What is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating uses the ancient art of mindfulness, or being present, to not only develop a meditative mind, but also help cope with digestive complaints and also reduce stress. It is another form of mindful meditation that does not involve sitting on the floor for hours in pain. Best of all, mindful eating it is not another diet or fad. There are no menus, super foods or food restrictions. It is all about developing a new embodied awareness around food and the gift that each morsel brings to us in terms of sustenance and well-being. It has far reaching health benefits as well. Mindful eating can help binge eaters as well as many other eating issues.
During the past 20 years, studies have found that mindful eating can help you:
- Reduce overeating and binge eating
- Lose weight and reduce your body mass index (BMI) resulting in longer life span and better health overall.
- Cope with chronic eating problems such as anorexia and bulimia, and reduce anxious thoughts about food and your body
- Improve the symptoms of Type 2 diabetes
Intuitively, it makes sense that mindful eating is helpful to over-eaters. Digestion is better, you become more aware of exactly how much you need to eat and portion size, and reduce negative automatic food habits like overeating while multi-tasking or watching TV.
Mindful Eating in Burma
When I spent a month in Burma meditating in silence meal times were taken very slowly observing all movement, chewing and tastes. I lost a lot of weight unintentionally and became acutely aware of my mental, physical reactions to certain foods. In fact, there were times when the joy of eating, the emotional connection to food was limited to just a mechanical and survival mechanism, which is in line with the Buddhist philosophy of “emptiness”. This was quite upsetting at times, to become less
attached to the food, particularly after a certain point where I was no longer hungry. Once the needs of my body were met, there was no need to continue eating. The mechanical chewing actually became unnecessary, if not even boring or excessive. My mind was completely still, present, at one with the moment and therefore emotionally unattached to the food.
So how does it also help people who have other problematic eating habits? Quite simply, if you are overeating or being overly restrictive when you diet, it’s likely that you have lost track of your hunger and also satiation. This broken link between your body and mind needs to be healed.
Mindful eating can generally help in three ways:
- Mindful eating reminds you of your bodily cues: stop eating, start eating.
- Being mindful can assist in management of your emotions. Food restrictions or overeating can be a way of coping with negative feelings. With healthier ways of coping, such as mindful breathing and reduce anxiety, you will no longer manage your emotions through your food choices. You can then truly observe how you feel, and not stuff them down with food.
- Mindfulness changes the way you react to emotions, becoming an observer rather than a reactor. Rather than reacting to food-related thoughts that urge you to overeat, overly restrict your diet or emotionally eat, you respond to them. You can clearly observe these thoughts without conforming to them.
Mindful Meditative Eating: The Magic of slowing down
Being more attentive and aware in all aspects of your life can help you to improve your eating habits. This will even change some of your food choices. Have you ever eaten an entire plate of food and not even tasted one bite?
- Wash hands, face, or bathe before eating.
- Eat mindfully, slowly, tasting all foods. Slow eating can have amazing effects on digestion,and even weight loss. If you eat emotionally or for the sake of eating, you really need to
- Practice slow mindful eating. This will reduce overeating, and indigestion.
- Sit in a peaceful environment, free of disturbance from television, radio, phone calls, and excessive talking.
- Have regular meals at appropriate times: before 8am, midday, around 6pm.
- Allow time to pass between meals so all is digested before eating again. (2-3 hours, 4 hours for meat).
- Try and reduce strenuous exercise 1 hour before and after eating, but a short 10 minute walk after eating will promote digestion. Try and avoid lying down or sleeping straight after eating.
For perfect digestion, when eating, ask yourself these questions:
- Mind: Am I truly tasting each bite and flavor or am I completely somewhere else when I eat?
- Body: How does my body feel prior to and after eating? High or Low in energy? Stomach rumbling? Bloating? Gaseous? Full? Empty?
- Feeling: What do I feel about this food? Guilt? Pleasure? Joy? Disappointment? Regret? Nothing at all?
- Thoughts: What past and future thoughts does this food bring to mind? Memories? Beliefs? Myths?
- Fears? Any food dogma?
Mindful food choices
- Choose foods wisely that are very fresh, seasonal and organic, containing an abundance of nutrition and life energy. The foods you choose affect your body and your state of mind.
- Coffee, meats, fermented yellow cheeses, onions, chillies, tomatoes, onions, chocolate all aggravate the mental state and can reduce our calm sense of being. Monastic environments often follow these simple guidelines to keep the mind of the meditator calm and steady.
- Do not microwave your foods, or eat stale foods (24 hours the life force is gone), or overcook your foods. Avoid all pre-packaged foods, canned or frozen foods. If after eating you feel heaviness, sluggishness, heartburn, bloating, gas, you must listen to the body. The digestive system is not working as well as it could be, so implement changes.
