How to mindfully eat during the holiday season: A conversation with TAMUC's registered dietician
By Rachel McShane, Texas A&M University - Commerce
Dec 19, 2023
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Commerce, Texas -- The holiday seasonóthat sweet spot from Thanksgiving to Christmasóoffers an abundance of mouthwatering dishes. Think turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes with gravy, rich and cheesy casseroles, and, of course, all of those sweet, sweet pies. Are you drooling yet?

While holiday food is delectable, the aftermath isn't always as satisfying. Maybe you can relate to the post-Thanksgiving tummy ache and feelings of regret. While the holidays and all their rich foods are kind to our taste buds, they can sometimes feel unkind to the rest of our body. So, how do we partake in the feast of rich foods and sugary desserts while also caring for ourselves?

We sat down with Kara Nemethy, registered dietician in the Campus Recreation department at A&M-Commerce, to get her expertise and advice on mindfully caring for our health without missing out on all the holiday tastiness!

Kara Nemethy

Q&A with Kara

(Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

Rachel McShane: Tell us first about your background in nutrition and what you do on campus.

Kara Nemethy: I am a registered dietician. Iíve been one since 2015, and I originally came from the Women Infants and Children (or WIC) program, a supplemental food program for children and their families. I worked there for about 15 years, so most of my experience has been with public health. I started at A&M-Commerce in January of 2022 as a registered dietician with Campus Recreation to create a nutrition program. I offer a variety of food-related events like cooking classes, demonstrations, hands-on workshops, and individual nutrition counseling to students.

RM: Wow! I didnít even know these services were offered on campus!

KN: Yes, itís pretty new! You can read about the different programs I offer on the Nutrition page of the university's website. 

RM: When we think about Thanksgiving, Christmas and holidays in general, we think a lot about the food: rich, heavy and sweet. Is it really so bad to indulge in these foods and potentially overeat at holiday meals?

KN: Well, I think the holidays are a time for us to enjoy family and friends, and itís important to be aware of what you're eating but not focus on it too much or feel guilt or shame if you overeat. Of course, you want to be careful about certain things, but again, these are things you should be mindful of year-round. For instance, try to consume added sugar and saturated fat in moderation. And stay away from trans fats as much as possible. But, you know, when it comes to the holidays, itís a time to enjoy our family and enjoy the food that brings people together! Eat things you want!

RM: Are there any ďbadĒ foods we should avoid altogether?

KN: You know, I donít like to demonize any food. I just donít think thatís something we should do. Like I said, yes, some foods are high in sugar and saturated fats, and you shouldnít have a whole lot of either. But when you find yourself in a mindset of avoiding all those kinds of foods at all costs, youíll get into a restrictive eating pattern that can cause you to develop a harmful relationship with food down the road and could possibly lead to disordered eating patterns.

RM: I like what you said about not demonizing food or saying food is bad. But there are certainly good foods, right? What are some good, healthy foods we should lean towards or maybe put a little more of on our plates?

KN: Yeah, of course! Thatís actually a great point: Focus on adding things that are good for you instead of focusing on taking things away that might not be so healthy. Whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and lean proteins are all good foods we should enjoy not only during the holidays, but year-round!

The government publishes an illustration called My Plate, which has replaced the old food pyramid many of us grew up with. Basically, My Plate says your plate should be 50% fruits or veggies, 25% grains (whole is ideal), and 25% protein. Thatís possible to achieve, even during the holidays! For example, you could add roasted vegetables to your plate or add extra veggies when you make your stuffing. If youíre serving a cheeseboard, try adding some nuts and almonds or walnuts and seeds, and be sure to snack on those as well because theyíre good sources of protein and fat. Itís okay to have sweets and rich foods, but balance them with healthy things. Just be mindful of whatís on your plate, including how much of each type of food.

RM: Youíve used the word ďmindfulĒ a lot. Iíve heard the term ďmindful eatingĒ quite a bit, too. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

KN: Yes! Mindful eating is just basically an extension of the concept of mindfulness. It encourages people to focus on the sensory experience of food, as well as their thoughts and feelings. So, if Iím eating an apple, rather than just looking at my phone and eating the apple and not thinking about it, I would savor it. I might think about the crispness of the bite, or the flavor, or the sweetness, or how it feels on my tongue. I might even think beyond that, like where the apple came from, how it was grown, what state it is from, the tree itself, things like that. Mindful eating is considering aspects beyond the food itself and considering where that food came from. Itís also about thinking about your hunger cues and recognizing when your body is full versus not full. It takes a little bit of time for that message of fullness to get to the brain, so sometimes we can overeat and not know it. So, itís important to listen to your body and ask yourself, ďAm I just continuing to eat this because Iím zoning out or watching TV, or am I eating because Iím hungry and need this nourishment?Ē

RM: Thatís such helpful information! But around the holidays, there can be lots of stimulation around a table. We might not be alone, so it might be hard to think about the ďcrispness of the appleĒ when someone is right there talking to us. How can we still practice mindful eating in such a busy setting?

KN: Thatís a great question! When it comes to the holidays, there might be lots of different stressors and feelings that come up for you, so carrying some tools in your bag can be helpful so you aren't coping by mindlessly eating food. Make sure to sit down when you eatódonít just walk around and roam. Put your phone away, turn off the TV, and donít put a screen in front of you. Engage in conversation. And portion your food! Itís easy to mindlessly eat when you have a bag or box of something, and itís right there with you.

RM: Oh man, I understand that! I can sit in front of the TV and eat an entire bag of chips before I even know what happened!

KN: Oh yeah, we all can!

RM: Do you have any other tips and advice for how we can enjoy food and treats during the holiday season but still manage to take care of ourselves and be kind to our bodies?

KN: I think you just said it: be kind to your body and yourself. Donít let yourself feel guilty for enjoying the holidays. Take the time to relax and celebrate and be present with family and friends. Just be present when it comes to eating, too, and think about it. Also, donít pressure yourself. It doesnít have to all happen at once; mindful eating takes practice. Remember: be forgiving of yourself. Enjoy the food you enjoy, and donít punish yourself or restrict yourself too much. Just eat as mindfully and healthfully as possible andómost importantlyósavor the memories with your family and friends!

Rachel McShane is a graduate assistant communications specialist for the Office of Marketing and Communications at Texas A&M University-Commerce.