The term mindfulness is a buzz word these days, but what does it mean? And how can we practice it when it comes to our food and eating?
Mindfulness is the quality, or state, of being conscious or aware of something. So when we practice mindfulness we are essentially shining a spotlight on the present moment, just as it is. Through mindfulness practice we become conscious of both our mind and body, as well as ourselves in relation to the greater world.
When we apply mindfulness to the way we eat we become conscious of both what we eat, and how we are eating it. Mindful eating practice can enrich our enjoyment of food by deepening the awareness around the act of feeding our bodies. With this practice in place I think we have a better chance of sticking to healthy eating patterns, and achieving the health we desire.
I’ll begin with my own experience. For the past ten years I’ve been a professional cook, and my eating habits and meals tended to fall into these two categories:
- During times that I was busy, I would try to squeeze in quick meals sometime during my day. I learned in restaurant kitchens that cooks always eat quickly, usually standing up, if they even took a meal at all. I brought this habit into my own private chef work by eating fast, and almost always multi-tasking while eating: answering emails or updating social media on my phone. I did not give myself permission to take a break. Yes, I was eating healthy most of the time, but I was not allowing myself to enjoy my food, even if it was something delicious that I had made.
- In contrast, meals on my days off were when I would “reward” myself. I would treat myself to dinners out, where I would usually over-drink, and subsequently over-eat. During these meals I was seemingly “enjoying” myself, but at the same time I was not fully engaged. I was still not really connecting with my food, because I was essentially “checked out” of my own body. In so being, I couldn’t hear my own body signal telling me when I’m full — that quiet voice that tells me, “okay, enough”.
Yes, some meals fell somewhere between these two extremes, but that’s generally how the pendulum swung. In short, I was not practicing mindful eating, and not even fully aware of my own unhealthy eating patterns.
In September of 2016 I spent a week at Uppaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, I had a very different eating experience. Almost all the meals at Uppaya are held in complete silence. This silence forced me to turn inwards as I ate. To my surprise I noticed everything on my plate in a way I hadn’t before: flavors, textures, temperatures. I noticed the crunching sound of a cucumber; the chewiness of a grain of rice and how it sticks to the teeth; the difference between the way hot and cold foods felt going down my throat. I ate slowly, savoring, and drank water in between bites. Through the silence I could hear when my stomach told me it was full.
The food at Uppaya was great, but nothing spectacular. Yet I found that just the act of eating was enjoyable.
I needed this experience to shine a light on my prior unhealthy eating habits, and to serve as the catalyst to invite some change into my ways.
I’m not going to say now that I think everyone should eat all their meals in silence (although by all means please try it as an experiment). However I have come up with a few mindful eating practices that I am constantly reminding myself to practice. The point is that these are simple, easy things you can try whether eating alone or as a group. See if any of them work for you. Most importantly, see if they enhance your enjoyment of eating.
Avoid Hunger. Do not let more than 4-5 hours pass between meals or substantial snacks. I know that when I’m really hungry it always leads me to impulsive, poor eating choices. A dominating hunger makes mindful eating impossible. A little foresight and planning will eliminate this danger. Poor planning equals poor choices.
Is this meal balanced? Obviously what you eat makes a difference. Ask yourself, is this a balanced meal? Here is the rough guideline that I use: Leafy greens and/or veggies should make up about half the plate. Assuming you’re not vegetarian, meat/fish can be about a quarter of your plate. And grains/carbs/legumes make up the other quarter. You don’t need to obsess over it, but at the same time you want to make sure you’re feeding your body well. Variety of textures and flavors always helps too.
Give Thanks. Gratitude is an important mindfulness practice. Your thanks can be in any form you like. When I was young we each said one thing we were thankful for. My grandma always insisted we say a grace. I’ve taken up just giving a silent nod of thanks. It doesn’t matter what form this takes. I see this practice as serving two important functions. It serves as a pause, a way to initiate consciousness before you dive into your meal. It also serves to acknowledge all the people, and societal institutions, that have worked to get food to your plate. You didn’t have to hunt and gather to put this meal on the table. Giving thanks acknowledges that.
Eat Slower. If you’re naturally a fast eater, like me, here are some different ways to practice slower eating. Try putting your fork down between each bite. Try eating meals with chopsticks. Try chewing each bite of food 20 times. This does not have to be the way you eat for the rest of your life. It’s something you can try, take note of, and hopefully get yourself in the habit of slowing down. Eating slower gives us permission to enjoy our food more. And that’s what this is really all about.
Ask more questions. Try asking yourself more questions while eating: How would you describe the flavor of that vegetable? What spices can you detect in this dish? What are your favorite components of this meal? Where did all the different components of this meal come from? etc. Asking questions invokes a sense of curiosity. And curiosity is what makes us come alive.
Put the phone away. This was a big one for me: using my lunch break as a time to plug into social media. Being on your phone is instant mindless eating. Just put it away.
Watch the stress eating. In addition to these I would encourage you to notice when you are eating on an emotional cues, rather than a physical one. This is what I call “stress eating”, and looks like me eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s at 11pm before a big event. Notice when this happens to you, and try to find another practice to alleviate the stress without the eating. I can put the ice cream down, and make myself a cup of chamomile tea instead, because what I really wanted to feel was comfort and that doesn’t have to come in the form of ice cream.
Contrary to dieting, mindful eating is not about taking something away, but rather about enriching life. I invite you to give yourself permission to really enjoy your food on a daily basis. This is how we take care of ourselves. This is how we come alive.