such as: “I won’t have another chance to have this until next year,” or, “I’ll just eat as much as I want now and start a diet on Jan. 2,” or, “I shouldn’t really enjoy this too much,” or, “I have to watch every bite I put in my mouth.” Participate in enough, but not too much, celebrating. Balance time with others with time for yourself. Take breaks from events filled with people and noise; pause, be quiet, listen inside, and pay attention to what you need.
Let the meaning of the season, along with your body’s needs for nourishment and movement, be the guiding principles for holiday eating. In so doing, may you nourish your spirit as well. Best wishes to all of you!
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