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Doctor's Orders: Mindful Eating at the Thanksgiving Table

Fay Johnson

By Dr. Larry Burchett |

I love Thanksgiving.  Dipping turkey with stuffing into cranberry sauce is one of my favorites.  I must have inherited my father’s affinity for pumpkin pie, too.  Legend has it his grandmother made 1 pie for his 4 siblings, and 1 pie for just him.  Few moments are as blissful as the post Thanksgiving lunch slumber/coma on the couch where tryptophan intoxication enables me to nostalgically construct my Christmas wish list (I’m in my 30s), with some irrelevant football game in the background.

Then there’s the scale on Monday afterwards—talk about a walk of shame, from couch coma to that electronic reality checker.  When I was younger (20s and below), I didn't gain much weight despite competing in the annual family Overeaters Anonymous competition at our holiday table.  But once I passed 30 and the ol’ metabolism changed, I could literally see the turkey migrate from my stomach to setup a semi-permanent residence on my belly.

Interestingly, studies have shown that many people aren’t aware that they’ve eaten too much until one thing—they have to loosen their pants. Literally. Until we have eaten so much that we no longer fit in our regular clothing. 

When it comes to holiday meals, I think we have simple wants:

  • To enjoy food
  • To enjoy family time, people
  • To be comatose on the couch so we don’t have to watch the Dallas Cowboys (does anybody still play Romo in Fantasy Football???)

I think it would be safe to assume that there are simple things we don’t want:

  • To gain weight over the holidays
  • To feel hungry or unsatisfied
  • To feel guilty about enjoying a nice meal

Did I miss anything?  Maybe you have other wants. Sharing stories with loved ones. Enjoying a day away from your desk to reconnect with friends. Taking part in the ritual of flag football. It would be relevant to consider what would define an enjoyable Thanksgiving.  Can we have it all?  Is there a way we can both enjoy food, the time AND not gain weight, not feel hungry or guilty about it?  I think the answer is yes, there are several things you can do to limit the weight gain without losing the things we really want, like enjoying food. 

 

FACT #1: IT TAKES 20 MINUTES FOR YOUR STOMACH TO SIGNAL TO YOUR BRAIN THAT YOU ARE FULL.

Think about that for a minute.  If you are eating for 40 minutes and you stop at minute 40 because you are full (and are in your fat pants struggling to breath because you housed more than your share of the dark meat), then the last 20 minutes you’ve been eating, has been past when your stomach was full.  In other words, you overate for 20 minutes!

EAT MORE SLOWLY

So what can you do to counter this?  Eat more slowly.  What if you spread out that first 20 minutes of food—over 40 minutes or an hour?  You can savor eat bite of bird instead of inhaling it.  Focus on socializing and conversation, enjoying the moment with people.  Space out bites by drinking water.  Pace yourself by eating more slowly than the slowest person at the table. Try asking questions of your fellow diners. Who has a great story that will engage the entire table?

Because eating more slowly does 2 things: 1) Enables you to feel fuller and therefore eat less overall and 2) Enables you to more efficiently digest your food, and store a little less as fat.  How would you do that?  How would you suggest your family do that, or even—how would you model the behavior of eating more slowly for them?

What about our criteria for what we want from our meal?  Have we compromised?  By eating more slowly, can we still enjoy food and people?  Yes, arguable you can get MORE enjoyment from savoring food and eating more slowly.  Can we do it in a way where we are not hungry and don’t feel guilty about what we are eating?  Somehow I don’t think we are going hungry at Thanksgiving, and in terms of the guilt—eating more slowly should actually make you feel BETTER and LESS guilty.  If anything, this enhances several aspects of what most of us want to get out of the gathering.  Yes, you are a genius.  Now, is The Wizard of Oz still the traditional Thanksgiving movie?

 

FACT #2: WE EAT WITH OUR EYES, BUT FEEL FULL ON VOLUME.

In the book The Volumetrics Eating Plan by PhD Barbara Rolls, she discussed how you can make a ¼ hamburger look like the same amount (visual volume) as a ½ hamburger—by adding fixings to bulk it up—yet have significantly less calories.  Here’s the crazy thing—neither our eyes nor our stomach’s can tell the difference, and we feel just as full, even though we’ve consumed less calories.

Suppose just for a second, that’s true.  How can you use that info—that volume not calories fills us up—to enjoy Thanksgiving eating and not gain/minimize weight gain?  One way would be to fill your plate with more calorie light (not calorie dense) foods that take up space but don’t have a lot of calories.  1 cup of mixed greens for a salad is 20 calories, whereas 1 cup of brown rice is 216 calories, over 10 times that of the greens.  I’m not suggestion you don’t eat the good stuff, but I am saying that adding some calorie light food to fill your plate next to and around the good stuff might help you actually overeat less. 

Regardless of how you stack your plate this Thanksgiving, I encourage you to be mindful about what you're enjoying. Pay attention to how your body is actually feeling, so your pants don't have to tell you.

_________

Dr. Larry is residency trained and board certified in Family Medicine. He currently practices as an emergency physician, hospitalist and in the ICU. He is also the author of the forthcoming book The Gentleman’s Diet. You can learn more about Dr. Larry's take on healthy eating and exercise at www.doctorlarry.com.