Mindful eating: how to fall in love with food

Mindful eating

One part nutrition. One part meditation. Mindful eating is having another moment. David Goding investigates.

Unless you’re a food truck fiend, food is not supposed to be enjoyed – at least not as a primary purpose. Sure, you’re supposed to proclaim preferring your raw cacao smoothie to a syringe ganache doughnut, but in the era of being seen to eat a certain way, it’s nigh on impossible to actually be in the eating experience. Even if you are a foodie, you’ll need to save some attention for obligatory guilt.

This epicurean fragmentation may be attributed as much to social media’s endorsement of parallel identities as irreconcilable cultural obsessions of Masterchef and the obesity crisis.

Yet ironically this very diffusion is a self-fulfilling prophecy, mirrored in divergence of body and mind. In focusing on external motives and values to regulate feeding, we effectively override the intricate internal systems calibrated to maintain homeostasis.

Clinical health psychologist and co-author of The Mindful Diet Ruth Wolever believes that repairing this tear can both restore gained or lost body weight to its natural point and enhance enjoyment of eating.

“Consider the common habit of eating while doing other things – whether that’s driving, checking email, walking through the grocery store or watching TV. Research shows that when people eat while they’re distracted or multitasking, they eat faster, eat a bigger portion, don’t remember what they consumed, feel significantly less full, and continue to eat more throughout the day,” she says.

Mindful eating isn’t a diet as such, but it can precipitate weight loss.

One industry trial found that mindful eating decreased compulsive eating habits, improved self-control with regard to eating, correlated with sustained weight loss and improved depression, perceived stress and self-esteem according to Wolever.

“In working with hundreds of patients on losing weight and changing their eating habits, we’ve found that two big pieces of the puzzle are often missing from conventional approaches: attention and intention, both infused with the qualities of curiosity and kindness,” she says.

The practice also engenders greater control over eating habits.

“By shifting to a state of mindfulness, you put yourself in the driver’s seat and take full responsibility for where you are and where you want to be,” says nutritionist Rachel Bartholomew, co-author of Mindful Eating – Stop Mindless Eating and Learn to Nourish Body and Soul. “You learn to listen to your body and enjoy the process of eating real food. When you are in this mindful state, it becomes very difficult to overeat.”

Mindful roots

Mindful eating derives from the practice of mindfulness steeped in ancient Eastern cultures. Under different titles depending on spiritual persuasion, it has been proclaimed by many as the key to happiness. Simply,

it is being in the moment – which is rare in the era of smartphones. It is especially applicable to eating because contemporary values position food as one part nemesis, one part nurturer.

Most nouveau dietary protocols from paleo to raw are focused on the future and a sought outcome such as fat loss, clearer skin or more energy. The act of eating is an afterthought.

“In real life, ‘breakfast’ was coffee on the way to work, the staff meeting starts in five minutes, and the bag of Doritos on your desk is looking good,” says Wolever. “In real life, talking to your critical older sister triggers a Pavlovian response for dulce de leche ice- cream. In real life, you blew your diet last night at your best friend’s birthday bash, so all bets are off. In real life, you ordered a vegie sub for lunch and it’s a foot long, and while you didn’t ask for potato chips, here they are. In real life, every diet you’ve tried has left you feeling two things: hungry and unhappy.”

Being beyond the moment can lead to myriad unhealthy eating patterns, says Wolever. “Rather than contending with emotions like sadness and anger, some people overeat to ‘stuff ’ their feelings down. Not being present in our bodies means that we miss our bodies’ hunger and fullness signals. These signals are the body’s innate way of alerting you when to start and when to stop eating. Ignoring them is like driving on a busy road with no stop signs or traffic lights.”

Trigger happy

Often, homeostatic hunger – the type that strikes when you’re in an energy deficit – isn’t even a factor in cravings and portion size.

“Everything we hear and see has an impact on our unconscious mind at some level,” says Bartholomew. “We respond particularly well to pictures, and the food industry knows this only too well. Superstores bombard all our senses with tempting aromas and mouth-watering pictures as soon as we walk in the door. They put ‘impulse buys’ at eye level and create colourful displays. Before you know it, you start to feel hungry.”

Stress is also a well-known trigger.

“You hang up from a difficult phone call with anger coursing through you or sadness weighing you down, and before you know it, you’ve downed not one but three brownies,” says Wolever. On the flip side, sadness and anxiety often down-regulate appetite.

The trick is getting to know your internal and external eating triggers. Then, as with meditation practice, you can acknowledge their presence, how they make you feel and behave and either deal with them or let them drift away.

Portion distortion

While mindful eating may sound like a complex protocol, its process and mechanisms are deceptively simple.

“Remaining in the present allows you to relax, mentally and physically, and stop the reactive cycle that leads to overeating (or choosing high-sugar or high-fat foods),” says Wolever. “Being present also keeps you in touch with what’s happening in your body – notably, signals of hunger and fullness that are very easy to ignore when your mind is going a mile a minute.

“When you’re present, you can consciously direct your attention to your sensory experience while you’re eating, noticing the textures, tastes, and smells that you might miss when you’re distracted or eating quickly. Fully engaging your senses will help you better enjoy smaller amounts of food.”

Preparing food from scratch – so-called ‘slow food’ – can favour mindful eating. It’s harder to hoover a soup you made from

scratch with herbs from the neighbour’s garden than something from a tin.

“I’ve seen people swap half an hour of watching television for half an hour of making a mindful bean soup instead,” says Bartholomew. This also fills some of the time you might ordinarily fill with boredom eating.

Paradoxically, eating more slowly and taking time out to savour the experience can result in greater efficiency.

“When you are mindful, your focus sharpens and you become more efficient at everything you do,” Bartholomew says.

Mindful eating isn’t a diet as such, but it can precipitate weight loss. 

To really connect with food in a mindful way, you need to find it interesting. Not just ‘that looks pretty on the plate’ kind of interesting, but all-absorbing ‘mortar-and- pestle-grinding’ interesting.

“Before you begin eating, sit and appreciate the food with your eyes,” suggests Bartholomew. “Look at the variety of colours, see the different shapes and textures. Inhale the aromas of the food as you begin to take some deep breaths into your belly, relaxing into a calm state that is perfect for digesting your food.”

“Eat a forkful of food and then put down your silverware. Close your eyes and totally focus on the flavours. Chew thoroughly, imagining how this wonderful food is nourishing your body and mind. Listen
to your body and stop eating when you begin to feel pleasantly full. Research shows that people who are blindfolded eat much less than people who can see their food, because they are able to truly focus on their body’s signals.”

You may even want to bring some of your newfound awareness into the kitchen itself.

Meditating while cooking may sound like a dangerous pursuit, but it’s one that can definitely enhance the experience.

“As you cook your favourite dish, remove any distractions and bring your awareness to the moment,” says Bartholomew. “First, become aware of your breathing and then gradually expand your awareness so that you are keenly aware of everything around you and within you. Slow down the process of assembling your ingredients, gathering each one at a time, and noticing their different qualities.”

“Pay attention to the aroma, texture,

shape and colour of each vegetable as you add it to the mix. Heighten your senses to be aware of each movement you make and be present as you stir the dish. Reflect on the concept that what you are doing is a metaphor for your whole life.”

“You are assembling the ingredients for a happy, healthy life, adding revitalizing ideas and thoughts and mixing them together with some seasoning to spice up your day.”

This article was first published in Women’s Health and Fitness magazine.

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