Guest contribution by Dr. Thara Vayali
We’ve all had those moments: midday, computer in front of us, gobbling lunch, not even noticing what we’re eating — let alone how much. We become used to feeling uncomfortable, stuffed or still hungry or experiencing bloating and discomfort in the abdomen. In this way, our meals don’t seem to be doing us any good.
Too easily, instead of eating for enjoyment, we eat for fuel and nutrients. Luckily, nourishing ourselves offers endless opportunities to change our relationship with food. A plate of spaghetti Bolognese could be fuel today, but tomorrow an experience of love.
For a variety of reasons, it would do us all well to value our food and separate eating from other activities. On a physiological level, mindfulness while eating improves health and wellness.
The Mind-Gut Connection
There is a super highway of nerves and hormones that communicates hunger, digestion and satisfaction. The state of our minds reflects the state of our stomachs and impacts how well we digest, how nourished we feel and how well we eliminate. The less aware we are of our eating process, the less benefit we get from our meals.
The digestive process takes approximately 20 minutes to register the food we’ve eaten; only then does it signal to us that we’ve had enough. If we front-load our mealtime by eating quickly, we can regularly overeat or feel digestive distress. Instead of benefitting from our meals, we can end up inadvertently harming our health. Being aware of what we are eating, the smell and taste of our food and noticing how we feel while are eating can markedly improve our digestive experience.
Our meals don’t need to achieve 20-minute marks to experience a change in digestion. If we know our physiology, so we can think differently about how we eat. Your body will notice incremental changes in timing and awareness.
It’s not easy to change our eating habits. The context in which we learned to eat began at a very young age. Mix personal history with career expectations, work/life/family time constraints, sedentary shifts in the nature of work, smartphones that fill down time, and our mind-gut connection becomes fraught. Outside of daily activities, food is part of our socializing world: we talk, laugh, argue and cry while we dine. The community connection to food is enriching and satiating to our lives, and if we can experience our eating with awareness, then the socializing becomes an enhancement, not a distraction to our digestion.
Let Simon & Garfunkel’s song, “The 59th Street Bridge (Feelin’ Groovy)” remind us of how to approach our meal times:
Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Eating mindfully for an entire meal at every meal may take time to achieve. What’s more immediately possible is to choose to eat ONE spoonful with structured awareness. At any point in any day, as you pick up your fork or spoon, try the following:
- Look at your spoon and what’s on it. (Take one deep, long breath in. Then take one slow, long breath out.)
- Next, bring the spoonful to your nose. (Take one deep, long breath in. Then take one slow, long breath out.)
- Next, put the spoonful and its contents in your mouth. (Take one deep, long breath in. Then take one slow, long breath out.)
- Chew. (Take one deep, long breath in. Then take one slow, long breath out.)
- Swallow. (Take one deep, long breath in. Then take one slow, long breath out.)
That’s how simple it is.
You cannot do this wrong. You are practicing. Whether you stop halfway with boredom, or fall into the zone with the smell of the strawberry, you are practicing awareness.
You cannot “forget” to do this. Since it’s an action you choose when it comes to mind, you are always remembering. The goal is to have it come to mind more often.
Thara Vayali is a Vancouver-based naturopathic doctor and yoga teacher, UBC alumnus and popular guest contributor to our Healthy UBC newsletter who specializes in intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. For more information about Thara, visit www.tharavayali.ca