One simple rule for healthy holiday eating: ‘Pay attention’

One simple rule for healthy holiday eating: ‘Pay attention’

Laurence NolanThe holidays are a happy time of year for many people, filled with family gatherings and friendly get togethers — often over a dinner table stocked to overflowing with rich, seasonal delicacies.

The big question for those concerned with healthy eating is, How do I make it from Thanksgiving to New Year’s without exploding?

For advice, we turned to Dr. Laurence J. Nolan, a psychology professor at Wagner College on Staten Island who specializes in the study of eating behavior.

Dr. Nolan said that, based on the research, he had one simple suggestion: Pay attention.

“Try to be aware of what’s going on with holiday meals and the way you’re eating,” he said. “Research shows that a strict deprivation regimen won’t do much to help you keep off the holiday pounds — but paying attention will.”

What does he mean?

Well, let’s start with the basics. Research studies have demonstrated that people eat more under two conditions: when they’re around others who are eating more, and when they’re served more — both basic conditions of holiday eating, right?

“The trick to short circuiting the natural connection between these conditions and overeating, however, is relatively simple: If you are aware of them, you tend not to eat as much as you otherwise would,” Dr. Nolan said.

“For instance, if you are aware that large servings tend to encourage overeating, you can serve yourself instead of allowing someone else to serve you. You’ll have better control of your portion size, and as a result you will be less likely to overeat.

“And take a moment to observe the way those around you are eating. Overeating by others tends to serve as ‘permission’ to overeat yourself — except when you’re aware of it.”

Awareness is a powerful thing, said Dr. Nolan. As an example, he cited a recent study of eating behaviors of college students, who are notoriously prone to weight gain during their first year — the “Freshman 15,” some call it,  though all the research suggests that, at most, students gain about 6 or 7 pounds (not 15) when they start college. In this study, the students weighed themselves each day on a scale linked electronically to a lab. When some students started gaining weight, the lab automatically sent them an e-mail telling them so; others received no feedback at all. The students who received the e-mails tended to drop the weight they had gained, with no further intervention.

“Don’t deprive yourself of the holiday foods you enjoy,” said Dr. Nolan. “That will only set up a craving that will make it even more difficult to avoid overeating. Instead, go ahead and enjoy the holiday foods you like — just eat less of them, and pay attention to what and how much you are eating.”

Happy holidays!