Keen to avoid that sinking feeling that follows a holiday spent over-indulging? Natalie Filatoff offers practical solutions you can easily put in practice to curb the usual regret.
Once a year, we find ourselves at the ultimate grazing ground — the family Christmas table. As a celebration, it’s a time of extravagance so most of us eat more than we should. But before you chastise yourself for past indulgences, consider this: your wobbly willpower is not entirely to blame. During the festive season, your good intentions, self-control and sense of satiety (the feeling that you’ve eaten enough) can be overwhelmed by ‘external food cues’.
Dr Lenny Vartanian, who studies the psychology of eating at the University of New South Wales, has examined the social signals and food forces at work on our appetites. Earlier this year, his research revealed that mindful eating is virtually powerless against the lure of large portions of food. At Christmas, explains Dr Vartanian, all of the triggers that can push people to overeat occur at the same time — colliding to create a ‘perfect storm’ of consumption cues.
But if you’re aware of the psychological impact of external food cues, you can have your turkey and eat some of the trimmings, too. You just need to take a few simple steps to curb the overabundance of food — not the specialness of the occasion. Whether you’re host or guest this year, here’s how to enjoy the silly season and keep extra kilos at bay.
Issue: Social eating
When we dine with other people, we tend to eat more, says Dr Vartanian. And at Christmas, we are often surrounded not only by more friends and family members than usual, but also — for extended periods of time — by food.
“The more we linger at the table, the more likely we are to keep eating,” says Dr Vartanian. This is especially true if food is still sitting on the table when everyone has had enough, but even more behavioural powers are at play.
Professor Brian Wansink of New York’s Cornell University is noted for his research into mindful eating, particularly the way people often overeat when they’re not paying attention. His studies show that when serving dishes are left on the table in group situations, women eat about 10 per cent more, and men eat roughly 29 per cent more. Why? Professor Wansink says it is because men tend to eat quickly, finish a meal, and, while impatiently waiting for others to catch up, frequently help themselves to seconds and thirds.
Smart strategy when…
You’re the host: Your guests have finished eating, gently urge people to move outside or into another room to continue the conversation, or enjoy a group walk down to the park before dessert.
You’re a guest: Focus on and take pleasure in the company of your fellow guests. Put your cutlery down while talking or listening.
Issue: Special food
Most of us eat certain foods only at Christmas. Yet delicacies such as roast turkey, passionfruit pavlova and a flame-topped fruit pudding aren’t the only Christmas treats. Picture yourself at the festively decorated table, eyeing the pleasing display of foods and using the ‘good’ plates and glassware. All of these factors lift our expectation and our anticipation that the food will taste amazing. In one study, Professor Wansink found that when people were offered a piece of the same chocolate brownie on a napkin, on a paper plate and on a piece of Wedgwood china, they thought it tasted far better when they ate from the china plate. For most of us, the signs that flag a special occasion can prompt us to let our guard down.
Dr Vartanian notes that it would be all right if we ate to excess “only at Christmas lunch or dinner — it’s just one day”. But when we eat the same way over the entire holiday season, and buy so much scrumptious food that we’ve got rich pickings for a week or more, we’re bound to incrementally gain weight that’s hard to shift come new year. As Dr Vartanian says, “the ideal solution is to restructure our environment to make the whole season healthier for everyone.”
Smart strategy when…
You’re the host: Emphasise quality over quantity. Your family loves the way you do turkey? Then make your own gravy and give the bird pride of place on the table. When one sensational dish satisfies people, there’s no need to offer them multiple mains. Try offering several brightly coloured vege side dishes instead.
You’re a guest: Really savour your favourite Christmas fare, then plate up healthy-size portions on Boxing Day, starting with your usual breakfast.
At Christmas, you often feel you should spoil all of your guests with more than one special main course — remember that unaccompanied (though tasty!) turkey? — so you tend to glaze a ham as well. And a prawn can’t make an appearance without a seafood platter. Plus, what should we serve those guests who dislike pudding? Well, we can bake pavlova and biscuits and offer an assortment of chocolates, and so, sumptuously, on.
It’s important to realise that we’re all susceptible to sensory-specific satiety, a phenomenon that explains why we get bored with eating the same food.
