We need to build a better relationship with our food. Between the latest diet fads, trendy exotic cuisines and animal welfare it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. For many, feelings of guilt, shame or contempt are never far away. Fortunately, mindfulness is not limited to meditation sessions, and can help us reconnect in a deep, natural and non-judgemental way with what and whom we eat.
You Are How You Eat,
Not What You Eat
Mindful eating and drinking is increasingly used to treat a broad array of eating disorders and even anxiety and depression. And it’s backed by science. It’s that powerful, but truly everyone can benefit from this approach.
It’s certainly tempting to associate conscious eating to a healthy diet. But limiting the practice to a basket of local organic fruits and vegetables misses the point. Whatever you eat deserves your full attention, from ice cream tubs to wild tuna steaks to gummy bears. It’s essential to understand that your meal should start with leaving any judgemental thoughts behind.
Mindful eating is centered around awareness of the physical sensations and any associated emotions that occur spontaneously while we eat. In other words, it’s nothing more than connecting with ourselves in the present moment. So if you crave chocolate, then that’s the reality of the moment. Simply acknowledge it, as it is, not how you would like it to be. And if you hate broccoli, that’s ok too!
When You Are On Your Own
Being alone is the ideal moment to practice mindful eating. Your meal should take the center stage, whether it’s a lavish dinner or a tiny snack. Turn off the TV. Take a break from the computer screen. Put your smartphone on silent and move it aside. Stay away from any source of distraction as much as possible. No more wolfing down your favorite dish while watching Netflix! This is a precious, I would even say sacred moment, honor it with your full attention.
- Mindful eating habits actually begin before the meal. When you start to feel hungry, use this moment to discern the associated physical sensations and emotions. Is your stomach growling and gurgling? Or has a craving for your favorite snack arisen? Are you really hungry, or is it more appetite?
- Before the meal, even if it’s just a small handful of peanuts, take a few seconds. Close your eyes and bring your full attention to the food. Again, how do you feel? Famished? What do you smell? Are you salivating? Our mind keeps wandering the whole day, pausing our thoughts for an instant will help ground it.
- During your meal, try to maintain your attention steadily on the food. Look at its appearance. What shapes to you see? What colors? Observe the tastes and textures in your mouth. Is it crunchy? Mushy? Burning hot, tepid or ice-cold? Is it sweet? Salty, or maybe sour? Can you identify the ingredients? What about the spices?
- Devote the same curiosity and awareness to your emotions. Are you enjoying this particular bite? Or do you dislike it?
- Eat slowly, take your time. Finish chewing and swallowing before preparing the next mouthful. You’ve probably been looking forward to this, savor the moment.
- Have something to drink that is relatively neutral to accompany your meal, such as a glass of water or a cup of tea. It will help you to slow down your pace, and to feel more accurately satiety.
- At the end of your meal, take a few seconds to observe satiety. Close your eyes if you like, it often helps. Do you feel very heavy? Tired? Bloated? Or light and repleted?
You will notice with time that mindful eating habits naturally direct you towards a more balanced diet and healthy routines. Our body gladly tells us what and how much it really needs, if we only listen to it.
Sharing a meal is one of the most fundamental human interactions. It’s no coincidence that it’s given such a high importance across cultures and is a pillar of family life, hospitality and festivities of all sorts.
For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, it was at the core of everyday life and crucial for the cohesion and survival of the tribe. With the rise of agriculture, the focus switched to the family. But as individualism spreads from Western societies to the rest of the world, we find ourselves more and more alone, making these moments of sharing all the more precious.
In a social context, practicing mindful eating takes a slightly different yet equally important form. Much of the points mentioned above are still valid, especially taking a few seconds to calm and recenter the mind before starting to eat. But most of your attention should be devoted to the people across the table. After all, this might be the only time of the day for significant interactions with your loved ones. The food as awareness object becomes secondary.
- Here too, try to minimize distractions as much as possible. Don’t hesitate to gently ask someone to put their phone aside for a while if he or she compulsively looks at the screen every few minutes.
- Dedicate most of your attention to the conversation. It shouldn’t be too hard to retain some awareness of your sensations and emotions while you are eating and listening. Unless of course you are talking with your mouth full!
Having said that, even the most gregarious individuals will occasionally benefit from a little one-on-one time with their plate. So if you struggle to engage meaningfully with your colleagues over lunch or find the family supper in front of the television set somewhat shallow, don’t hesitate to connect more meaningfully with your food instead.
Mindful Eating Is Also
It’s no coincidence that most religions and spiritual traditions give grace before or after a meal. Cultivating gratitude is a key aspect of mindful eating. I prefer doing so at the end, but it’s entirely up to you. In either case, it’s important to remember that even in the 21st century, being able to consider food as more than fuel for a hard day of physical labor is still a privilege, let alone experiencing satiety on a daily basis. It should never be taken for granted.
- Consider the extraordinary sequence of events that led to your meal. The sun and rain required to grow the grains, fruits and vegetables. The hard work of the farmers. The complex supply chain that transported all the ingredients from near and faraway lands to your table. In a way, it’s nothing short of a miracle.
- Spare a thought of gratefulness for the people sharing this meal with you. For their company and what it means to you. For the cook, even if the cuisine wasn’t exactly up to your expectations.
- If you consumed animal products, include them in your thoughts too, as a mark of respect for all living creatures.