When it comes to eating healthy during the holidays, the focus tends to be on which foods are the lowest in calories or pack the biggest nutritional punch. Yet, if we want our body to efficiently digest and utilize all those nutrients, how we eat is just as important as what we eat.
Remember that where your focus goes, your energy flows. If you want your body to properly break down and assimilate the food that you’re feeding it, it helps to focus on what you’re eating. That way, your brain can put all its efforts into sending the appropriate signals to your digestive organs, instead of redirecting energy to other processes like speaking or walking. If you’re still shuttling items from the kitchen to the table, wait until you’re fully settled to start eating. If someone asks you a question mid-bite, wait until you’ve swallowed to answer; then, wait to take another bite until you’ve finished speaking. If you find yourself in the middle of a deep conversation, this might be a good time to pause between courses.
Since your sensory organs send information to your brain, paying attention to your physical senses is a great way to focus your mind and energy. Notice the colors and visual presentation of whatever is on your plate. Savor the aromas and flavors of each bite. Chew your food thoroughly and thoughtfully, noticing the feel and texture of the food in your mouth.
Keep in mind that your emotional state can also affect your digestion. If you’re upset or angry, your stomach may start to feel upset or heated too, as your acid levels rise and your body constricts. It’s, therefore, best to eat when you are in a calm and steady emotional state, but let’s be honest: that isn’t always possible, especially during the holidays when a lot of differing personalities and opinions gather around the table. If you get into a heated debate or political standoff with a relative during dinner, pause and take a few deep breaths into your belly, to relax your stomach and your nervous system, before continuing on with your meal. If that’s not enough, excuse yourself for a bathroom break, so that you can take longer to clear your mind and energy. You might try a calming breathing exercise, like Nadi Shodana or Equal Breathing, or do a quick grounding meditation.
Since our emotions have such a powerful impact on how we experience what we eat, choose foods that bring you comfort and joy. It’s okay to indulge in a piece of your favorite pie or that cozy casserole that was made with lots of cheese (and lots more love), but if you’re worrying about how it’s going to affect your waistline or beating yourself up for breaking your diet, you’re missing out on all the benefits. Allow yourself to enjoy what you’re eating and to savor the positive feelings that it evokes. Filling up on love and joy will do wonders for both your body and your spirit. Far more than a plate full of kale (and trust me, I love kale).
Here a few more quick tips to help you make the most of those holiday meals:
- Don’t drink too much with your meal…and I’m not just talking about alcohol. Too much of any liquid will dilute your digestive enzymes and weaken your digestive fire, which in Ayurveda, we call agni. Try to limit your intake to one glass at the most, and take small sips.
- If you are looking for spirits to make your holiday bright, I suggest sipping on a glass of red wine during dinner, because it has been proven to aid digestion through the release of nitric oxide, a chemical that relaxes the wall of the stomach.
- If you’ve been having digestive issues or food hasn’t been settling well lately, sip some ginger tea or chew a small handful of toasted fennel seeds before you eat. This will help stoke your digestive fire. On the other hand, if you feel heavy, sluggish or overstuffed after eating, sip some ginger tea or chew some fennel seeds after your meal.
- Take small bites, and make sure you chew your food thoroughly before swallowing. Digestion starts in the mouth.
- Eat slowly, and pause regularly to check in with your body to see if it’s still hungry and if it really wants or needs more of a particular food. You may find that you only need a bite or two of those mashed potatoes, but your body is craving a second helping of that steak…or vice versa.
- In Ayurveda, winter is Vata season. Vata is linked to the elements of air and ether and is, therefore, very dry in nature. You can balance this dryness by adding healthy fats and oils to your food. Vata is also balanced by foods that are warm, cooked and grounding (think root vegetables and hearty grains).
- Garnish your food with lots of fresh herbs, like rosemary, thyme, and basil, which not only add nutritional value but also have unique healing properties. Warming spices like cumin, coriander, cinnamon or nutmeg, which are known as carminatives, also help aid digestion and prevent gas.
May you enjoy the festivities and feasting!