“If you’re offered only one food, you’re going to eat only so much of it,” says Dr Vartanian. But being presented with a variety of tempting edibles encourages you to keep sampling long after you’ve eaten enough, and to continue eating even when your tummy is bursting. Variety attracts us to such an extent that researchers have found we will eat more sweets if they come in different colours, or more pasta if it comes in different shapes. And Christmas only compounds this tricky syndrome, especially when the buffet boasts eight to 12 different dishes, or more.
Smart strategy when…
You’re the host: Plan your Christmas feast well in advance, choosing just a few seasonal foods that you know taste great together. When you shop, stick to your list and resist last-minute impulse buys. An elegant approach is to serve just one flavour-rich appetiser with drinks, whether it’s savoury tarts, beautiful olives or quince paste with a perfectly ripe cheese. For the entrée, serve a platter of fresh prawns with avocado and lemon wedges. If you present one food with flair, it will look just as festive as a more lavish spread.
You’re a guest: At each course, choose one or two of the most appealing foods and really savour them. It all looks good? Have a tiny taste of everything and even a small second serve of your favourite. This way, you won’t be missing out on anything, except for that overstuffed feeling!
Issue: Volume of food
When we’re estimating the volume of food we need to cook at Christmas, our sense of hospitality can override what we know is reasonable.
“Our natural inclination is to take care of people by giving them food,” explains Dr Vartanian, so serving more food is our way of showing how much we care.
What’s more, sitting at the chock-full Christmas table can loosen your usual restraint.
“Having a lot of food in front of you creates a norm that makes it OK to eat more,” says Dr Vartanian. A bounty of food is the cue that “people are welcome to have as much as they like.”
Smart strategy when…
You’re the host: Planning ahead can help. Cater only for the maximum number of people you’re expecting. Plating up hot food in the kitchen and letting people serve their own greens at the table will discourage mindless picking.
You’re a guest: Before reaching for seconds, try taking a time-out. Stand up and move around with purpose: fill other people’s water glasses or help the kids set up a game in the living room. By giving your body time to digest the dinner and register a feeling of fullness, you might return to the table for a second helping, only to find that one delicious serve was satisfying enough.
Issue: Other people
Here’s a cue to eat that can go either way: our immediate table companions can influence both the amount of food we serve ourselves and how quickly or slowly we eat it.
“We mimic the behaviour of the people with whom we are eating,” says Dr Vartanian. “Being with someone who’s eating a lot gives us permission to eat much more than we usually would. In contrast, somebody picking at their lettuce leaves sends a signal that it’s unacceptable to overeat.”
Smart strategy when…
You’re eating: During the festivities, sit next to someone whom you know has healthy eating habits and enjoys sensible portions, and follow suit. (Enjoy the company of your cousin with the ravenous appetite when the meal is over!)
Tips for indulging… the healthy way
Eat what you really want first
Faced with a buffet or spread, resist the temptation to start filling your plate from the beginning of the table. Before you start, pause for a moment to look at all that’s on offer. Decide the three things you’re going to enjoy most then head straight for them. You’ll save hundreds of kilojoules in things you don’t really want, and enjoy eating what you really love.
Once you’ve chosen what to eat, step away from the food. As our story reports, when food is within easy reach we’re prone to mindlessly graze. That goes just as much for finger food, or that bowl of corn chips as for a sit down banquet.
Train your eyes to recognise a healthy portion
Whenever you’re serving yourself, mentally use the ‘ideal plate’ as your guide: a quarter meat or other protein, a quarter potato or other carbs, and half leafy greens and other low-kJ vegetables. Keep to that rule and if you’re hungry pile that plate with lashings of salad or low-kJ vegetables. The ideal serving of a portion of meat is roughly the size of your palm, so try to keep to that whether serving up a roast or a steak from the barbecue.
Consider the size of your plate
It’s a fact that the bigger the plate, the more we put on it. Professor Wansink has found that if you use a 10-inch plate instead of a 12-inch plate you’ll serve yourself 22 per cent less food. Also, you’ll serve less if you use a typical desert spoon rather than a large serving spoon.
Pour drinks in a tall glass
Research has shown we think we’re drinking more out of a long skinny glass, as we focus on the height not the width of the glass. So changing your glass can help slow down your intake of alcohol and liquid kilojoules.
The bottom line
In a nutshell, both Dr Vartanian and Professor Wansink emphasise that it’s easier to change your environment than to change your mind. So this Christmas, consider implementing some of these simple ways to control your surroundings, and make them your first steps towards a happy — and healthy — new year.