Can you remember the last time you sat and ate food without any distraction or preoccupation? When did you last sit with your meal, letting go of your obsession with constant multi-tasking? If you asked me these questions, I’d have to rack my brains too. I had not a clue about mindful eating and I had long crossed the stage when I could even remember what “mealtimes” were supposed to look like when I didn’t have my laptop in front of me as I chewed on my rajma chawal or – at the very least – had the television on in the background.
Simply put, I just couldn’t bring myself to actually savour my meals or snacks anymore. My lack of self-awareness made me believe that I was always hungry (even when I wasn’t actually) and I wouldn’t think twice before stuffing myself full with anything that came my way. The repercussions were dire. I was either too hungry to focus or too full to stay awake. I was losing my intuitive connection with my gut. In addition, I was also increasingly unaware of my hunger signals disguised as cries for help.
We find it convenient to eat while working or watching Netflix or surfing through Facebook. In fact, we have normalised it. It is also not surprising that we consider eating secondary to other tasks. We’re conditioned to not eat alone. We innately believe that our eyes and ears should be assigned other tasks while eating.
Clearly, this isn’t what mealtimes were intended for – to be eroded away by multi-tasking. In fact, research has shown that meal multi-tasking also adversely impacts our appetite and digestion – or more specifically, our Taste Perception. So, how do we get out of this labyrinth? Mindful eating could be your answer.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the quality of being fully engaged with whatever we’re doing at the moment. This means we’re a) free from distraction or judgment, and b) aware of our thoughts and feelings without spiralling in them.
We associate the idea of living in the moment with experiences we have been waiting for – going for that trip you have been longing for, spending time with your loved ones or taking a day off from work. We want those moments to last forever so we dive deep into everything revolving around that experience. What happens after those longed-for moments pass by? We just go back to how we were. It’s instinctive, but that’s where we’re probably going wrong.
Mindfulness is being aware of your actions, thoughts and movements in a situation. You don’t have to detach yourself from your life to experience mindfulness. Instead, we need to embrace it in our daily actions – to tune in to our thoughts, feel relieved, and to work towards mental and emotional awareness.
What is mindful eating?
How do you feel when you order your favourite meal from your favourite restaurant? You relish every bite in-the-moment, hear the crunch as you had imagined, savour the aroma, and most importantly, feel satisfied. Your takeaway, then, is the experience of immersing yourself in the eating process and this is how you cherish your food every time you think of it. This is mindful eating. You have experienced this before, and have practised this every time you visit there, and you would probably remember this as the last time you ate a meal without distraction. Adda Bjarnadóttir, a registered nutritionist in Iceland shares that distractions are the first issue to address,
“I think the most important first step towards mindful eating habits is getting rid of distractions during mealtimes. Turn off the TV, leave your phone in another room, and make an effort to focus on the meal itself. Look at the food in front of you, take in the smell, the colors, and the sensations it produces, and make an effort to be present during the meal.”
You can apply mindful eating to every bite you take in your day. As you are aware of the food you are consuming and engaging all five senses, you are transforming your relationship with food and your mental health. Yes, you read it right, all five senses.
How do you engage your senses while eating?
To experience a finger-licking good moment, you’ve to live it exactly the way it sounds. Finger-licking good. My takeaway from KFC ad is not the finger-looking good chicken, but how they engage their senses to experience that feeling. It probably tempts you to try their chicken and crave it as if you “need” it, but you can create this delightful experience with every food you eat. Next time when you look at food, try taking a few moments and indulging into a soulful experience. Your gut will thank you, and so will your mental health. Here’s how:
- Sight: Look and compliment the food in front of you. How colourful does it look? What is the portion size? What is the first thing you will go for from the platter?
- Smell: Bring the spoon close to your nose and smell it. Can you guess the flavours dominating the platter? Does it make you hungrier? Does the aroma take you back to something? Do you feel nostalgic?
- Touch: This is your finger-licking good moment. Touch the food and feel the texture. Many cultural groups tend to have food with their bare hands, without cutlery, no matter how messy it gets. If you get a chance, go for it.
- Taste: Does the taste complement your sight, smell and touch experience? Chew your food slowly and feel the crunch or mushiness from every bite. Does it melt in your mouth? Does it feel fresh with every crunch? For you to be able to experience mindfulness, chew your food at least 16 times (Pro tip: it will help with your digestion).
- Sound: What does it sound like? Does it create music with every bite you take? It may not do so literally, but consider ruminating over whether it is squishy like jelly or crunchy like lettuce?
