Have you ever wolfed down an entire meal without tasting it? Do you eat foods you don’t really care for just because they are in front of you? Do you continue to eat after you are full? Do you eat out of boredom? I answer yes to all those questions and I tend to be a mindless eater. I don’t often stop to consider where my food came from or who contributed to getting it onto my dinner table. A few months ago I endeavoured to bring mindfulness practice to eating.
I am not obese, neither am I my ideal weight -even my doctor agrees with that so I am not just another skinny woman suffering from body image problems. Which is not to say that I am not suffering from body image problems – I am! I am not content with my body – I always want to lose 5 or 10 pounds no matter how much I weigh or how much I lose – just 5 more and then I will be happy.
Yes, I know, happiness is not dependent on my weight or how I look or any of those external factors. Many fat people are happy and many skinny people are not. And I am mostly happy, most of the time – unless I’m not. Which brings me to another important self-disclosure. I am not an emotional eater. Well that is unless eating when I am happy is emotional eating. I am an emotional non-eater. I hold stress in my stomach and when I am depressed or anxious or both (they seem to go together for me) my stomach churns and agitates and I do not want to eat. Being stressed is a great diet plan for me – I can lose weight like crazy if I am unhappy enough. Unfortunately, I am also unhappy so not enjoying the svelte body at all.
However, when I am happy I love nothing more than to hang out in the kitchen trying new recipes and cooking up feasts for friends and family. I relish in dishing up 4 course meals, I read recipe books for entertainment and can’t wait to try out something wonderful and new. I love the smells and feel of food. I love the warmth of my big kitchen when the oven is emanating delicious odours and pots of bubbling steamy goodness sit atop the stove. I can’t wait to sit down at the table and tuck into all that wonderful nutritious yumminess.
Which is where the problem begins. I don’t wait. I spoon it directly from the pot into my salivating mouth. I set a block of cheese and a box of crackers on the cutting board to have a snack and mindlessly whack off hunks of cheese and pile it onto crackers and when I am satiated I look and realize I have just consumed half a block of cheese. At dinner time I eat quickly and voraciously, loving the flavours so much I just can’t wait for the next bite – so I don’t. Before I know it I am dishing up my second helping, having inhaled the first without taking barely a breath.
I have spent years trying to practice and cultivate mindfulness but hadn’t thought to apply it to eating. Then I listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn talking about mindfulness and applying it to all aspects of life. As an exercise he had everyone eat a raisin. But first we had to look at it, really examine it for a long time. Then smell it – really get a sense of this particular raisin. Eventually we were allowed to put it in our mouths – slowly. Feeling it with our lips, our tongues, our teeth. Getting to know our raisin, its ridges and wrinkles. I thought I would lose my mind not being able to devour the raisin – my teeth longed to munch it up – it was almost unbearable. When we finally got to bite it – very slowly chew it – and swallow it I was on the verge of screaming from frustration and wanted to grab the whole bag of raisins and pour them down my throat. I’m pretty sure I swallowed mine quicker than anyone else. The whole process took about five minutes.
I decided then and there that I would incorporate mindful eating into my daily practice. As part of this practice I set myself only 3 guidelines – I had to sit down to eat, I had to want to eat, and I had to be present – not thinking about what I had done earlier or what I had to do next, not reading or doing a crossword, just being here now. It has been an interesting journey. I have lost 15 pounds over 4 months – eating whatever I want, whenever I want! Now when I want a cheese and cracker snack, I cut the cheese into slices, put some crackers on a plate and sit at the table. I take a minute or so to connect with and be thankful for the food and I eat as much as I would like to. Because I am paying attention, I notice when I am full, I eat more slowly, I enjoy each bite more and taste it more fully.
I have always paid attention to nutrition and have a tendency to lean toward healthy foods such as organic vegetarian fare but I find as I eat more mindfully, I shop more mindfully. I wonder where my food came from. Did this chicken I am buying for my husband live a gruelling existence in a cage or was it allowed to run free and feel the sunshine? I find that these things matter to me more. Were these oats grown on soil that is chemically saturated and where are those chemicals produced and who suffers from that production? How far did that orange have to travel and at what cost to the environment?
It doesn’t mean I always make choices that support completely ethical and organically grown food but mindfulness is supporting making healthier choices for me, my family and the planet. I am far from perfect and I don’t always follow my mindful eating practice but when I do I feel better, eat healthier and maintain a healthier weight. The best part is I never feel like I am depriving myself as I have done following countless weird restricting diets over the course of my lifetime.
EXERCISES FOR MINDFUL EATING
1. Sit down and do not engage in any other activities such as reading, television, crosswords etc.
2. Pay attention to the food in front of you, Notice the colours, textures, shapes and smells. Give thanks for the food.
3. Imagine the journey your food took to get to your plate. Who grew it, who bought it, how was it prepared?
4. Select a piece of food to eat and notice how it looks and smells. Notice the movement of your arm, your hands and your mouth as you lift the food and put it in your mouth.
5. Notice the texture of the food in your mouth. Is it soft and smooth or chewy and crunchy?
6. Chew slowly and notice the flavour.
7. Pay attention to your hunger and notice what happens with each bite that you swallow.
8. Continue to eat slowly and when your body lets you know it is no longer hungry, stop eating