Pasta, Salad and Pie, Oh My!
The holiday season is almost here! For many of us, facing an abundance of food and chaotic family gatherings can be stressful, which may affect the way we approach the dining table. Understanding how we eat can go a long way in creating a satisfying holiday meal experience — and maybe even eliminate the need for New Year’s resolutions.
“Each day we make 200 to 250 food-related decisions; some we’re aware of, some we aren’t,” says Mark Blegen, associate dean of the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health and chair of the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. “Often we ask ourselves, ‘Why am I eating this?’ and the answer is usually ‘because it’s there.’”
Environment, psychology and genetics all play a role in determining how and why an individual eats. And much of this, as Blegen confirms, happens entirely unbeknownst to us. Take the number of people you’re with. You will consume more food when you’re eating with one to seven people. After that, your intake plateaus.
“Seven people is where it seems to level off,” he says. “Eating with familiar people can extend eating time, and you can pick up cues from others, like, ‘they’re eating more so I will too.’”
As a society, we are eating more. Over the past 40 years, the traditional three meals a day around the table has given way to a culture of snacking and convenience. Food access is definitely a culprit in how food is consumed, says Holly Willis, director of nutrition and dietetics at St. Kate’s. “We’ve accepted that it’s okay to buy food at the gas station or eat during a work meeting, or even while walking down the street. So this [culture shift] has definitely influenced how we eat, why we eat and when we eat,” she says.
Hunger sometimes has little to do with why we eat.
“We live in a culture where hunger is viewed as bad — that people should be comfortable, and have whatever food is needed to be comfortable,” says Willis. She adds, “Food also has become a tool for handling emotions, whether it’s eating more because of stress or not eating at all because of stress.”
These cultural norms, combined with a rise in convenience food and other external factors, can be a recipe for overeating. Luckily, Blegen and Willis offer easy tips to manage these factors during the holidays — and all year long!
If you are preparing the meal, make a list before shopping — and stick to it.
Grocery store environments play into the psychology of eating in numerous ways, from the variety of items offered to attractive snack displays on aisle end-caps, and from lighting to the music playing overhead.
“The slower the beat, the slower you walk. The slower you walk, the more food you see; and the more food you see, the more food you buy,” says Blegen. And it’s no coincidence that staples like eggs and milk are often placed in the back of the store, he adds. “You have to walk by aisles and aisles of other goodies first.”
Use smaller plates and utensils, including serving utensils and glasses.
This is the easiest way to trick your brain into portion control. “There’s a tendency to want to fill up that plate and psychology behind wanting that glass full. So if we have smaller plates and cups and utensils, we tend to eat less,” says Blegen.
Think “nourishing” rather than “healthy.”
“I think people tend to get hung up on the word ‘healthy’ and get sucked into a cycle of bad versus good, which plays into a reward system,” explains Willis. “Grandma’s pumpkin pie can certainly be nourishing, when eaten in the right proportions.” She suggests focusing instead on balance and moderation. Which leads to the next point…
Build your plate with nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits first.
“No matter what your unique dietary circumstances are, veggies and fruit are always a great, nourishing choice,” says Willis. Fill out your plate with smaller portions of other items, like Dad’s juicy turkey or Grandma’s famous pumpkin pie!
Keep food away from the table; put pitchers of water there instead.
“Serve buffet style with the food in a different room, or put the serving dishes away once they’ve gone around the table,” says Blegen. Otherwise, there’s a tendency to graze without thinking. Want to drink more water with your meals? Put a pitcher of it on the table. In food environment terminology, this is called “reducing the friction.” “Increase the friction to what you don’t want to eat, and decrease the friction to what you do want to consume,” he explains.
Be aware of the “pace car.”
“Most families have a pace car — someone who eats pretty quickly. If you sit next to that person, you tend to pick up your pace,” says Blegen. How fast we eat can impact how much we eat. So think slow and steady. Give your brain and stomach a chance to connect and catch up.
Take time to reflect and give thanks for the food itself.
Pausing for reflection can influence mindfulness and therefore impact the amount eaten. “Recognize the sacredness of eating and give thanks. This food went through so many hands to get to your table: the farmers who grew and harvested it, the workers in the production facilities and grocery stores, the family members who prepared it,” says Willis.
So take a deep breath, celebrate time with loved ones, give thanks for life’s blessings and dig in!