When walking walk; when eating eat- A Zen proverb.
Food is an ancient necessity. It has been a necessity for the millions of years of our evolution. But hunger is a relatively new development and so it is cognitively complex. It is inextricably linked to our emotions, and this is why ‘emotional eating’ is a thing. It is not always the body’s trigger for food; it often masks emotional pangs that we may not be too happy to face. Hunger may be hiding feelings of stress or distress.
Food is gives us nourishment and pleasure; but we also develop an (unhealthy) emotional dependence on it. Many people have an adversarial relationship with food. Mindful eating, an outcrop of the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness, is a tool to address this relationship. It helps untangle the complexity of emotional eating by observing our eating habits and helps us in consciously rebuilding them to make eating a source of wholesome pleasure and nourishment again. An increasing body of research backs this.
Mindful eating draws on the principles of general mindfulness like presence in the current moment and openness to experience, and then tailors them to suit the goal. So if you practise mindfulness generally during the day, the specificity of mindful eating should come easily and naturally to you. If are new to the practise of mindfulness, the following principles could be a great place to bring mindfulness into your life.
Observe your mind and body. Hunger, as we said, is a complex trigger. It is not always purely physical. Since food makes us feel better in the short term, we train our minds to trigger hunger pangs when we encounter anything that causes discomfort or distress. This conditioning often fools us into mistaking thirst for hunger. Visual cues (passing a bakery on the way home, for instance) also often trick us into thinking we are hungry when we actually are not. Mindful eating requires us to really question these triggers, and try to understand the source.
One difference between real and masquerading hunger is that the former is gradual. Real hunger builds up gradually. A craving masquerading as hunger is an instantaneous feeling. Give your craving 5 minutes, maybe drink a glass of water, and get busy with something else; chances are that it will disappear. Playing the waiting game is a key principle of mindful eating, and teaches you a lot about your body and mind.
Make Room for Focus
A mindful meal is a focussed meal. It is the opposite of the loud and hurried meals we are used to. When we eat mindfully we observe our minds and our bodies. In addition we focus on the food itself. Focus is not easy to achieve in a world full of distractions. We have to consciously make room for it.
Make it easier for yourself to focus. Sit at a table. Shut off any distractions like TV, phones, laptops. Even reading is not recommended. This is a time for reflection. If you have company, request them for silence. Of course it would be easier to focus if you were in the quiet of your home. But with practice, you will be able to eat mindfully almost anywhere. Also make time. 5 minutes stolen from between meetings may not be very conducive to mindfulness.
A lot of attention these days goes into what we eat, but not how we eat. Mindful eating addresses that, and makes eating enjoyable and an almost meditative exercise.
Dwell on the food: the texture, the taste, the smells, the sounds. Get all your senses engaged. You can further deepen the experience by taking smaller bites. Chew longer: some studies suggest that one ought to chew for 20 seconds or longer. Savour the food.
Stop before you are completely full. It takes 20 minutes for the brain to register fullness. If you were mindful during the meal, you should be able to stop. Fullness that we generally are used to is not necessary to feel well-nourished and happy.
Finally, Be Kind
The mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says to be mindful is to “practise moment to moment non-judgemental awareness.” Mindfulness is easy to understand, but not simple to practise. You may not take immediately to the focus it demands. Remember to give yourself the time and the emotional encouragement needed to reach your goals. Do it consistently and you will see that your appreciation for food (and for your mind-body nexus) has gone up.
Recommended Reading on Mindful Eating: