Mastering the Mindful Meal

The Effects of Mindful Eating and Comprising our system

It may come as a big surprise to learn that "mindless" eating, or eating without awareness, can have negative health consequences. Scientists are beginning to evaluate and better understand the complex role of the mind-body connection in eating behavior. It turns out that when our mind is tuned out during mealtime, the digestive process may be 30% to 40% less effective. This can contribute to digestive distress, such as gas, bloating and bowel irregularities. Gas and bloating aside, overeating and obesity are perhaps the most significant health problems caused, at least in part, by mindless eating. The mind-body connection plays a pivotal role in our ability to accurately assess hunger and fullness.

How to Practice Eating Mindfully

Eating mindfully means eating with awareness. Not awareness of what foods are on your plate, but rather awareness of the experience of eating. Mindful eating is being present, moment by moment, for each sensation that happens during eating, such as smelling, chewing, tasting and swallowing. If you've ever practiced mindfulness in any way, (such as meditation, relaxation or breathing exercises) you are familiar with how easily our minds wander. The same happens when we eat. When you begin to practice mindful eating, one important thing to remember is not to judge yourself when you notice your mind drifting off the experience of eating. Instead, just keep returning to the awareness of that taste, chew, bite or swallow. If this concept is new, try the following exercise.

Take one bite of an apple slice and then close your eyes. Do not begin chewing yet. Try not to pay attention to the ideas running through your mind, just focus on the apple. Notice anything that comes to mind about taste, texture, temperature and sensation going on in your mouth. Begin chewing now. Chew slowly, just noticing what it feels like. It's normal that your mind will want to wander off. If you notice you're paying more attention to your thinking than to the chewing, just let go of the thought for the moment and come back to the chewing. Notice each tiny movement of your jaw. In these moments you may find yourself wanting to swallow the apple. See if you can stay present and notice the subtle transition from chewing to swallowing. As you prepare to swallow the apple, try to follow it moving toward the back of your tongue and into your throat. Swallow the apple, following it until you can no longer feel any sensation of the food remaining.

Take a deep breath and exhale. You may find it interesting to talk with your partner about your experience. What did you notice while chewing? Why did you swallow? Was the food no longer tasty? Did it dissolve? Were you bored?

The point of this exercise is not to suggest all your meals be consumed this meticulously as this experiment. Rather, by doing this exercise you may discover some things about your own eating habits. Some people find value in doing a shorter version of this exercise with the first bite of each meal. This helps set an intention of being mindful through the course of your meal. Listed below are a few other suggestions for introducing mindfulness while eating. Try them and see what you discover!

Step 1: Make a conscious choice to eat

Many of us are on automatic pilot. We are driven by habit to eat when we are not hungry or not to eat when we are not hungry.

Exercise

Before putting anything in the mouth ask yourself:

Am I hungry?

Will food satisfy my hunger?

What would truly nourish me in the moment?

Do I choose to eat?

Once you ask the questions, make the choice. And remember: whatever choice you make, accept it fully. The act of consciously examining the decision to eat may produce conflict. Rather than judge these as faults, simply be aware of them. If you chose to eat, eat without resistance and punishment.

Use Step 1 of whole body eating whenever you feel hungry- it only takes a minute. By making a conscious to eat, you may feel as if you are claiming your body as your own for the first time. Can you think of a better person to be in charge?

Step 2:  Ask your body What it Wants

The body as an intuitive wisdom that goes beyond words or explanation.

Exercise

Before you reach for any food, sit down, close your eyes, and take a deep breath, and let yourself be empty of expectations. With a quiet relaxed mind, ask your body what it hungers for, and ask it to be specific. Winter months I might want more warming foods, Summer time more liquids and fruit, during times of abundance and great self- worth confidence I eat twice as much food and not gain an ounce. We might mistrust the body and we let the body take over and it might go wild and look for chocolate. Yet it’s not really the body we fear. We mistrust the mind and what we think the mind will do to the body. The key is to move beyond the fear to a place where we are willing to experiment. The more we practice the better we get.

Step 3: Eat with Awareness

Find a time when you feel unhurried and can put your obligations aside. Be alone. Cook yourself a meal that you enjoy eating. Then take the food to a comfortable room where you can be undistracted. Sit with your back straight and close your eyes. Take three or four deep breaths. When you are relaxed, allow your eyes to open and look at your food. Sense your hunger for it. Smell it. Wonder about. And then eat it. Feel the food in the mouth and listen to the sounds of chewing. Do nothing else for twenty minutes but immerse yourself in eating.

If we eat in a stressful state, the digestive system functions less efficiently and may even shut down.  Eating with awareness increases the nutrient assimilation of a meal as well as the assimilation of entire sensory experience.  We can’t eat this way all the time but try devoting at least a few minutes of each meal to conscious eating. You may also wish to set aside several meals during the week for conscious, silent dinning. Eating with awareness is the most important and powerful tool to transform your relationship to food and the body. Once you practice it, it becomes a lifelong habit. All there is to do is eat, observe and accept.

Step 4: Listen for Feedback

Sit down quietly after your meal. Take five to ten slow, deep breaths. Then listen carefully to your body. Did you pay attention to the meal? Did the food satisfy you? Would you eat differently next time? Slower, faster? Consume more food, less food, different food? Did you overeat? Are you still hungry?

This step will enable you to learn which foods work best for you and which eating patterns work against you. Often the effects of a meal are not apparent until later on. The challenge is to learn how to recognize connections between what we feel now and what we ate then.

Step 5: Release the meal

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to releasing food is our inability to “assimilate” it. Many of us finish a meal without any integration time. We eat and run, fall asleep from overeating, or become a couch potato. The experience of eating remains undigested like morsels of food in an upset stomach.

Once you have listened for feedback about the meal, take time just to be with it. Celebrate. Listen to music, talk to friends, stare out the window, or just breathe. Nutrients are absorbed at the cellular level, and an exchange goes on at the social.

Whole Body Eating (these steps in making our relationship to food more conscious)

Step 1: Make a conscious choice to eat whether or not to eat.

Step 2: Tuning in to the body to help determined its needs.

Step 3: Eat with awareness of the entire experience.

Step 4: Listen for feedback after the meal.

Step 5: Releasing thoughts of food when the meal is finished and moving on to the next thing.

Simple first steps toward introducing mindfulness while eating:

Eat with chopsticks.

Eat with your non-dominant hand.

Chew your food 30 to 50 times per bite.

Eat without TV, newspaper or computer.

Eat sitting down.

Put the proper portions of food on your plate and try to make the meal last at least 20 minutes.

Find a special eating bowl or plate just for you, one that really catches your eye and inspires you to eat from it. Try it for a week and note any changes in your experience of eating.

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Stephanie Vangsness, R.D., L.D.N., C.N.S.D. Brigham and Women's Hospital Previously published on Intelihealth.com

Nourishing Widsom A Mind-Body Approach to Nutrition and Well-Being Marc David