January 28th is Mindful Eating Day sponsored by The Center for Mindful Eating. It is designed to celebrate the joy of eating, and I fully support that.
If you are unfamiliar with what Mindful Eating is, I encourage you to check out this piece by my friend and colleague, Laura Henson, RDN:
Essentially, Mindful Eating is the practice of bringing conscious, mindful awareness to your food choices and your body’s intuitive signals while engaging all your senses to make the experience satisfying and nourishing to both your body and your mind. Anecdotally, we see this kind of eating experience being practiced regularly in other countries with noted benefits to their health. In our busy and hectic lifestyle, we rarely make the time to approach food in this way.
A few months ago I discussed how mindfulness can reduce needless physical and emotional suffering. I outlined something I call “food meditation”, which is designed to rewire how our brains think about - and thus how we behave around - food. Mindful Eating is exactly what does that. I want to build on that idea and add some thoughts here about mindfulness and how it can help us overcome mental barriers.
In the same book I referenced in the aforementioned blogpost, Dr. Daniel Siegel provides insight into how mindfulness can allow us to create rich and meaningful experiences in our lives. In doing so, we can progress and grow rather than feeling stuck in the mundane. Since many of the individuals I work with have lost their love for food, I find this particularly intriguing. It’s very common to feel guilt, shame, frustration, confusion, disappointment or just plain aversion to food rather than trust, love, respect and confidence. The good news is that you can change that, with Mindful Eating.
As Dr. Siegel suggests, the experiences we have are influenced by two types of information which he calls top down information and bottom up information. Top down information is the data we have gathered from past experiences. Bottom up information is new information we are gathering in the unfolding present moment. Too often, however, top down information completely dominates the experience and we lose what’s happening right in front of us. Take for example, that you are eating an apple. It’s likely you have eaten hundreds of apples in your lifetime so your brain has all sorts of data on it. If you’ve ever eaten a rotten apple and you bring that to your awareness as you are eating, it could likely spoil the experience for you. Or maybe the last apple you ate was perfectly ripe and crisp so your expectation of the current apple would be the same, which leaves you disappointed when this apple is mealy and gross. Or because you think you already know how apples taste, you just go through the motions of eating without noting the distinct tastes, textures and mouth-feel of THIS particular apple.
Before you think I’m getting too technical or irrelevant, let me make my point.
When you’ve had negative experiences with food (disordered eating, eating disorder, food fear, dieting, deprivation, bingeing, confusion, anxiety, etc) you could be perceiving an issue with food when there isn’t one. Mindfulness - Mindful Eating - allows you to approach every eating experience as a NEW experience instead of functioning on autopilot and defaulting to past negative experiences, emotions and behaviors. You can start to let go of old beliefs and experiences that don’t serve you. You can create a new relationship with food that is healthy, vibrant, accepting, respectful and loving. Over time, as your mind and body heal from any trauma around food, you will start to see that food respects you when you respect it with your time, attention and positive vibe. And I do believe that if you have felt certain foods have caused you trouble in the past, you may find that they don’t.
So I encourage you to try it. Some helpful hints:
- Let yourself feel satisfaction from your meals. Don’t fight it. Some are scared to feel full and satisfied - but this is the solution to food issues.
- Base decisions on what, when and how much to eat on how you feel RIGHT NOW not on what you ate yesterday or what you are eating later. Do the same when later comes.
- Being aware of how you are sensing your food (appearance, taste, smell, touch, sound) will be a great replacement for any past judgments you may have about it. If you notice your mind wandering to judgement or anxiety about the food, gently bring your mind back to your senses. Mindfulness is being open and accepting of the present moment.
- When you are not eating, allow your mind to focus on what you are doing rather than ruminating over what you ate or are going to eat. This is only possible when you leave the table satisfied, otherwise it’s easy to remain preoccupied with food. If you find yourself feeling anxious and guilty or shameful about food choices, gently bring your mind to your current situation.
- Aim to eat in a relaxed environment free from distractions.
This level of consciousness could feel hyperaware, and it will if eating has been mindless in the past. But remember - being conscious, mindful and aware has the potential to add richness to your experiences. Being disinterested, apathetic, preoccupied or obsessed will exhaust you.
Will you join me in eating mindfully today?
Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD