“Eating stresses me out sometimes,” said Jenny, a 42-year-old department store manager who describes herself as somewhat out of shape. “I worry about my food. Is it good for me? Will it make me fat? Raise my blood pressure? Maybe that’s why I eat so fast. I can’t say I enjoy eating anymore.”
Does Jenny’s story sound familiar? Modern culture, particularly the diet culture, can make food the enemy. It becomes something to worry about, not something to cherish and enjoy. When eating becomes a source of stress instead of a source of life, we have lost one of life’s great pleasures and weakened a vital connection to the world. According to Michelle May, MD, founder of the website Am I Hungry, stress caused by a hostile relationship with food leads to overeating, unhealthy food choices and not enjoying food or digesting it well.
May describes herself as a recovered yo-yo dieter. “Eating is a natural, healthy, and pleasurable activity for satisfying hunger,” she said. “However, in our food-abundant, diet-obsessed culture, eating instead often is mindless, consuming and guilt-inducing.”
To reconnect with food, May recommends a practice called mindful eating. “Mindful eating is an ancient practice with profound applications for resolving this troubled love-hate relationship with food.”
Instead of hating or fearing our food, we should enjoy food and appreciate it. If approached with an open mind and heart, all food is a gift. Every morsel is the life force of the universe giving its energy to us. That’s not poetry — it’s fact. The sun’s energy flows into us through our food.
But few of us regard food this way. We are too stressed about our weight or our health, or we’re too distracted to appreciate the miracle of food and savor its delights. We have things to do, worries to obsess over, people to talk to, screens to watch. We barely taste our food after the first bite.
Weight and health concerns can add a thick sauce of fear and doubt to everything we eat. How can we enjoy food if we’re thinking “Is this food going to kill me? Does eating this make me a bad person?”
Stressed eating prevents our bodies from absorbing food properly or using it the way we are supposed to. Stress shuts down blood flow to the digestive tract to preserve more blood for the muscles’ “fight or flight response.” Consequently, many good nutrients are not absorbed under stress, and some hormones necessary for transporting and using food may not be produced.
The solution to this stress is mindful eating. In their book The Mindful Diet, Duke University’s Ruth Wolever, PhD, and Beth Reardon, MS, RD, suggest giving loving attention to your food and to how it makes you feel. “Eat like a connoisseur,” they wrote. “This means slowing down and tuning in to the first few bites of whatever you are eating. You can do this whether you are alone in a quiet room or with a big group in a noisy restaurant.”
Is that how you eat? The more common eating pattern is described by the authors this way: “When you eat a bowl of pasta and sauce in front of the TV, you hardly taste anything. When that happens, your brain still seeks satisfaction. What’s missing is a full experience of eating informed by your senses. The missing ingredient is attention; not more food. We miss the experience when we pay attention to others things simultaneously. The solution? Mindful awareness of every aspect of the food itself.”
Practicing mindful eating
“Mindfulness” came out of Buddhism. It means awareness of your body and your environment and what is happening now — not staying lost in thoughts and worries about the past or future. Although originally a spiritual practice, mindfulness now is used by therapists to treat high blood pressure, mental health problems, chronic pain, and other conditions. It’s a simple process of calming our thoughts so we can pay attention to our bodies, our emotions, and our environment.
Focused attention creates a healthier eating experience. “Many people who struggle with food react mindlessly to their unrecognized or unexamined triggers, thoughts, and feelings,” said May. “In other words, they react, repeating past actions again and again and feeling powerless to change. Mindfulness increases your awareness of these patterns without judgment and creates space between your triggers and your actions.”
Here is how Wolever, Reardon, May, and other experts apply mindfulness to eating.
• Savor the flavors. You might want to close your eyes and focus only on the tastes. Stop eating what you are satiated with and eat what you are still hungry for. Focusing your body on knowing the food that’s coming enables it to better secrete the right digestive juices to absorb and use the food.
• Notice the feelings in your body as you eat. How does your stomach feel? Are you energized or sluggish? Are you full? What other feelings do you have? Body awareness will keep you from overeating while adding to the relaxed state you are trying to cultivate. As you can imagine, watching TV, texting, or working at your computer while eating takes your attention away from your food and your body. It’s the opposite of mindfulness. Don’t do it. Those devices can wait.
