One of the ancient secrets to optimal health and longevity in the classical Chinese medicine texts is mindful eating. Scientists are now discovering what the ancient sages have known for thousands of years: if we slow down, we are able to be present with food and our relationship to food and we begin to know the true meaning of healthful eating. Mindful eating is not necessarily limited to what we eat - it is also about how we eat. It's not confined to what is on our minds about what we should be eating, but it's also about what is on our minds while we are eating. And researchers are finding that this practice can help us to be healthier, relieve stress, and shed many of the neuroses that we associate with food.
We live such fast paced lives, eating becomes an auto-pilot activity. We tend to unconsciously take one bite after another with the objective of finishing the meal, or we multi-task as we eat, get caught up in conversations, surf the Internet, or check our phone for text messages. But when we slow down and check in with ourselves, we are more in touch with what foods feel healthy to eat, how much of it our bodies really need, and/or why we are eating it.
From a Chinese Medicine perspective, there is no point in eating healthy food if the body is unable to absorb the nutrients properly. Being present with your food as opposed to multi-tasking while eating allows the body to focus its attention on digesting and transforming the food into energy. Eating slowly and chewing thoroughly not only facilitates this process, it also allows us to truly savour our food. Researchers have found that being present with the flavour and texture of food and reflecting on the purpose of each bite as we relish it can even help address obesity.
Slowing down to stop and consider if our body really needs a particular food, or how much of it our body really needs, or why we are wanting to eat it cultivates a healthy habit of checking in with ourselves. This helps us to look more deeply into the nature of our cravings rather than be swept away by them and it allows us to recognize what factors are driving our cravings, allowing us to deal with them on a more fundamental level.
Eating slowly also prevents over-eating. I was on a Mindfulness Meditation retreat recently where at the beginning of the week, I filled my plate at every meal as I would normally - with some of every delicious item in the buffet. As the retreat progressed, I noticed that I was having a hard time finishing everything on my plate as I was eating at a slower pace and I would feel full before even finishing my meal. I realized that I normally ate at a faster pace so that I ended-up clearing my plate before I even knew that I was already full, and so would end-up feeling over-stuffed. By the end of the retreat, I was more mindful when serving myself and had a much better sense of what I truly needed to be comfortably satiated and not be wasteful. It was considerably less food on the plate, I didn't suffer from discomfort and indigestion, and I had a healthier, more empowered, attitude toward food where I was able to pass-up what I knew would be excessive or uncomfortable despite how deliciously tempting it might appear. It also felt sustainable because it stemmed from direct experience and not from a theoretical place of "I should or shouldn't."
Another aspect of Mindful Eating can be to reflect on food as being a "gift from the whole universe." Studies have shown that feeling gratitude helps to relieve stress and depression; meditating on and feeling grateful for all of the aspects that have come together to provide a meal to sustain us can help bring us out of our anxieties and grievances as well as compound the nourishing effects of our food. You might want to try it when you're alone at first, so as not to feel self-conscious. Start with a favourite dish, and instead of turning the radio or TV on, instead of flicking on your computer or reading the paper, try sitting somewhere you feel comfortable, or maybe somewhere with a nice view. Take a few breaths before you start to eat and take a moment to look at your meal. This might be a good time to reflect on this food as a gift and all of the different elements that have come together to bring it to you. Take a first bite and put your fork down so that you can completely enjoy your bite. Be in your senses with it so that you are present with its texture, smell, and taste. Wait until your bite is completely finished before taking another one.
Practicing Mindful Eating can be intimidating so you can start simple. It's a practice, and sounds relatively easy but can certainly prove to be more of a challenge. It could be as simple as stopping to enjoy a cup of your favourite tea or even just the first few sips of it, and the effects of slowing down for no matter how short a period of time helps to cultivate a healthy practice of self awareness.
Here are some helpful tips:
- Simply eat. Avoid multi-tasking while you're eating.
- Chew thoroughly. Make sure each bite is well-chewed before swallowing it. Aim for 25-30 bites.
- Quiet. Consider eating in silence, even if it's just for the first 5 minutes of your meal.
- Routine. Set a particular time aside each week to truly savour a few sips or bites, or a favourite beverage or meal.