Monday, October 7, 2013

30 Day Challenge #1: Mindful Eating

I love new experiences. I love self-improvement and I love experimenting with new ways of being. So when I was introduced to the idea of a 30 Day Challenge, it immediately got my excitement gears turning.

I often experiment with new behaviors: challenging myself to a week of eating as a vegetarian, a week of meditation, or a month of consistent gym visits. When I was a child I enjoyed challenging myself to how many pancakes or pieces of pizza could I eat. (I believe it was around 7). Making arbitrary goals is a motivator for me, and transforms my everyday routine into an adventure.

I was first inspired to try this experiment by a brief TED Talk presented by Matt Cutts which you can view here.

His message is simple: try something new for 30 days. You can maintain almost anything for 30 days if you put your mind to it. (In fact some estimate that it takes 21 days to form a habit, so it just may stick.)

I wanted to begin with something relatively simple, fun, and meaningful. So I chose: mindful eating!

Now before I get into why I chose mindful eating, or the results of this challenge, I first want to explain a little a bit about what mindful eating is (and isn't). Mindful eating is not a diet plan, eating healthy, or even "watching what you eat". You can eat an In-N-Out cheeseburger or a bowl of ice cream just as mindfully as you can eat a salad or veggie stir-fry. Mindful eating is essentially a mindfulness exercise using food, such that when you eat you are present with your food. You become aware of what you are consuming and engage with your senses, attending to the tastes, textures, sights, and smells. It's the opposite of going on auto-pilot and allowing your mind to wander from your physical presence. Mindful eating means you are in the now and are tuned in to your food.

Well, don't we do this all the time? Maybe you do, but I don't! And this is precisely why this challenge was so appropriate for me.

I love food. I adore analyzing the flavors and savoring my meal, but all too often I find my mind drifting away. I have a habit of eating very fast, and before I know it, my meal is gone...all too soon.

So why Mindful Eating?

1) It's an easy way to embed a mindfulness practice into your daily routine. I eat multiple times a day, so this almost guarantees a mindfulness practice. It gives you something to anchor your practice to.

2) It can help with portion control. By learning to eat mindfully, my hope is that I will slow down my eating, which in turn will prevent me from overeating. If I slow it down, I will register feelings of fullness faster and feel more satisfied by my food.

3) It allows for greater enjoyment of food.  I figure if you are going to eat ~3x/day anyway, you might as well enjoy it. Food is a simple pleasure that should be savored!

4) It can lead to healthier food choices. A plan for mindful eating may have the welcomed byproduct of making you more conscious of what you chose to eat in the first place. Or at the very least it can open your eyes to what you might want to change in the future.

5) It can help pinpoint emotional eating issues. When you notice yourself default into mindless eating you can ask yourself: What am I feeling right now? Why did I just dissociate from my food? What led to this? It can also help you be more conscious of the emotions that led you to eat in the first place.

During my 30 Day Challenge I kept a daily log of the things I ate and at what times in order to increase my awareness of the food I was eating and to help hold myself accountable. I was able to record all of my meals and remember to eat mindfully at nearly every meal. However this challenge was not without it's challenges. I would often find myself drifting away during my meal, often due to Internet, TV, or conversation with others. The silver lining is that I would catch myself countless times and refocus my attention, much like you would if you are engaging in a meditation practice. I once heard the analogy of treating the mind like a wandering puppy. If the puppy wanders you don't yell at the puppy, but rather you gently guide it back. And the same goes for mindfulness.

During my own "wandering puppy" moments I made a point to observe what was going on during these times, and to identify what might help me minimize them in the future (facilitators vs. barriers to mindful eating). From these observations, I generated the following tips:

1) Eat fresh, healthy food. The better you feel about your food choices, the easier it is to be present with your food and the emotions that are attached to it. Also, if there is anything that tastes off about your food this practice is going to be much harder. A few times I ate produce that wasn't at the ideal freshness and it made savoring my food almost impossible.

2) Detach from distractions. If you have your phone by your side, the chances of you completing a mindfulness practice are incredibly slim. Of all the pitfalls, this was probably the biggest one for me.

3) Make time for meals. If you are feeling rushed, you're not going to to be able to slow yourself down. Make sure you set aside time in your day for your meal. And take note of when your mind wants to default to "I'm in a rush, I'm in a rush" mode. This is a natural impulse I notice in myself during a variety of activities.

4) Eat your favorite foods. If it's food that you truly like, you are going to have a much easier time savoring it...but only if you can resist the impulse to scarf it down. Look at this practice as an opportunity for self-care: to relax, nourish your body, and enjoy yourself.

5) Remind yourself that if you are enjoying your food, you will get to enjoy it longer if you slow it down! It's very counterintuitive that you would try to rush through something that you are enjoying, but it happens all the time.

6) Challenge yourself to analyze your food. What seasonings or flavors are you noticing? What adjectives would you use to describe it? What would you add/change about the dish? This kind of exploration can help you become more engaged with your practice. It can also help you become a better cook or more discerning in your future culinary endeavors!

7) Set your fork down. If you set your fork/spoon/sandwich down in between bites it's going to slow you down, and make mindfulness much easier!

7) Have some self-compassion. It's okay if your mind wanders, its normal. Just don't let that discourage you from practicing. Like I always say: You get good at what you practice. So don't sabotage yourself with unrealistic expectations, just focus on the process of learning. Also resist the impulse to beat yourself up about an unhealthy food choice. This will only drag you further into the depths of mindless, detached eating. (And you know what that leads to, right? More unhealthy food choices.) Rather take this setback as opportunity to tune into what you are feeling. Explore your relationship with food and target potential emotional eating habits that you can address. Do you eat when you are bored? Sad? Anxious? What could you do differently in the future when this comes up?

8) Keep practicing. It took you years to develop the habits you have now, so it's going to take some time to reverse them. It's not enough to start the meal off with an intention for mindful eating, you are going to have to keep reminding yourself throughout the meal.

Even though my 30 Day Challenge is technically complete, I plan on making Mindful Eating a daily practice. It's actually been a goal of mine for years, as I wrote a blog about it almost 3 years ago which you can view here.

At first I was judging myself for the fact that I STILL haven't mastered mindful eating, but then I realized that there is actually  nothing wrong with this. If anything, I should be delighted that I have continued to remain determined to work on it over such a long period of time! And I imagine even 3 years from now I will still be working on it. But such is life! Most things are not achieved once and for all, but rather practiced and maintained.

I will not allow a desire for perfection to sabotage my personal growth. If I forgot to eat mindfully yesterday, so what?! I can get back on track today! So keep on munching mindfully!

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