- Kadheeja Wahid on eating mindfully this festive season
By Naveed Rozais
For many, Christmas is a time of celebration. While we Sri Lankans don’t always have logs on the fire and gifts on the tree, what we do have is food and family. This year, despite the turbulence of the economy and the prices of food, the season will still see many of us indulge in good food and (hopefully) excellent company.
The festive season is always a tasty time. It is also a time when many of us throw caution to the wind and employ the ‘see-food’ diet – when we see food, we eat it. From Christmas treats like Christmas cake, breudher, and other Christmas-specific confections, to the feasts that only Sri Lankans can put together for their family and friends, the season is known for big tables and even bigger spreads.
Then, of course, we moan about the toll the season has taken on us (and our waistlines) in the New Year, but does it really have to be like that? Why do we treat Christmas and the end of the year as a time of such epicurean abandon?
The Sunday Morning Brunch chatted with dietitian and nutritionist Kadheeja Wahid for some insight into how we view food and Christmas, and how we can eat mindfully this festive season.
How we approach food and the Christmas season
Christmas is a time when our values around food show themselves, and as Kadheeja shared, there were three main approaches to how we looked at food, each of which we see manifested in our friends and family around the season.
One was what Kadheeja called ‘The Last Supper Effect’. “This is where you decide to go on a diet in January, and you tell yourself, ‘This is my time to eat anything and everything on the plate because January is my diet time’ and this causes people to overeat more extremely than they would normally,” Kadheeja explained, adding that the other approach people took to food was ‘The Forbidden Fruit’ effect, where people labelled food as good or bad and avoided it all year, only to overindulge during the holiday season.
“When people restrict themselves and are then exposed to these yummy treats, they go crazy, saying ‘I’ve been good all year and now I can eat this’. The restriction they’ve put on themselves makes their cravings become much stronger and they end up eating 10 times more than they normally would.”
The third approach that causes many people to feel wrecked after the holidays is the ‘all-or-nothing’ approach they take when it comes to what to eat. “There can be this ‘I give up, there’s no point in life’ mindset around the holidays where people can make poor food and nutrition choices. For example, take chocolate – if it’s not something you eat normally, but you eat one row off a slab of chocolate because of a craving, you may then feel there’s no point to life because you’ve already broken your diet and then eat the whole slab,” Kadheeja explained.
This ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset when it comes to food can make people eat much more than they normally would around the holidays and this is purely mindset-based. Kadheeja noted that for many people, this mindset often set them up to fail when it came to making consistently healthy food and nutrition choices.
“People think if they’re not doing 25 different things, then they’re not really doing anything, and this leads them to do everything and be super strict about it, which can be quite restricting,” she said.
“It’s how we’re programmed as humans; we just don’t expect results unless we’re doing a lot of hard work, but making a few small choices doesn’t feel like hard work, so we give up. One or two changes to food and nutrition and how you approach it can have a great impact over the year.”
Sticking to these small choices as far as possible even during the Christmas season as opposed to giving up can make all the difference in making you feel more comfortable as well as preventing overeating. “These choices can be as small as continuing to eat veggies as usual when you’re eating at home, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, and sticking to your exercise schedule even if you’re not eating as you normally do,” Kadheeja said.
“Food has a big role to play at Christmas. It is at the centre of so many events, and this is not a bad thing. Food is meant to bring us together. That’s why these events are celebrated. We need to stop seeing them as something to be afraid of and see them as something good that binds us all together,” Kadheeja said.
Addressing how people made resolutions to diet or eat better in the new year, Kadheeja said that this was another manifestation of the ‘end of the world’ mindset that surrounded December and Christmas: “People are always looking for the perfect time to start improving food and nutrition. The perfect time doesn’t exist. All you’re doing is chasing time and waiting and planning without actually doing anything. There will always be something happening or something unexpected that will happen. Starting now means that you can improve, that you can tackle those occasions where you overeat better than you normally would.”
The peer pressure that surrounds eating at Christmas
We’ve all been to the Christmas party where you have aunties and uncles with their constant refrain of “Eat, putha, eat!” Even at gatherings with just friends, your host especially will push you to eat more. So how does one approach Christmas and the season while on a diet or while simply being careful of how much to eat?
Kadheeja shared that as a guest, if you were making specific food and nutrition choices, this was simply something you needed to stop stressing about. “Look at it as just lunch or dinner. Giving it so much power is what stresses you out. It is the overall pattern that affects you. One specific meal where you overindulge will not derail you. You will digest it by evening. It’s not going to set you back and make you gain 5 kg overnight.”
