Eating mindfully

Eating is one of the greatest pleasures we have in life. I have always loved food and sometimes I think that I live to eat :-). As one of the most important components of our daily existence, food is the thing that fuels us, keeps us nourished, happy and full of energy. Therefore being selective and appreciative of the food that you are introducing in your body is one the best thing that you can do for your well-being.

“Food is information that tells the body how to operate” wrote Novak Djokovic in “Serve to win”. I couldn’t agree more. If you don’t eat nutritious food or don’t eat in the right way, then you are misguiding your body into not operating at its full capacity.

Nonetheless, despite acknowledging all of the above, in the past seven years, I’ve increasingly sidelined the act of eating, from making my meals an add-on to another primary activity (e.g. working, web surfing) to replacing some of my meals with snacks or skipping them altogether. This made me unhappy and I sought to understand why I chose to act this way.

When I became a student and moved to university halls, I was initially quite good in terms of eating my meals at the table in the shared kitchen with no distractions.  Then, progressively, I became more socially secluded and inward looking, and so I started having my meals in my room. By doing this, I marginalised even more the act of eating, as I started to combine it with:

I. Entertaining myself

In my naivety, I thought that if I ate while undertaking another leisurely activity that could be done whilst seated at the table, I amplify the pleasure I got from eating. Or that eating wasn’t complete if enjoyed on its own, without complementing it with some sort of entertainment. However, this had the contrary effect, as, for example, eating whilst watching videos, checking emails, Facebooking or aimlessly surfing the internet made me eat quicker than I would have done otherwise, as my brain would work to process the information I was exposing myself to. Eating is a pleasurable activity on its own, and we shouldn’t feel the need to do anything else in that time to enhance the pleasure we get from it.

II.  Working

I started eating while working for 3 reasons:

1. Comfort-seeking

I thought that food was providing me with the comfort to get me through work. Snacking while working has always kept me going through the dull and the tedious and by having my meals while working, I made them feel like a prolonged snack. Inevitably, this worsened the bad habit of combining eating with snacking.

2. Eating-less strategy

I thought that if I ate while working, I would be eating less than if I were solely focused on my food and on eating. Now I realise how naïve this belief was. Firstly, my brain started to associate the act of eating with the act of working, and now my brain thinks of food often when I sit down to work. Conditioning the mind to think of food while working is an unhealthy habit as it can lead to loss of productivity and even food addiction. This is because the work we do is (or should be) the primary activity in our lives and therefore associating it with eating means the brain won’t be able to labour at full capacity in the absence of food. This consequence is accentuated by the fact that for the majority of us work is computer based, so associating sitting down in front of he computer with eating can prolong our food addiction. Secondly, I've realised that I actually end up eating more overall (contrary to my intention), because I keep eating mindlessly while the pending work is in front of me. If I start to eat when I start to work, then my brain will think that eating should only be over when the work is over – a dangerous association.

3. Time saving strategy

Naively, I thought that I would save time if I ate whilst still working. I now realise that eating whilst working makes you actually a less productive worker. While juggling eating and working, the hungry brain is more focused on reaching the satiety level than on getting the work done. And so, in this situation, food is a major distraction from work, as the hormones that trigger the sense of hunger dictate over the neurons responsible for processing information.

I now pity the office workers that choose to have lunch at their desks, thinking that they save time in this way. This only secludes them socially and makes them less productive workers. It takes an average of 10 minutes to eat lunch, so I wonder why would anyone (myself included) sacrifice the most pleasurable 10 minutes from the workday to eat over a keyboard, while magnetised to the computer screen.

When I became aware of all these flaws in my eating habits, which were ultimately making me unhappy, I started my quest to eat more mindfully. Here are some strategies that I came up with or have adopted:

1. Make the kitchen/dining area a sacred space which celebrates food and the act of eating

Make eating to become a ritual, as a reward that you give your mind and body to: 1) prepare them for the day ahead, 2) enable them to keep you going throughout the workday and 3) to thank them for having enabled you to make the most of the day. If possible, try not to contaminate the sacred kitchen space by bringing work into the kitchen. This will only depreciate in your mind the act of eating and will lead you to associate eating with work.

