Navigating the season of excess
December 5, 2002
Occasional overindulgence in food and merriment can actually be good for your mental and emotional health.
It is freeing and exhilarating to throw caution to the wind and enjoy yourself thoroughly without applying the usual self-scrutiny and self-admonishment. And such lapses of discipline don’t have to be devastating to your physical health (or physique!) either, as long as you use common sense, incorporate exercise into your regimen, and balance bursts of excess with periods of intentional restraint.
Ayurveda, the time-honored science of longevity developed in India more than 5000 years ago, is a comprehensive series of practices and behaviors designed to optimize health and well being. What makes this particular program so appealing and achievable is its emphasis on moderation. Words such as “eliminate” and “avoid” are rarely if ever used; instead we are told to “favor” certain foods or activities and “reduce” others, according to our individual mind-body constitutions. We are also urged to make healthful shifts gradually and to treat ourselves patiently and gently as we move through the process, adopting some recommended changes readily, postponing others, and foregoing still others indefinitely.
Now that we’re in the throes of the annual season of gastronomic (and other) excess, I want to offer you a different perspective on how to fully participate in the festivities while maintaining control and minimizing or eliminating any major damage.
If you have a strong constitution and, especially, a good digestive system, you can overeat or stuff yourself on “all the wrong foods,” and your body will still be able to handle the “assault” without incident.
Although it may be somewhat overtaxed, a hearty system can temporarily rise to most any occasion, metabolizing and deriving some benefit from even the least nutritious foods.
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Problems arise, however, if you persist in the over-indulgence for an extended period without let-up. In such cases, you run the risk of depriving your body of the time, space and energy needed to replenish its resources, thereby overloading both your digestive and immune systems, and increasing your susceptibility to illness.
The key to successful, non-devastating over-indulgence, then, is to engage in it strategically, i.e. to avoid subjecting yourself to seriously self-destructive behavior.
First, if you have not yet incorporated an aerobic fitness regimen into your life, the ideal time to start is before and during the holidays, not after. Even if you feel you can only squeeze in a few miles of brisk walking a week, for every mile you walk you burn 80 – 100 calories, in addition to other constitutional benefits.
If you do already exercise regularly, make it a priority at least to maintain your current routine during the holidays. In addition, you might consider either adding an extra workout or two, or increasing the duration, speed and/or weights of your current routine, even if it means having to wake up half an hour earlier than usual for a few mornings.
Second, if you engage in full-scale gluttony on a particular occasion, try to eat a light, bland diet the following day or two.
A light, restorative diet consists of foods like dry toast, tea, applesauce, bananas, rice and vegetables. Steer clear of sugars, fats, dairy, white flour, caffeine and alcohol, and go easy on proteins. Most important, avoid the common “day after” pitfall of skipping meals, while instead grazing on leftover pecan pie, fudge, honey-baked ham, and holiday punch. Also, unless you have hypoglycemia or another condition making it unadvisable for you to do so, you might consider a short-term fast.
Fasting for a period of up to 24 hours can be an effective means of accelerating recovery and detoxification of an over-stressed digestive system.
Third, don’t fall into the common trap of rationalizing that, since you’ve already fallen off the wagon, you might as well continue to eat, drink and be merry, and then start off the new year with a huge crash diet. The more damage you do, the longer and harder it will be to overcome or correct it, and the more likely you are either to delay starting or to give up prematurely when the pound-shedding is a slower process than you’d anticipated.
Fourth, of course, if you are a recovering alcoholic or have problems with alcohol; if you are diabetic; if you have/are at risk for cardiac disease; or if you suffer from any other condition exacerbated by certain foods, adhere to your diet as closely as you can, perhaps allowing yourself to indulge in those areas that won’t seriously threaten your health.
Finally, if and when you do really “blow it,” go easy on yourself. Admit it, forgive yourself, forget it and move on. Continuing to beat up on yourself and dwell on your seasonal transgressions can actually backfire; the worse you feel, the more likely you are to overdo again, as a means to numb away these self-imposed feelings of self-recrimination!
So go ahead and delight in the season. As long as you intersperse bouts of over-indulgence with periods of deliberate restraint, and make time for some aerobic exercise, you can have wonderful holidays, and reap the mental, emotional and spiritual health benefits of pleasure and celebration. Remember, even excess can be practiced skillfully and with consciousness.
Hanria (Lily) Egan has a Master of Public Health from Harvard University, a Master of Business Administration from UC Riverside, and completed extensive post-graduate studies in holistic health at JFK University. She is also a certified Health Educator by Deepak Chopra’s Center for Well-Being. She lives at the north shore and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.