Monday, February 21, 2011

The Fascinating Practice of Mindful Eating

As a health counselor, I’m provided a window in to how people feed themselves and their families. While my clients are diverse, there are commonalities that unite them. Most are women: daughters with food histories passed down from their families (usually mothers), wives who are often responsible for most of the household cooking (minus those lucky ones whose husbands love to cook), and mothers tasked with providing food and nourishment all day, every day. So I see a lot of patterns and trends, and in general get a pretty good picture of what’s going on with people around their food. Putting the nutritional aspect of food aside for a moment here, one thing that strikes me is how many of us, myself included, have unconscious food habits. Allow me to explain.

Few things can be as challenging as trying to make changes in the way that you eat. Food is always available and it’s so easy to reach for food or to overeat without really knowing why. Most people trying to be more conscious about their food choices have experienced a disconnect between intention and reality. How many of us have started the day with good intentions (eat more veggies, smaller portions, drink more water-you name it) only to discover at the end of the day that we’ve eaten more than we wanted, binged on junk food, or picked away at the birthday cake someone brought into the office? Turning to food when we are stressed or overtired or even bored can be an automatic response that happens before we’re even fully aware that we’re doing it.

The best way to break this cycle is to eat mindfully. It amazes me how many people multitask when they eat. When is the last time that you were fully present with the food you were eating? Fully present means that the TV wasn’t on and you didn’t have a book or a computer in front of you. You weren’t working or making lists of things to do. You weren’t driving somewhere or talking on your cell phone. When is the last time that you were fully aware—with all your senses—of each bite that you put into your mouth? When you truly savored every last morsel? Probably it was a long time ago.
Mindful eating can be the key to breaking old habits with food and creating new ones. Because we eat every day, we’ve plenty of opportunities to refine this practice. And you can get started almost instantly—as soon as you sit down to your next meal.

The Fascinating Practice of Mindful Eating. Take a deep breath or two and allow yourself to notice what sensations are present for you. Really notice. You may have gone hours without paying attention. What’s on your mind? What emotions are you experiencing? How does your body feel? Are you tense or relaxed? How hungry are you? Where do you feel it in your body?
Put your food on a plate and sit down somewhere where you can enjoy your food without being distracted. Take a few more deep breaths. Give thanks and bless your food.

Eat slowly and chew thoughtfully, fully experiencing every morsel of your food. Savor it. Use all your senses. Slow down. Notice your food before you put it into your mouth. Smell it. Really taste it. Stop and consider what you taste. Put your fork down between bites and breathe some more. Take your time. Begin to recognize signs of satiety; that you’ve eaten enough. Give thanks, again, for your nourishment.

Be aware of how it feels to slow down and savor. You might be surprised at emotions that come up. Some people discover that they’ve developed a pattern of eating mindlessly in order to numb their thoughts and feelings. Ouch. You might feel bored, or even impatient and irritated by eating more slowly. What’s truly fascinating is that as you practice mindful eating, you are likely to notice things about your eating and your relationship with food that aren’t really about the food at all.

It’s not necessary (or, I fully realize, realistic) to practice mindful eating every single time you eat, but it can be a very worthwhile to engage in regularly. When we shine light on things we do unconsciously, transformation occurs. Please share your thoughts and experiences with this one. We all have a lot to learn!