Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol was the book that persuaded me at the tender age of eleven that books without pictures could be magical. The miserly money-lender who brings misery to the lives of those he encounters is a great antihero and I enjoy witnessing his fall every time I watch the adaptations. I’ll be watching the Muppets’ version (currently my favourite!) in the next few days to get me in the mood for Christmas as I do every year.
You probably know the story – being visited by the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Scrooge comes face to face with events that led him to become so bitter and twisted, and with the current reality of life for his clerk Bob Cratchit. The final blow is being transported to a time after his own death, where he witnesses just how despised he has become.
Scrooge is totally freaked out and desperate to change, and – spoiler alert – he is redeemed as he discovers the joy to be found when generosity replaces meanness.
Past, present and future
The great thing about the story is that his transformation takes place without Scrooge actually leaving his bed. Everything happens in his imagination. In his dreams the spirits invite him to recall his past, observe present events and envisage future possibilities.
Much of how we live comes from how we think – how we remember, observe and imagine. And, believe it or not, much of how we eat comes from how we think.
Our minds constantly combine what we learned from the past, what’s happening in the present and what we’re aiming for in the future in order to guide our actions right now. When it comes to eating, these mental processes combine with an array of signals from our gut and brain to determine what, when and how much we eat.
‘Tis the season to be jolly
I’m writing here about Christmas because in my culture that is the biggest festivity of the year, but of course what I’m saying would apply for any big festival where there’s more food and drink around than usual.
Part of the fun of the festive season may be letting your hair down, indulging in treats you keep for this special time of year and enjoying seconds or thirds, meal after meal.
Enjoying your festive season to the max is a great idea, particularly as the pandemic grinds on and we have to adjust to changing rules and restrictions. But of course, overeating isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – not least because it blunts your taste perception. The more you eat, the more your sense of taste is dulled.
May your days be merry and bright
Here are my Christmas-Carol-like tips for getting more pleasure from your favourite festive foods…
The pleasure of remembering what you’ve enjoyed
Here we’re not so much talking distant childhood memories as what you had for lunch. When you recall food you really enjoyed recently, you’ll re-experience some of the pleasure too, especially if the meal was shared so the memory brings with it feelings of connection and love.
And looking back to lunchtime doesn’t just mean adding to the pleasure you got from eating it – a leading researcher on the psychology of appetite, Professor Suzanne Higgs, found that recalling what you ate for lunch a few hours after eating leads to less snacking. It seems that remembering what you ate earlier actually inhibits consumption partly through greater awareness of fullness. Here is my blog on this study which explains it a bit more.
The pleasure of focusing on what you’re eating right now
Paying attention to what you’re eating adds to your enjoyment. Using all your senses – your eyes and ears as well as your mouth – supercharges this effect. Concentrating on what we are eating makes a huge difference to how much we taste our food and to how much intensity and how much pleasure we get from each bite. People rate sweet, sour and salty drinks as less intense when they are engaged in a simultaneous task than when they are concentrating on what they’re drinking.
Simply slowing down your eating can help you focus more, and enhance both taste and pleasure. Slowing down also helps you eat less without trying as your gut and brain register increasing feelings of fullness.
A word of caution – when you savour some foods, they lose their appeal. As a client told me recently, her craving for Pringles has nose-dived since she started eating them slowly. Her pack-a-day habit lost its pull once she found them claggy if she kept chewing beyond the first couple of bites.
The pleasure of anticipation
Being able to look forward to something you know you’ll enjoy is part of the experience, and that’s as true of eating as it is of dreaming of a holiday in the sun.
Relishing the thought of a special meal with your favourite person, or just savouring the thought of what you might make for dinner can be pleasurable in itself, and like the other tips here, it’s calorie-free!
Your most sensual Christmas ever!
It’s a revelation to many of us that we can get more pleasure from what we actually eat by focusing on it fully while we’re eating, and relishing the memory and the prospect.
It’s easy to think that because the mouthful we’re eating is delicious, more mouthfuls will mean more bliss. But our taste buds operate a law of diminishing returns, and the first few bites are the best.
What do you think?
Do you have your own tip for increasing the joy of festive eating? I’d love to hear it if you do firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’d like to know more about maximising the pleasure you get from food whilst losing weight, my book, “How to Retrain Your Appetite: Lose weight eating all your favourite foods” takes you through the process, step by step
Photo by Caroline Hernandez for Unsplash