Eating well over the holidays can be tricky. This holiday season is going to be different for most of us in our current state of affairs, but we can still be mindful in the food choices we make to keep us healthy.
What is eating well anyway?
In Ayurveda, it depends. Each person is different, made up of a different balance of the five elements, different life experience, different family history, and so all foods can either be a poison or medicine depending on the individual. Some people may be able to tolerate chili peppers without any digestive upset, whereas others may break out in hives, or have acid indigestion, etc. Eating well in Ayurveda is all about maintaining good digestion to support our immune system and body functions.
Healthy eating is more than just giving up cookies. In fact, having cookies can be part of a healthy diet. The foods we choose to consume are just as much about our mental state as our physical state. Sometimes we may feel bored and decide we need a cookie. Or we may feel sad so we reach for some cake. Being aware of your emotions and mental wellbeing is critical for creating and maintaining healthy eating habits. Perhaps if you are bored, you may do well with a glass of water. If you feel sad, perhaps a hug from a loved one or watching your favorite movie will satiate your need.
Optimal health and eating well in Ayurveda are all about maintaining a healthy digestive system: urination is not foul smelling and is a light yellow color, and occurs regularly about every 3-4 hours; bowel movements occur at least once per day and first thing in the morning, ideally 1-3 times per day, are the consistency and size of a ripe banana, are a good brown color, and are not oily or dry. It’s not pretty taking about our body’s elimination, but we can learn a lot about how well or GI system is working be examining our excretions. If your urine is bright yellow and occurs 2-3 times per day, you may not be consuming enough liquids. If your bowel movements are hard, painful, or do not occur at least once per day, you may not be getting enough vitamins and minerals or other necessary nutrients.
How do we know if a food is poison or medicine?
It is all an experiment with foods and a deep awareness in how they affect your physiology. Does eating yogurt with fruit on it give you gas? When you eat eggs do you feel lethargic or energized? When you eat raw vegetables do you feel bloated or unbothered? Once it is determined if the body digests something well or not, it becomes a mental practice. Is it worth it to me to feel this particular to continue eating the thing(s) that make me feel like this? This is where discipline and practice come in with a dash of compassion and forgiveness.
It isn’t “healthy” to restrict things because we “think”we should. If know something is bad for us, and it is not just limited to food, and we continue to consume it or participate in that activity, this is more about the strength of our mind. If I know when I eat cream cheese I will wake up the next morning with nasal congestion and mucus in my throat, I have to decide if I want to eat the cream cheese and feel that way the next day. Or, do I want to skip the cream cheese and wake up the next day with clear sinuses and throat? Sometimes it is worth it, like if we are celebrating a loved one with a lovingly made cake with cream cheese frosting. Sometimes it’s not, like if I plan to go for a swim the next day and need to be able to breathe clearly.
Tips To Eat Well This Holiday Season
Here are some easy ways you can ensure you eat well over the upcoming holidays, and year round, to help keep your immunity and energy up, and your digestion moving smoothly.
- Make lunch your largest meal.
Our digestion is the strongest in the middle of the day, so it can help with better sleep, better digestion, and overall mood if you eat your largest meal at lunch time. If you know you are going to a dinner party later in the evening, keep lunch light.
- Skip a meal if you aren’t hungry or plan to eat a larger meal than normal.
It is important to be hungry when you eat a meal. If you are hungry your body releases gastric fluids to help you digest your food. If you aren’t hungry and you eat food, your body will have a difficult time breaking down what you eat because the appropriate fluids and enzymes are not available to break the food down. If you know you are going to have a larger than normal dinner, your digestion may benefit from skipping lunch before or breakfast the next day, or making those meals very light.
- Eat and drink enough during your meal to feel satiated and not full.
It is a good idea not to eat so much you feel full. In general, see if you are able to consume food and drink during your meal to fill you 3/4 of the way full. Generally we want each meal to fill our stomach half full with food and one quarter full with liquid or drink.
- Have dessert as part of your meal.
If you are planning to have dessert, which you are because the holidays offer some of the most delicious desserts, do your best to leave room for it as part of your meal and don’t eat so much that you feel full and have dessert a few hours later
- Eat a plant-based diet.
Ayurveda promotes a plant-based diet of whole foods. With an Ayurvedic diet, meat is used only when needed to support bones or muscles, or if a person’s particular constitution requires it for optimal health and safety. Most people can get all the essential vitamins and minerals they need from fruits, vegetables, and legumes when consumed as part of a balanced diet.
- Don’t eat a minimum of 2 hours before bed time.
It takes most foods 2-6 hours to fully digest. If we eat right before bed or in the middle of the night, our body is busy working to digest the food instead of resting and may cause restless sleep.
- Avoid snacking.
Because it takes most foods 2-6 hours to digest, snacking can lead to indigestion, stomach upset, gas, bloating, or other GI discomfort. The reason for this is because when we eat hydrochloric acid is released in our stomach to break down the foods we eat to be absorbed through our small intestine as vitamins and minerals. Hydrochloric acid, along with other digestive enzymes, is considered our digestive fire, or agni in Ayurveda. This is like a real fire, if we put logs on it, it will burn evenly. If we then put four more logs on before the first logs have caught and are becoming embers, we may put out the fire. If we constantly put food in our stomach without allowing it to be fully digested, it may cause gas, bloating, and or GI distress. If you are hungry, you should eat, and some people benefit from frequent small meals. If you need to snack, consider foods that digest quickly and easily like fruit.
- Reduce or eliminate cold drinks with meals.
Similar to snacking, if we put something cold in our stomach with the rest of our meal, it will dampen the ability of the stomach to fully digest what is consumed. Room temperature or warm drinks are best with meals. If you love iced beverages, keep them for in between meals as best you can.
It’s important to keep in mind everyone’s digestion is different. These are basic tips to help you keep on track with healthy eating this holiday season and year round. Remember, healthy eating means you easily digest the foods you consume. In Ayurveda we like to encourage the 80/20 rule. If 80% of the time you have good digestion and 20% of the time you eat your favorite snack and have a little gas, then you’re doing great! Being perfect is boring, and we want to enjoy the life we live. So get out there and enjoy your pumpkin pie! (But as part of your meal.)