The holiday season is filled with emotion for most people. While this emotion is often happy, positive and loving, for many people it can be very unhappy and even depressing. Holiday music can trigger emotional associations with the absence of a loved one or unhappy memories from the past. The gap between the smiling faces of holiday ads and one’s unhappy emotional experience can actually lead to a deepening of the emotional darkness that often accompanies this season of lights.



As you approach the new year, you may be making resolutions for positive health behavior changes. Birthdays and other anniversaries also prompt us to take stock and vow to adopt healthy lifestyle habits. Two of the most common promises we make to ourselves are to increase our physical activity level and our stress management skills. Research is now showing that combining mindfulness meditation and physical activity can dramatically improve physical and emotional health.



In addition to cold weather, winter sometimes brings sadness and depression.  Some people experience depression only during the winter. Others with year-round depression have worsening symptoms in winter. Terms such as “winter blues,” “wintertime depression” and “winter-onset depression” refer to a potentially serious form of depression called “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD), which affects people during the coldest and (most importantly) darkest months of the year.


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What to Eat?

The world's leading nutrition researchers are sending a very clear public health message based on the best scientific evidence available: To promote health, prevent disease and extend life, half your food servings should come from fruits and vegetables. For more than 70 years, the Department of Nutrition of the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) has conducted rigorous scientific research on the relationship between food and health.

HSPH researchers agree the healthiest eating plan includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, focusing on a "rainbow " of colors (dark green, red, yellow, orange) to provide abundant amounts of antioxidants and phytonutrients, both known to have special health- promoting and disease-preventing properties. HSPH researchers created the Healthy Eating Plate as a science-based guide that recommends a dietary approach to protect against cancer, heart disease, high  blood pressure, digestive problems and other chronic medical conditions.

These same researchers recently published new results from the world's oldest and largest ongoing health research projects, the Nurse's Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. Comparing dietary protein sources, they found high dietary animal protein intake,

especially from processed red meat, was linked to earlier death. Higher plant protein intake was linked to longer life. These lifespan differences were most striking for individuals with at least one lifestyle risk factor, such as smoking, physical inactivity, obesity and alcohol use.

These research results are clearly illustrated in the protein section of HSPH's Healthy Eating Plate, which advises you to favor fish, poultry, beans and nuts while limiting red meat and cheese and completely avoiding bacon, cold cuts and other processed meats.

This message was recently dramatized by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which classified processed meat as a carcinogen (something that causes cancer). Processed meats include hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage and some deli meats. It refers to meat that has been salted, cured, fermented and smoked to preserve or flavor it. The IARC also classified red meat (beef, pork, lamb and goat) as a probable carcinogen (something that probably causes cancer).

How to Eat?

Mindfulness is the world's leading behavioral, mind-body practice for promoting health, managing stress-related chronic conditions and enriching your experience of being alive. Mindful eating and food preparation can be important ingredients in your overall practice of mindful living and enhance your overall relationship with food - its production, distribution, preparation and consumption. Those with eating-related conditions such as overweight, obesity, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge-eating disorders, body-image disorders and night-eating syndrome can also benefit by including mindful eating in an overall treatment plan.

A useful review of the various ways to conceive of hunger is offered by Jan Chozen Bays in her book Mindful Eating - A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food. Based on her work as a pediatrician and mindfulness meditation teacher, Chozen helps patients and families reconnect with health-promoting, physiologically based hunger signals and avoid the temptation of false appetites. Bays describes seven types of hunger:

1. Eye hunger: Your emotional appetite and physical hunger are strongly influenced by sight and visual presentation. To avoid overeating and to satisfy eye hunger, intentionally appreciate the visual appearance of your food as you begin to eat.

2. Nose hunger: Remember how you begin salivating at the smell of food? Much of your sensation of taste comes from your sense of smell rather than your taste buds. Honor this aspect of your eating experience by focusing on the smell of the food you are about to eat.

3. Mouth hunger: So many of your preferred tastes are socially conditioned from your family and acquired eating habits. How would your food taste with less sweet, salty or spicy condiments? Can you eat with curiosity, openness and experimentation as you add more or fewer amounts of different spices and seasonings? Observing your eating experience this way can put you in charge of your food consumption.  You are less likely to be a victim of your old habits and preferences.

4. Stomach hunger: Abdominal rumbling and growling may suggest hunger when the body doesn't need to eat. These sensations may reflect stress, anxiety or an artificial eating schedule you may have developed out of social convenience more than physiological need. Listen to overall hunger cues before trusting stomach hunger.

5. Cullular hunger: This is the underlying physiological need hunger and eating addresses. Becoming more attuned to your body through body-scan meditation and other mindfulness practices can put you back in touch with this deeply physiological "true" hunger.

6. Mind hunger: Your food choices may sometimes be driven more by advertising and fad diets than your true body needs. Pay attention to your food as you eat. Avoid eating while watching television. If you typically eat with family, practice attending to mind hunger by eating some meals alone and really tuning in to the full experience - physical, mental and emotional.

7. Heart hunger: Your eating choices may sometimes be driven by a desire for comfort foods and feeding emotional needs that you can address in a healthier way. A hot bath with candlelight, journaling, talking with a good friend or walking in nature are low calorie/high nutrition options for feeding heart hunger.

Practical, ancient meditation practices and modern scientific research can be combined to help you achieve a healthy mind and healthy body through mindful eating. A detailed description of Mindful Eating Instructions can be found on my Mind Body Studio Website

Sources and Resources:

Mindful Eating - A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food. Jan Chozen Bays, M.D.

The Nutrition Source. Harvard School of Public.


Dr. John Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is board certified in family medicine and integrative holistic medicine. He is on the family practice faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the University of Louisville School of Medicine, Saybrook University’s School of Mind Body Medicine (San Francisco) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, D.C.). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers integrative medicine consultations

more articles by dr john patterson