By Melissa Lafrance on March 7, 2018
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
Does this sound familiar? You’re at your computer, facing a wall of emails. After composing a reply, you hit “send” and reach for the tuna wrap on your desk. After a few bites, chewing while glancing at the screen, you set the wrap down, grab a handful of chips, and open the next message. Before you know it, you’ve finished lunch without even noticing it.
When it comes to eating, a mindful approach veers from the traditional messaging around what you eat, and focuses more specifically on how you eat. Bringing a renewed sense of attentiveness to the activity of preparing food and eating is a practice that rekindles our connection with our body, nature…and can even help us to lose weight ! Applied to eating, mindfulness includes noticing the colors, smells, flavors and textures of your food; chewing slowly, getting rid of distractions like TV or reading, and learning to cope with guilt and anxiety about food.
A classic exercise within a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course takes you through the seemingly painful process of spending five minutes eating just one raisin. Touching, smelling, and exploring the raisin sounds like a ridiculous exercise, and yet, when we pay attention with openness, we can more clearly see the range of experience unfolding and our habitual pattern of reactivity. Food is symbolic, and acts on a powerful sense of smell that is intimated connected to memories and emotions from our past. Mindful eating calls on us to keep coming back to the moment of eating, that helps to enhance our appreciation and enjoyment of food, and to listen more closely to what is taking place in our bodies and minds.
Jean Kristeller, a professor of psychology at Indiana State University, developed the Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) modeling off Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Studies using the MB-EAT intervention found participants:
- Reduced their binging behavior
- Increased control over eating
- Integration of mindfulness in daily life predicted degree of weight loss
- Awareness of hunger and satiety cues rose significantly
- Levels of depression and anxiety decreased
(Kristeller & Hallett, 2009; Kristeller & Wolever, 2011)
Traditional techniques for tackling obesity often don’t take into account the strong drivers of eating: negative emotions, cravings and impulsivity (Kristellar & Wolever, 2011). Paying attention non-judgmentally helps to raise awareness of reactivity and automatic patterns related to eating. The Centre for Mindful Eating www.thecenterformindfuleating.org outlines guidelines of someone choosing to eat mindfully:
- Acknowledge that there is no right or wrong way to eat, but varying degrees of awareness surrounding the experience of food.
- Accepts that their eating experiences are unique.
- Is an individual who, by choice, directs their attention to eating on a moment-by-moment basis.
- Gains awareness of how they can make choices that support health and wellbeing.
- Becomes aware of the interconnection of earth, living beings, and cultural practices and the impact of their food choices on those systems.
Eating is simply another opportunity to practice being present: reclaiming a moment of freedom and enjoyment in relation to food. Meditation retreats can create an interesting opportunity for mindful eating, as all meals are eaten in silence. My experience is that I typically eat less while on retreat, and enjoy my food a lot more. A typical morning on retreat included waking up at 5:30am, and sitting in the meditation hall for forty-five minutes. I then carefully chose each ingredient I added to my breakfast bowl of cereal, and savored many of the bites. Over the past few years, morning has continued to come early, however instead of waking for meditation it has been to take care of my young son. Breakfast is more like a fast-break, as I struggle to find quiet, calm and sometimes even my seat. My experience has been that if we can touch our humanness in these frantic moments, and make the daily routine of preparing our morning cup an intentional practice of awareness and gratitude, we drop more readily into a mindful moment that may be a simple sip of warm, nourishing goodness.
Informal Practice – Mindful Eating
In the following video, Dr. Lilian Cheung, Lecturer and Director of Health Promotion & Communication at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition outline seven principles from her new book Mindful Eating – Mindful Life.
Here are some tips and tricks for mindful eating
- Focus on your breath for 60 seconds before eating.
- Take 30 seconds to contemplate what it took to produce that meal, from the sun’s rays to the farmer to the grocer to the cook.
- Try eating with your non-dominant hand; if you’re a righty, hold your fork in your left hand when lifting food to your mouth.
- Use chopsticks if you don’t normally use them.
- Eat silently for five minutes,
- Take small bites and chew well.
Kristeller JL , Wolever RQ . Mindfulness-based eating awareness training for treating binge eating disorder: The conceptual foundation . Eat Disord . 2011;19(1):49–61
Kristeller JL , Hallett CB . An exploratory study of a meditation-based intervention for binge eating disorder . J Health Psychol . 1999;4(3):357–363