If you have an open-plan living space, where the kitchen is merged with the lounge and your workspace, try and find a way to delineate the two. Perhaps you could put some tall plants, a shimmer screen, or a half wall (breakfast bar) in the middle to create some sort of barrier.  

2. Keep a food diary

Recording the food you eat has many benefits:

a) It is an excellent act of meditation. What better way to meditate than reflecting on the food you’ve eaten, whilst writing it down in a journal? Also, we form some of our fondest memories through the food we eat, particularly if we eat out to celebrate a special occasion or if we enjoy a dish that we’ve created ourselves.

b) It will make you choose healthier options, as you acknowledge your daily choices. Writing down chips, burgers, cakes, chocolate bars will probably not make you feel good about yourself and your mind will start associating this feeling with the next unhealthy food choice you make. Acknowledging what you are eating will make you choose your food smartly, as your conscience will want to you to feel proud about yourself the next time you log your food intake.

c) It will make you portion-conscious. If you get into the habit of logging your food intake in a detailed manner, recording the approximate quantity you intake each time you eat (e.g. one bowl of, two slices, a handful of…), will enable you to learn how much you need to feel happy and satisfied.

d) It’s a good way to get to know yourself better, as it will help you acknowledge what makes you feel good and in what amounts.

3. Eat when you’re calm

Eating while stressed can make it more difficult for your body to absorb vitamins and minerals, which means that you’re not getting all the goodness from your food. Also, eating while you are stressed out makes you eat quicker, which diminishes the enjoyment you get from your meals. When you know you’re feeling hangry (that’s so hungry, you’re angry), calm down before you eat by kneading the fleshy part between your thumb and forefinger for 30 seconds. Even a short hand massage lowers your heart rate and lessens anxiety.

4. Align your eyes with your stomach

We tend to serve portions according to how big our plates are, not how hungry we are. Try and see if eating from a smaller plate (and therefore consuming less food) makes you feel as full as when eating from the plates you regularly use. If you tend to eat food portions that fill up a large plate, you might be surprised to see that your brain records that you’re full when finishing up the food served from a smaller plate. 

5. Eat with all of your senses

Each time you enjoy a meal, acknowledge how your food looks, smells, tastes like and how it sounds when you chew it. Take notice of the appealing colours and the flavoursome texture of your food. This will make you more aware of what you appreciate in food and may set your creativity roam free while thinking of future ways you can experiment with food.Internally, acknowledge the goodness that your meals give to your body, in terms of nourishment: think about how the antioxidants in your blueberries and pomegranate will help your cells rejuvenate, or how the vitamin C in your smoothie will give an immunity boost to your cells. Gradually, this exercise will lead you to choose more nutritious and wholesome foods. Also, this will slow your eating pace, so your get to enjoy your food for longer whilst giving your brain the time to recognise when you are full.

6. Express gratitude for your food

Make food to feel like a privilege every time you enjoy it, by giving thanks for it. Thank the cook (even if it’s just yourself), for the effort and creativity put into sourcing and preparing the food you are about to enjoy. This will make your meal taste better and feel more satisfying. As I previously mentioned, my partner and I always thank each other before each meal we enjoy at home (even if it’s just cooked by one of us). 

7. Eat slowly

Eating quickly may lead to you to feel bloated or to overeat as your body won’t record when the satiety level is reached. A good way to start eating slower is to place down the cutleries you are using between each mouthful. This will not only enable you to enjoy your meals more, by prolonging the act of eating, but will also enable your brain to become aware when your body is satisfied. Also, another experiment that you can try is to eat with your weaker hand, to help slow down your pace and see how that makes you feel.

8. Chew, chew, chew

Chewing your food properly not only extracts more nutrients from food, but it allows you to assess the wonderful flavours that are released in the process. Adopt a ‘childlike’ curiosity of the food you eat, as though each bite is something new and amazing. Start munching at least ten times before you swallow an, over time, try doubling that number. Breaking down food in your mouth like this helps your stomach signal fullness to your brain more quickly.

Mindful eating is a great way to eat for goodness sake. It allows you to appreciate food and the act of eating for what they should be: the utmost reward for your mind and body, as well as celebration of the beginning and end of the workday and fuel during the day.

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