Our lives are becoming ever more increasingly busy. It seems as though we have more and more things to do and less time to do them. Multitasking has become a survival tool, with eating being the easiest action to integrate into something else. We eat while driving, working at our desks, on a conference call. We so often eat while doing other things that we generally don’t even remember what we ate. What we put into our bodies and why is extremely important to our mental and physical health. That is where mindful eating becomes important. Paying attention to what you are eating, why you are eating and where it came from can have profound impacts on the food choices that you make. If one decision can have positive effects on your mental health, physical health and the health of the planet wouldn’t you want to make that choice?
Multitasking and eating is a recipe for not being able to listen deeply to our body’s needs and wants. We’ve all had the experience of going to the movies with a bag of popcorn and at the end of film looking down and wondering where the popcorn went. We don’t even remember eating it! We are not eating because our body is telling us that we are we are hungry we are eating as an unconscious reaction, watching a movie which is incredibly unhealthy. According to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American spends two-and-a-half hours a day eating, but more than half the time, we’re doing something else, too. Mindless or distracted eating, is associated with anxiety, overeating, and weight gain. Too often, we eat when our mind tells us to, rather than our bodies. Like when we are bored or when we sit down at the end of a day to watch tv and relax. Our brains are often wired to associate relaxing on the couch with snacking. By bringing mindful eating practices into your life it can rewire our brains for new cues for eating that are focused on nourishing the body.
So what exactly is mindful eating? First let’s discuss what the word mindfulness means. It is an intentional focus on one’s thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations in the present moment without judging or debating them. It sounds simple but very few of us are ever fully in the present moment and almost never when we are eating. When we do manage to be present we are most certainly bringing a level of judgment to the moment; “I can’t believe that I just ate that entire bag of chips”, “I really should be eating healthier”, “I should not have eaten that, I really don’t feel well.” Eating shouldn’t be a fast mindless action but rather an experience which also nourishes the body. Improving the relationship we have with food can in turn improve the way we eat and our overall health.
So how do we practice mindful eating? First appreciate all of the energy it took to create this meal. The sun, soil and rain it took to grow the tomatoes. The grass that the cows grazed on to become your beef. This helps to increase gratitude for food, which can improve the overall eating experience. Next bring your awareness to all of your senses. Notice the colours, the different textures, the unique sounds of your food. See if you can name every flavor and spice that is present in your meal.
Next focus on slowing down. In our mindless eating habits we have started eating like our dogs; two quick chews and down the hatch. By taking smaller bites and really chewing your food a few more times you will be amazed at all of the flavors that are released and how much more you enjoy your meal. This is why it is important to eat when hungry, but not ravenous. If you skip meals you will be more focused on filling the void than enjoying your food.
This type of eating may only seem possible if you are staying at an ashram, how can you be expected to do this while still living your busy life? Start by mindful eating for just one meal a day. Invite your partner, kids, roommates to mindfully eat with you. Spend the first few bites in silence noticing the colour, texture, sound and taste of your food and then share what you have noticed with those that you are eating with. This can be really fun for children and a great way for them to learn to appreciate their food.
Mindful eating encourages one to make choices that will be satisfying and nourishing to the body. However, it discourages “judging” one’s eating behaviors as there are different types of eating experiences. As we become more aware of our eating habits, we may take steps towards behavior changes that will benefit ourselves and our environment. Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body.
The benefits of mindful eating are many and include;
- Distinguishing between true hunger and non-hunger triggers (like boredom) for eating.
- Learning to deal with guilt and anxiety about food
- Focusing on eating to maintain overall health and well-being
- Noticing the effects food has on your feelings and figure
- Appreciating your food
- Weight loss
Eating offers an incredible opportunity to connect us more deeply to the natural world, the elements and to each other. When we pause to consider all of the people involved in the meal that has arrived on your plate, from the loved ones (and yourself) who prepared it, to those who stocked the shelves, to those who planted and harvested the raw ingredients, to those who supported them, it is hard to not feel both grateful and interconnected. Mindful eating acknowledges that there is no right or wrong way to eat but varying degrees of awareness surrounding the experience of food. So we invite you to try mindful eating for your next meal. See if you and your family can do it for one meal, everyday for a week. Cultivating a healthier relationship with food is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.