We live in an age of food frenzy, an age of mixed messages and total confusion when it comes to what it means to eat healthily. Add this to the constant societal pressure to be thin and fit and beautiful, deciding what or how – or even if – to eat can become a series of emotional roller-coasters, dodgems, swings and roundabouts. So how do we navigate our way through the morass of contradictory and often disheartening information to find the truth?
Well, I think that firstly we need to acknowledge that the truth is different for each one of us. No one eating plan or supplement or programme or theory is going to work for all of us. We have to acknowledge our individuality and start to look for our own truth when it comes to eating and health. Hmm, so how do we do that? If you’re envisioning some elaborate quest or research mission, relax – it may be a little simpler than that.
Mindfulness is a hot topic right now and in the last few decades, leading universities all over the world have been researching the effects of this contemporary and ancient practice. And we now know that the practice of mindfulness or present moment awareness, has many benefits in various fields and environments. We know, for example, that studies have shown that mindfulness reduces the negative effects of stress, improves emotional and social intelligence, increases compassion and self-compassion, improves productivity and more.
Mindful eating is one of the practices of mindfulness and if you’ve done a mindfulness course or attended a mindfulness retreat, you’ll probably be familiar with the raisin meditation. Excitingly, studies have now revealed that eating mindfully – beyond the raisin – has a series of physiological and emotional benefits which include improved outcomes among people with eating disorders. Given the difficulty in treating these disorders with traditional therapies, these results are very positive.
Mindful eating is often assumed to be purely eating slowly and quietly and taking time to minimise distractions and really pay attention to what you’re eating is certainly a part of it, but it is about far more than that too. And let’s face it, given the frenetic way we find ourselves living, who has time for contemplating raisins? But, maybe there is a simpler and more doable way. Mindful eating for me is about two main themes – awareness and nurturing. If we can cultivate these two elements into our eating habits, then eating mindfully within the general rush of our lives becomes a spontaneous and sustainable shift rather than a tedious slog.
So let’s start with awareness. Many eating programmes call for food diaries and calorie counts and for some people these interventions are very effective, but for me and I am guessing for many others, these become just another stick to beat myself with – another reason to feel inadequate and to comfort eat. Mindful awareness is quite different in that it is a loving or compassionate awareness. It is an awareness without judgement, a gentle, kind and curious awareness of…
We start tuning into our bodies – to notice the sensations and needs that arise in our bodies moment by moment. This allows us to more accurately read the messages or cues our body is sending us. We start to recognise when our body is hungry or thirsty and when we are satiated and need to stop eating. We start to notice what kinds of foods leave us feeling good and which foods cause discomfort or imbalance in the form of bloating, lethargy, nausea, anxiety, etc. We also start to notice how and where different emotions arise in our body and how they are often misread as hunger.
We know that much of our ‘hunger’ stems from emotional needs rather than physiological needs and that we have lost the ability to read our body’s signs and signals correctly so we eat when we’re bored or lonely or sad or anxious or…you get the idea. By increasing our awareness of our emotions and feelings we can start to notice when we are driven to the pantry in order to satiate emotional hunger and we can start to ask ourselves if there is something else that may better serve us in that moment?
- Food content and source
I am not a proponent of label obsession, but I do reckon that the longer the label and the list of ingredients, the less healthy it is.
Eating ethically is also definitely a part of mindful eating and plays a role in our overall health and wellbeing. For me, eating foods that are as whole and unprocessed as possible is important as is eating food sourced locally. I do also think it is important to know what you are choosing to eat and where it came from. If you eat meat and fish for example, where and how did those creatures live? What sort of food did they eat? Were they given antibiotics and hormone treatments? Etc…
Eating, nourishment and enjoying our food is about far more than just our mouth – we eat with our eyes and our noses and all our senses. Tuning in to your senses will increase your awareness of how your food actually tastes, feels in your mouth, looks like, smells like, etc – this way of eating turns every meal into a truly sensual experience. An experience that satisfies us on several different levels.
- Thoughts about food
What are you believing about the food that you’re eating? Research is proving over and over that what we believe or think about our food determines how our body receives and metabolises that food. By becoming aware of our thoughts around food, we can start to influence those thoughts and ultimately influence the way our body reacts to the food we eat.
Once we have cultivated awareness, we spontaneously start to make nurturing and nourishing choices about food and around eating. This starts with choosing to befriend our bodies – we have lost connection with our bodies and we live in an age of body confusion and loathing. We are told that in order to be beautiful and happy, we have to be thin and firm and a certain shape and then in the next breath we’re told that in order to be happy we have to indulge ourselves, to have best and most decadent of everything. The result tends to be a disconnect from our bodies because we can’t be with the shame and inadequacy that we feel about our bodies. As we cultivate the compassionate awareness of mindful eating we also begin a purposeful befriending of our bodies – remembering that our bodies are the temple of our being and making choices to really nourish and care for that temple. We cultivate a sense of appreciation for this vessel that sustains us and allows us to live and experience the vast and varied pleasures and pains of this life.
Once this shift in awareness happens, making more nurturing choices becomes easier and dare I say it more natural. We recognise that it isn’t about denying ourselves or deliberately starving ourselves, but about choosing foods that are fresh and whole and nourishing. About listening and to and trusting the wisdom of our bodies so that we can care for the body that works so hard for us.
And lastly, it is about recognising that it isn’t about being puritan – we do the best we can and we work towards an 80/20 scenario. Choosing to nurture yourself also means choosing not to hurt yourself with critical thoughts and mean and judgmental self-talk. We can only ‘kill the bad eating habits” with kindness – the more we truly nourish ourselves, the less we need the less-healthy comfort foods we have come to rely on. Be kind, be curious, be happy – Thrive.