By Persa Sanjana Hussain
Eating is a natural, healthy, and pleasurable activity to satisfy hunger. However, in our food-abundant, diet-obsessed culture, eating is often mindless consuming, and guilt inducing even. Mindful eating is an ancient mindfulness practice with profound modern implications and applications for resolving this troubled love-hate relationship with food.
So, what is mindful eating? Mindful eating is eating with intention and attention. Eating with the intention of caring for yourself, eating with the attention necessary for noticing and enjoying your food and its effects on your body.
A small yet growing body of research suggests that a slower, more thoughtful way of eating could help with weight problems and maybe steer some people away from processed food and other less-healthful choices.
This alternative approach has been dubbed “mindful eating.” It’s based on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, which involves being “fully aware” of what is happening within and around you at the moment. In other areas, mindfulness techniques have been proposed as a way to relieve stress and alleviate problems like high blood pressure and chronic gastrointestinal difficulties.
Digestion involves a complex series of hormonal signals between the gut and the nervous system, and it seems to take about 20 minutes for the brain to register satiety, or fullness.
If someone eats too quickly, satiety may occur after overeating instead of putting a stop to it. There’s also reason to believe that eating while we are distracted by activities like driving or typing may slow down or stop digestion in a manner similar to how the “fight or flight” response does. And if we’re not digesting well, we may be missing out on the full nutritive value of some of the food we are consuming.
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, they are doing something else, too. Because they are working, driving, reading, watching television, or fiddling with an electronic device, they are not fully aware of what they are eating. And this mindless eating — a lack of awareness of the food we are consuming — may be contributing to the national obesity epidemic and other health issues, says Dr. Lilian Cheung, a nutritionist and lecturer at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Dr. Cheung and her co-author, Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh, suggest several practices that can help you get there, including those listed below:
1. Come to the table with an appetite– but not when ravenously hungry. If you skip meals, you may be so eager to get anything in your stomach that your first priority is filling the void instead of enjoying your food
2. Start with a small portion. It may be helpful to limit the size of your plate to nine inches or less.
3. Appreciate your food. Pause for a minute or two before you begin eating to contemplate everything and everyone it took to bring the meal to your table. Silently express your gratitude for the opportunity to enjoy delicious food and the companions you’re enjoying it with.
4. Bring all your senses to the meal. When you’re cooking, serving, and eating your food, be attentive to color, texture, aroma, and even the sounds different foods make as you prepare them. As you chew your food, try identifying all the ingredients, especially seasonings.
5. Take small bites. It’s easier to taste food completely when your mouth isn’t full. Put down your utensil between bites.
6. Chew thoroughly. Chew well until you can taste the essence of the food. (You may have to chew each mouthful 20 to 40 times, depending on the food.) You may be surprised at all the flavors that are released.
7. Eat slowly. If you follow the advice above, you won’t bolt your food down. Devote at least five minutes to mindful eating before you chat with your tablemates.
These simple practices surrounding how we eat are simpler than they sound and can work to bring about a noticeable change in our lifestyle. The idea is to boost the mind-gut relationship and in turn take us close to the peace of mind that we as human beings consciously and unconsciously always look for.