Eat mindfully

The holidays are traditionally a time to indulge in great food -– mashed potatoes laced with butter, creamy cheeses, and rich desserts. And splurging a little isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What can expand your waistline — and make you feel overfull and groggy — is overeating. But new research can help you keep control over your eating, so that you can have your cake — and your health too.

Slow down

Advice to slow down when eating has been around for years. The theory is that it takes some time for the signal that you’re full to reach your awareness. New research conducted at the University of Rhode Island, presented at the North American Association for the Study of Obesity (NAASO)’s conference in 2006, seem to prove this dieting lore right.

In the study, 30 women made two visits to Melanson’s lab. Each time they were given a large plate of pasta and told to eat as much as they wanted. When they were told to eat quickly, they consumed 646 calories in nine minutes, but when they were encouraged to pause between bites and chew each mouthful 15 to 20 times, they ate just 579 calories in 29 minutes.

Thy also reported feeling more satiated at the end of the slower meal, and even an hour later. As well, the women said they enjoyed the meal more when they ate more slowly.

Watch (no, really, watch) your portion size

In his book Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink, Ph.D., of Cornell University, describes an experiment in his opening chapter. Moviegoers were offered a free bucket of popcorn, some large buckets, some medium, and some small. All of the popcorn was stale — relatively unappetizing, especially compared to holiday goodies.

After the movie they were asked about what they ate. Here’s his account of what happened:

“When the people who had been given the large buckets handed their leftover popcorn to us, we said, ‘Some people tonight were given medium-size buckets of popcorn, and others, like yourself, were given these large-size buckets. We have found that the average person who is given a large-size container eats more than if they are given a medium-size container. Do you think you ate more because you had the large size?’ Most disagreed. Many smugly said, ‘That wouldn’t happen to me,’ ‘Things like that don’t trick me,’ or ‘I’m pretty good at knowing when I’m full.’

That may be what they believed, but it is not what happened.


Weighing the buckets told us that the big-bucket group people ate an average of 173 more calories of popcorn.”

The lesson for holiday eaters? Use a small plate, and choose your fare carefully. It’s probably best not to sit in front of the chips and dip, or keep a platter right by your plate.

Dr. Wansink’s book provides a lot more information on the research into eating habits and how to apply it.

Get some rest

Travel and holiday activities like shopping and parties can really affect the amount of sleep you get at this time of year. But getting a good night’s sleep can also be important for your waistline.

A study presented at the 2004 Annual Scientific Meeting of the NAASO, by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Obesity Research Center, demonstrated a clear link between the risk of being obese and the number of hours of sleep each night. This remained true even after controlling for depression, physical activity, alcohol consumption, ethnicity, level of education, age and gender.

“The results are somewhat counterintuitive, since people who sleep less are naturally burning more calories,” said lead researcher James Gangwisch, a post-doctoral fellow in psychiatric epidemiology at Columbia University, in a NAASO press release. “But we think it has more to do with what happens to your body when you deprive it of sleep as opposed to the amount of physical activity that you get. Other studies have shown that leptin levels decrease and grehlin levels increase in people who are sleep-deprived, leading to increased appetite and consumption.”

Skip the sweet drinks

Eggnog is obviously a culprit when it comes to expanding waistlines. But other sweet drinks served around the holidays can contribute unnecessary calories to your diet. And if you continue to treat yourself to a sweetened beverage, you could impact your health over the long term.

“Soft drinks are the leading source of added sugar in the American diet. They provide a large amount of excess calories and no nutritional value,” said Matthias Schulze in a press released from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), lead author of the study. “Our results show that increasing one’s consumption of sugary soft drinks significantly increases the risk for weight gain and type 2 diabetes.” The study was published in the August 25, 2004 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

So consider choosing herbal tea — at least after the season is over. Happy holidays!

Photo © nautilus_shell_studios

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