- Mindful Cooking. Cook with wholesome and loving intent, with a relaxed state of mind. The energy of your thoughts and feelings are absorbed into the food you prepare. Actually in a monastic environment, often the most advanced monks are in charge of the cooking.
Yoga for Perfect Digestion
Lastly, we ask of ourselves that we have a healthy body that is free of stress, anxiety and ill health, so we can digest what we put in perfectly. If a person has anxiety, stress, or depression, then we can quite often see that their digestion will reflect this. If the digestion is poor, Yoga postures can greatly help re-ignite sluggish digestion, or cure nausea, reflux, burning or irritation of the track. You can learn some simple yogic exercises you can do daily to bring back perfect digestion. Yoga poses can also be practised suitable to ones Ayurvedic constitution.
10 day mindful eating challenge
Day 1 Embracing Solitude
Try to have a meal without disturbance, in silence, and preferably on your own without social interaction once on this day. This is a wonderful practice to do daily if possible…one meal per day in silence, observing and tasting all foods mindfully.
Sit down to eat at a table with good posture to aid digestion and switch of all devices, all technology and distractions, and also refrain from reading whilst eating. Stay completely focused on the meditation of eating.
Day 2 Slow down
In the time you set aside for your daily silent meal time, aim to have your eating meditation last for at least 30 minutes duration. This is a slow and steady concentrated period that is perfect for enhancing your digestion and also the steadiness of your mind. Mindful eating can be a truly liberating experience, and has equally successful therapeutic benefits as a seated meditation practice.
Take your time.
Always take at least 10-24 chews per mouthful, which aids the digestive process immensely, and also stops us from over-eating or emotional eating.
Day 3 Discovering our senses
Take the time to engage all your senses:
- Seeing: really observe all the colours and textures of your dish
- Smelling: Take time to smell your food before intake, observing likes and dislikes, emotional connections to foods, noticing whether you perceive smells as pleasant or unpleasant. Mindfulness itself is awareness without judgment or criticism.
- Feeling: Some cultures use their hands to eat so they have a deeper connection to the feeling the actual texture, quality, energy and sensation of food. If you don’t feel comfortable with this, try instead to feel your utensils in your own hands and then the sensation of chewing the food with its different textures in your mouth.
- Tasting: Take the time to observe the tastes you come across: Salty, sour, sweet, bitter, astringent, pungent. Chew slowly and notice how flavor is released, how long each lasts. Again, notice whether you have certain likes and dislikes, emotional connections, addictions, restrictions, beliefs around certain foods, and try and remain as “the observer” of the mind. A healthy mind means a healthy body. If you feel guilt or shame around your food intake, your body will be more adversely affected by those negative thoughts then a piece of cake taken mindfully.
- Listening: This comes in two ways, “listening to our foods” and the way in which the different textures create different sounds in the process of chewing, and also “listening to our bodies”.
The latter means to really listen to what the body is saying after consumption of foods. Do you experience gurgling, indigestion, flatulence, or heartburn? If so, the foods you are consuming may not be right for your body. Listen to what the body is saying. It has the most personal, expert and accurate nutritional advice for you.
Day 4 Cooking Mindfully
Take time to mindfully prepare your food, using your heightened sensory awareness. Use cooking time as quiet time, a way of engaging the five senses and connecting with the food and its life giving element of sustenance. A cook with a clear mindful outlook gives health and vitality to food with their positive intention. Behind the food there is compassion, attention, gratitude and energy.
Day 5 Finding the right level of sustenance for you
At meals, try taking two-thirds of the amount you feel you can eat. Observe emotions that may come up around reducing food intake around this exercise as you eat slowly, very mindfully.
Day 6 Noticing
Still taking two-thirds of your normal meal intake, check in with your feelings of satiation. Check in with your stomach—notice if it feels a quarter full, half full, three-quarters, full, over full?
Set your utensils down between bites.
Day 7 Gratitude
Offer a gift of thanks to all the many people, animals and insects that brought this food to your plate. All living beings in our vast ecosystem contribute to our nourishment, and in Buddhism this is honoured with feelings of gratitude to all levels. Often it is practiced that we also set aside a morsel of food as an offering back to the earth or some other living being. This can overcome feelings of greed and fear behind over-consumption of food or fear of wasting food, as we take part in the cycle of giving and receiving.
Day 8 Mindful washing up
Take your time to feel the water of washing the plates running over your hands and the dishes between your hands. Fell the process of cleansing taking place and become completely absorbed in the task at hand.
Day 9 Present moment awareness
There are many gates leading to a direct experience of this very moment. Mindful eating can create that present moment experience for us, making each meal sacred, a true experience of communion that is both internal and external. Remember to be present and engaged in the joys of cooking, eating, washing up.
Day 10 Creating a ceremonial meal
Follow all the nine steps from previous days, creating a full ceremonial meal for yourself to enjoy. Really take time to notice the differences in your attention, and the benefits to your body, mind and especially your heart.