“Mindfulness” is trendy right now. Mindful living, mindful breathing, mindful exercise, mindful environmental impact, even mindful eating. With a loaded buzzword like this one, it’s hard to keep track of what it means to be truly present and aware. So what is mindful eating anyway, and why even bother?
Mindfulness is simply being conscious in the moment without distraction. It is the act of bringing your attention into the now, viewing emotions and thoughts at a distance instead of getting swept up in the frenzy of ups and downs. This act brings awareness to what is instead of how hopes and fears can color a given situation. Releasing expectations we unconsciously carry with us leads to more joy, satisfaction, authenticity and consistency in our day-to-day.
Being mindful may sound straightforward, but consider how our thoughts and emotions skew nearly every interaction we have. Or how many times have you been driving and suddenly realize you were on autopilot for the past 10 miles? Not to mention the constant distraction our phones, computers and television provide. Staying in the moment can be deceptively difficult, especially when it comes to what we put into our mouths.
Today, it’s commonplace to eat in our cars or at our desks.
We eat while reading, watching TV, texting or talking on the phone. Most people take their short lunch breaks with a sandwich in one hand and a computer mouse in the other. Downing a green smoothie or swallowing a raw food bar in two bites is just as mindless as powering through a few slices of chocolate cake in front of the television.
Dynamic Eating Psychology teaches us that mindful eating isn’t about what you eat, but how you eat. It’s about slowing down, asking questions and taking notice. Treat it like a curious exploration, without judgement or attachment. It can be playful and enlightening, giving you insight to habits and fine-tune your perception of how various foods affect your energy level and perception of your body.
Mindful eating doesn’t have to be a textbook analysis of your food.
Like we teach at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, eating should be fun and pleasurable! Giving your body what it craves should be a joyful, satisfying experience on many levels. Get creative with how you nourish yourself: is it possible to take a long, leisurely lunch? What if you ate a meal chewing each mouthful 50 times? What if you blindfolded yourself during breakfast, experiencing the explosive flavor of each berry in your yogurt?
If you’re interested in eliminating a gluten or sugar, turn it into a challenging game instead of a restrictive diet. Keep a journal, keeping track of how you feel day after day of passing on sweets or processed foods. Ask questions and challenge yourself. Do you have more or less energy? Are you hungry more frequently? What are you craving? Get real and be honest with yourself, and make sure to note any other feelings that unearth themselves. Don’t be surprised when a certain food or mealtime can evoke feelings of excitement, frustration or even sadness. Make like a detective and trace these emotions back to their source by kindly and impartially asking: Why?
Adopting this conscious attitude around food has countless benefits.
It can help heal compulsive thoughts or actions. Slowing down and taking a breath before you begin a meal can tune you into your body’s hunger and fullness cues. It can bring your attention to when you’re eating out of hunger or out of emotion, and allows you to observe the nature of your cravings.
We are meant to eat slowly: enzymes in our saliva begin to break down food as we chew, destroying cell walls and making nutrients more readily available for our body to absorb. This process also allows more flavor to be released. Nature is rewarding us with more deliciousness for optimal nutrient absorption!
In Spain and France, meals can last for hours, involving a glass or two of complex and layered wine accompanying multi-course dinners plated in tiny portions. Here, it’s the quality of the food that matters, not the quantity. When things taste amazing, we don’t want to rush through them. We want to prolong that pleasure, naturally! Taking small sips, chewing well and going longer between bites turns a meal into a delightful, sensual experience.
Of course, taking time increases the enjoyment you have of your meal, but it also works on a cellular level. The parasympathetic nervous system governs the “rest and digest” mode of the body, the exact opposite of the “fight or flight” response (governed by the sympathetic nervous system). In order to efficiently assimilate nutrients and digest food properly, we need to be in that parasympathetic, relaxed state that allows our saliva to increase and the muscular contractions of the intestines to work efficiently.
Mindful eating also serves as a platform to practice awareness in other areas of your life.
When you begin to pay attention to when you want to eat and why, you also begin to notice when you’re angry or anxious and what triggers you. You prime yourself to not only savor your food when you eat, but those tiny life pleasures. You become fully engaged in the activities you love and the conversations with friends and family as you’re more easily able to let go of worries for the future and past regrets. Gratitude comes a little easier to a mind that is distraction-free, and you may notice you carry less stress and fewer worries.
And finally, one mindfulness practice frequently leads to others. The thought of exploring guided meditations, yoga nidra or tai chi may suddenly become irresistible to you, all from simply paying attention to how and why you eat!
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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