A while back 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. I want to build on that idea and add some thoughts here about mindfulness and how it can help us overcome feeling stuck in habitual, disordered food patterns.
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.
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. Since many of the individuals I work with have lost their love for food, I find this particularly helpful. 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, and Mindful Eating can help.
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.
I think this is super helpful information. How much is top down information influencing your experiences in negative ways? Could you focus more on bottom up information as a way to break free from disordered eating patterns?
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, accepting and peaceful. 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.
Here are some helpful hints in making meal times more mindful:
- Practice mindful eating by focusing on how you are sensing your food (appearance, taste, smell, touch, sound – if applicable). Focusing there can be a great replacement for top down information and any judgment or anxiety you might be experiencing. If you notice your mind wandering, gently bring your mind back to your senses.
- Let yourself feel satisfaction from your meals. Aiming for satisfaction naturally decreases patterns of under eating or overeating, because neither of those are satisfying, more like uncomfortable or painful.
- 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.
- When you finish eating, allow your mind to focus on what you are currently doing rather than ruminating over what you ate or are going to eat later. This is easier if 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. BUT, here’s a disclaimer: life happens and sometimes food gets us from point A to point B which is totally fine. I still think there are ways to be mindful and intentional with food even when other things are going on at meal times. None of this is all or nothing!
This level of consciousness could feel hyperaware and you may not want to do it at each meal. However, I think there is a lot of value in seeking out opportunities to explore mindful approaches to food as away to break out of habitual patterns. I hope you find it helpful!