This exercise is not like other diet regimes or fads. This is simply the process of conscious eating. It surely constrains distractions, but that is the first step to adopting a healthy lifestyle. Food fuels your mind and body, so it makes sense for you to be aware of what you are inserting in the temple of your body? Once you practice it, you will feel great about treating your gut, body and brain right by letting them experience the same awareness by osmosis.
Mindful eating practices
Mindfulness is a gift we give ourselves to keep our mind and bodies connected to the present. Do you eat in a rush or get lost in thought spirals? Well, we have news. Such overthinking fools our minds into believing that the mere act of eating has nothing to do with being fulfilled but is supplementary to other actions and activities. This is why we fall prey to binge-eating while watching Netflix or stress eat or feel cranky even after consuming a healthy meal.
A simple pleasure of mindful eating can make you aware of how much food your body needs for the day. This will, in turn, lead to weight management, improved energy, more focus and release of serotonin – the feel-good hormones that make you feel positive about yourselves.
So, what happens when this relationship with food and the act of eating is not nurtured? To put it broadly, we look at food very negatively.
Negative thinking practices during eating like, “this will only make me fat”, “I am feeling guilty of having this”, “I have no other choice but to live with this” etc. lead to stress. Your body releases cortisol aka the “stress hormone”, leading to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, thus, storing the food as fat. No matter what nutritional value the meal provides, even if it is healthy, it will be counted as fat to respond to the “fight or flight” situation you’ve created with these thoughts.
Chronically stressed? Cortisol can lead to an increase in appetite. This is the primary reason you tend to binge-eat, unbeknownst to the fact that it is only making you worse: physically, emotionally and mentally.
Mindful eating can guide you to be aware of the caloric requirements of your body. You will be more aware of yourself, your thoughts, your body and emotions. Your body gives you cues of when you are hungry or feeling satiated, all you need is your senses to be aware of those requirements. Embracing your needs without judgements can help you answer, “When are you feeling hungry?”, “What does your body need?”, “Am I enjoying the food?”, “Is the portion size enough or do I need more food on my plate?”
As Bjarnadóttir explains, “Taking a step back and looking at the big picture it’s easy to see how mindful eating habits will contribute to better mental health. Simply taking time to wind down before a meal, focusing only on the food in front of you and eating it with attention and without judgment, will promote lower stress levels, decrease your eating speed, improve your digestion, and build a healthier relationship with food overall.”
Redefining your relationship with food
What we eat and how we eat defines us. You can prioritise yourself by listening to your gut and its requirements. Very likely, we wouldn’t associate stomach aches to our eating habits but to the food itself. It is easy to blame the food in such instances, instead of being cognizant. This is the point where we take a turn to the road more travelled – our obsession with food, weight and body shape.
Thoughts and actions linked to being overweight even when you’re dangerously underweight, excessive exercising, forced vomiting and binge eating until painfully full, uncontrollable binge eating in short periods of time are a few eating patterns that grow and breed in such conditions. Everyone is unique and so is their eating pattern. Understanding your unique cycle could bring you in sync with your daily life and actions. The more you run away from it, the more you let your obsession haunt you.
My relationship with food changed after I started cooking my meals every day. It didn’t start out this way, but I ended up enjoying the activity of cooking. Now, with time, I understand my body better, realise when I am full and satiated, and if at all, I enjoyed the food. I realised that my eating pattern was different; I tend to get hungry every three hours. It could be a different revelation for you. The point is that mindfulness can make you aware of your eating pattern. Then, it can help you adjust how you can cater to it.
Most of the time, I would punish myself by feeling guilty for not having healthy meals during weekends but associating food with punishment only made it worse. Before we blame the food for making us feel tired, unclear, lost and drowsy, we should probably try to understand how we perceive foods and consume them. The narrative gets us obsessed with being thin or starting a new diet regime. Pulling ourselves down with negative thoughts about food only ruins our relationship with our mind, body, food choices and eating habits.
We are probably aware of good and bad food choices, and associate feelings to each of those categories. But for once, take a step back and associate good and bad eating habits with those feelings. What’s on our plate is equally as important as how we consume it. Now when you are heading to the kitchen to grab your food or unpacking a takeaway, look at it, smell it and thank your food for charging you up for the day.
Keen to learn more about mindful eating? Get started with these resources to kick start your journey with mindful eating habits:
- Mindful eating with Mayo – Karen Mayo
- Eat what you love, love what you eat – Michelle May
- Mindful eating – Natasha Lantz
- Eating Mindfully by Susan Albers Psy.D
- Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink
- Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating by Jane Goodall, Gary McAvoy, Gail Hudson