• An attitude of gratitude. Take time before eating to give thanks, silently or aloud. According to Reardon and Wolever, “Giving thanks focuses our attention on the meal. Our bodies make a switch from the sympathetic [stressed] to the parasympathetic [healing] nervous system, which allows for better digestion.” Giving thanks also brings people together around a table and reminds us of our place in the web of life. To include the people you eat with, go around the table and take turns sharing one thing you are thankful for.
• Focus. Don’t talk; don’t look around. It’s all about the food. Of course you have to pay attention to the people at your table, but don’t forget you’re there to eat.
• Slow down. A study of nearly 10,000 people in Japan found that the faster people ate, the more likely they were to have metabolic syndrome: elevated blood pressure, blood sugar, and weight. Mindful eating is the antidote to high-speed eating. Ways to slow down include putting your fork or your food down between bites, eating with your nonpreferred hand, taking a deep breath between bites, or taking a moment to imagine the plant you are eating as it grows, with the sun shining on it and the rain nourishing it.
When you take your time like this, you probably will notice you feel full sooner. That’s because you have time to register your feelings of having enough and because the food is giving you more pleasure. Eating one onion ring mindfully might give you as much satisfaction as gobbling a whole plate of them mindlessly.
Mindful eating could start some really good things for you. According to the Center for Mindful Eating, “Our relationship to food is a central one that reflects our attitudes toward our environment and ourselves. As a practice, mindful eating can bring us awareness of our own actions, thoughts, feelings, and motivations, and insight into the roots of health and contentment.”
Mindful eating might be the first step toward a more mindful life. If you’re running around with your mind racing all the time, you may find it hard to become suddenly mindful at mealtime. Practicing meditation for a few minutes a day will make mindful eating easier, but you can start by focusing on eating and then move to other kinds of meditation later if you choose.
There’s no big trick to meditation. You sit and focus on your breathing, on an object, or on a single thought. When distracting thoughts come, as they will, gently let go of them and come back to your breathing or your object of focus. It takes years for most people to become skilled at meditation, but mindful eating is much easier because you have the food on which to focus.
Mindfulness is a healthy skill to learn. According to the Center for Mindful Eating, “With practice, mindfulness cultivates the possibility of freeing yourself of reactive, habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting. Mindfulness promotes balance, choice, wisdom, and acceptance of what is.”
Barriers to mindful eating
Few of us live like Buddhists in a monastery. Much about our modern way of life makes mindful eating difficult. Fortunately, these societal barriers can be broken down.
• Eating publicly can make it harder to keep awareness on food.
Restaurants and parties are distracting. There’s a lot to see, hear, and think about. You might feel some social anxiety about eating mindfully around other people. If you pay attention to your food instead of them, will they become angry, or are you being rude?
It’s OK to switch in and out of mindful mode when other people are around. You can talk with them and listen to them, but every once in a while, come back to focusing on and appreciating your food. They probably won’t even notice, but if they do, tell them what you are doing and invite them to join you.
To avoid distraction, Wolever and Reardon recommend focusing on your body. “Ground yourself by focusing on your feet, feeling your toes, how you’re standing or sitting. Feel the way your body makes contact with the chair. The body can always center itself if you let it.”
You can use mindful eating even at a stressful family dinner. In fact, it might help everyone at the table if you stay mindful. If you close your eyes to better taste your food and your teenager asks what you are doing, you can tell him or her, “I’m learning to really enjoy my food.” Maybe your companions will try it themselves.
• You don’t have enough time to focus.
You have to get back to work or child care or whatever. In reality, mindful eating need not take longer than our usual mindless approach. The difference lies in what we’re concentrating on while we’re eating. As with meditation, you might find the available time stretches out when you pay attention. We usually have more time than we think we do.
• Sometimes food is of low quality or is not tasty.
You might say, “Well, that’s too bad about not enjoying our food, but it’s not a five-star restaurant dinner, is it? It’s just a sandwich from the machine at work.” The problem with that is if we don’t taste our food and feel our body’s reaction to it, we don’t know if it’s good for us. We also won’t know when we’ve had enough. The fact is, almost any food has some nutritional or flavor quality we can enjoy. Don’t be too quick to judge, but if there’s nothing in that sandwich worth focusing on, maybe you should be eating something else.
Dinner might take a little longer this way. You might eat less and talk less, but it’s worth it.
Mindful eating is a spiritual practice as well as a health practice. You’ll become more aware of your place in the world. You’ll digest and absorb better. You’ll enjoy food more and be less tense. It will help you take on your natural weight. It might not be easy at first, but it will be enjoyable right from the start. Practice and see what happens.