Breaking the mindset of needing to overeat is what will make for a healthier Christmas season. One common pitfall Kadheeja highlighted was the practice many had developed of starving themselves prior to a Christmas lunch or dinner.
“They won’t eat because they have this huge meal coming up. They will drink water the day before, and basically fast for a day or so before the meal, and then obviously they’re going to be very hungry at the event and end up eating 10 times more than they normally would and end up feeling very uncomfortable.”
The key is to maintain your normal approach to food during the Christmas season, Kadheeja stressed. Have your normal breakfast as you would on any other day, eat normal portions, maintain your exercise regimen (again, missing a day or two of exercise won’t be the end of the world unless you make it so), and treat the Christmas events and meals you go for like any other meal.
“You also don’t need to eat everything at these events,” Kadheeja said. “Generally, when you go to someone else’s house, you can’t control what they make for you, but you can control what you eat from what is available and how much of it. Figure out how to serve what they have made so you still have a balanced plate.
“Every meal has its key staples – some kind of carb, some veggies and greens, and some kinds of meat. Use those key food groups to serve your plate and be selective. You don’t have to eat all five kinds of meat or carbs that are being served. Pick two that you really like and balance your plate to create the most nutritious meal. The same goes for dessert. You don’t have to eat every dessert served. You can pick what you really like. For example, I myself like chocolate desserts, so I will go for that over the fruity desserts.”
One of the keys to adjusting how we approach food this season is focusing on what the season and its many gatherings are about – the people. Look at the Christmas spread as just a meal, and instead focus more on enjoying the people you’re with.
What about the pesky uncle or aunty who is mostly good-naturedly trying to force-feed you? Reassure them that their spread is, in fact, fantastic. When asked or forced to serve more, ask for five minutes, and then at the end of that five minutes decide if you really want to serve again or what you really want to eat from the spread available.
Overcoming the guilt that surrounds food during the season
The guilt we associate with overindulging during Christmas has less to do with how we view the season (though the end-of-the-world aspect of December does certainly play a role) and more to do with how we view food in general.
Kadheeja explained: “We give food so much power. Food doesn’t have a moral value. It’s not good or bad or mean or nice. It’s just food. We’ve created this guilt for ourselves because we think of it in black and white or good and bad. There is simply some food that is more nutrient-dense and some that is less, and we need to eat a healthy balance of both.”
There is a lot to be said about misleading marketing and the unnecessary labelling of certain foods as good, bad, or ‘superfoods,’ but Kadheeja said that ultimately, the power to break free of the guilt around food laid with each of us, in educating ourselves and in making small, consistent choices to improve our food and nutrition without restricting ourselves to the point where we lose restraint and overeat to the point of restarting the cycle of guilt.
As with all things, moderation is key, and Kadheeja shared a few tips about eating in moderation:
- Paying attention to our bodies
As babies, we cry when we are hungry and when we are full because our bodies tell us so. Over the years, most of us lose that ability to listen to our bodies, largely because of the trained food habits we adopt as we grow, and also because we’re constantly distracted. We need to get in touch with our appetite cues and let our bodies tell us when we’re hungry and when we’re full.
- Don’t restrict yourself or cut out certain foods completely
Cutting something out makes it forbidden fruit. It becomes that much harder to resist and you’re that much more likely to overindulge when you give in.
- Eat balanced meals
Your body needs lots of different foods to keep itself running at its peak. Grains, fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy (or meat and dairy alternatives for those who avoid meat and dairy). Nourish your body with a balance of these different groups. This will also lead to less powerful cravings and stronger focus.
- Take your time when eating
Eating slower helps you receive signals from your body more easily.
- Think about portions
This especially applies to food that comes from packets that are larger than one serving, like chips. Portion out a single serving into a bowl or plate. This will help you avoid overeating because you can’t see how much is left in the packet.
- Don’t eat out of habit or for comfort
Emotional eating hardly ever solves the actual problem. At most, emotional eating gives you short-term happiness, but because you overeat, this is replaced by discomfort, bloating, as well as the emotional toll of overeating. Instead, indulge in something else – pursue a hobby, journal, go for a walk, or look to practically solve the problem that is making you want to eat in the first place.
Christmas is a time of joy and togetherness, and of course, food, but how much power we give that food is up to us. Here’s to a more mindful food journey this Christmas.
You can contact Kadheeja Wahid at: