An exercise in mindfulness that I am currently experimenting with is mindful eating. This means focusing my awareness on the tastes, textures, scents, and sights provided by food. Rather than eating passively, I am trying to eat deliberately so that I can savour my food.
Eating is so simple and routine that it's easy to eat on autopilot. You may barely even notice how much you are eating, or exactly what it tastes like. Maybe you are eating on the go, in front of a TV, or while you're attention is occupied. The food disappears but you hardly register the process it took to eat it.
This kind of eating is perpetuated by our culture. Productivity is one of America's most cherished values, and if you are taking too much time to eat, you're wasting time. Equally, our culture has a lot of shame and guilt attached to food. Thinness is worshiped like a God, so eating is often seen as gluttonous and self-indulgent. Especially for those who have experiences with dieting, poor body image or eating disorders, eating can become a task riddled with guilt and regret. After a weekend of breaking from a diet I might say "I was bad this weekend" or if I adhered to a diet plan I might say "I was really good." Since when did food become a battle between good vs. evil?
As a society we eat fast and suffer from a host of mixed messages. On one hand we are confronted with thoughts like "Oh wow that chocolate cake looks so heavenly!"or "I don't have time to cook a meal, I'll just pick up some fast food." And on the other hand we might be trying to lose weight and live a "healthy" lifestyle. Indulge. Deprive. Be thin. Eat cheeseburgers. Huh?
Is it possible to eat with pleasure without the over-indulgence or the guilt? To eat for enjoyment, but also for sustenance? This is why I think mindful eating can help...
I am normally a fast eater. I can hardly help it. Even though I enjoy, appreciate and analyze food I still eat soooo fast! I have been trying to slow down but have found myself largely unsuccessful. Sometimes I am so hungry by the time I eat dinner that I devour my food, other times I'm distracted and eat fast out of habit, and other times I find myself unconsciously feeling like if I don't eat my food fast enough, it's somehow going to disappear (when in reality it's the other way around). And perhaps some of the time I am eating fast to avoid feelings of discomfort or guilt. However, the main reason I eat fast is plain and simple: habit.
By eating with awareness my hope is that I can break this habit. If I try to tune into my food, I will naturally slow down and be more aware when I am starting to eat fast. By eating slower I can enjoy my food, register what I have ate, and have a better sense of when I am full. I can have a healthier relationship with food. Rather than feeling guilty about enjoying food I can embrace it. And interestingly the result will not be that I will eat more, but rather that I eat less.
So far my experiments with mindful eating have had the following effects:
1) Food tastes more robust. My taste buds seem more stimulated and am able to sense the multitude of flavors integrated within the food.
2) My ability to analyze ingredients in food has been enhanced. (This helps me replicate recipes with greater ease).
3) I have been eating a lot slower.
4) I feel calm, patient, and content (as opposed to rushed, ravenous, anxious, or guilty)
5) I feel full faster.
6) The process of eating feels like an "experience" rather than a routine.
7) I feel more satisfied by the food. By focusing on it's features, I am able to register them better. This makes it easier to stop eating when I am full.
8) I have started noticing textures and physical sensations of food that I didn't pay attention to before
So far it has been a worthwhile experience. Even practicing eating mindfully for a few minutes of a meal can be a good exercise. Perhaps one day I will be able to eat at a slower pace and with greater satisfaction all the time. It's not easy to break habits but over time they can get better.
If I could leave you with a parting message based on my knowledge and experiences I would say: Don't feel guilty about enjoying your food! It is one of life's pleasures and enjoying it will not make you eat more of it. If anything it will help you to eat more moderately, and yes, even lose weight. Try to attend to the flavors and textures in your food and see what differences you notice in the taste and the experience of eating. You might encounter a whole new dimension of food. Munch Mindfully.