These days, there’s more contact with a wider variety of healthy foods than we have ever had access to before. There is more free and accessible information on the interaction between different foods and our health than can be counted by Google search, and decades of public health promotion (or dogma, however you choose to see it) has encouraged us to make healthier lifestyle choices.
As a benefit of this, we probably focus more of our time and energy ‘eating right’ than ever before. We do this with the best intentions, but, for many of us, the way in which we consume food can leave us mentally and physically feeling as if we have ‘barely eaten‘.
I think it’s easier to set the stage by exploring how we might miss out on this experience. Hopefully, this is a little less condescending than describing to you what it feels like to move food from your plate to your stomach.
Try to imagine it like this…
When celebrities are forced to eat insects and other wonderful things on jungle-style TV shows, at the exact moment that they are swallowing that juicy grub (or alligator testicle – whatever takes your fancy), their mind is consciously doing everything it can to distract itself from the experience of actually eating. If you think about it, it would make this awful situation a lot easier to endure without deliberately paying attention to tasting, chewing and swallowing, before swiftly regurgitating. They have reduced their sensory experience of eating.
We do this daily, we do this unintentionally and the majority of the time, we do this unconsciously. We automatically chow down on our meals poised over our attention-grabbing television or phone screens. We attempt to juggle eating lunch whilst another activity, be that work or pleasure, is holding our full attention. I say, ‘FULL ATTENTION’ and not ‘MAJORITY OF OUR ATTENTION’ as however much we like to think we can, our brains cannot biologically focus our conscious awareness on more than one activity at any one time.
In this way, it hardly matters how much effort we put into what we eat. If we can’t even take the time to experience it, then we fail to appreciate our efforts and, ultimately, we fail to satisfy both body and mind.
Sometimes, I try to describe it like this – if we get half the pleasure of eating (physically) but fall short of being satisfied (psychologically), is it any wonder that second helpings or frivolous snacking is the go-to, there to save the day by making up the remainder of our satisfaction quota left unfilled?
SO WHAT? (SOME EASY SCIENCE)
Without boring you with reams of science and research, let’s get straight to the point. Modern science now confirms that the attitudes and practices surrounding our meals should be focused upon almost as much as the food that we put in our mouths.The concept of ‘mindful eating’ (also known as intuitive eating) has its roots in the teachings of Buddhism and is aimed at reconnecting us more fully with the experience of eating, and, more importantly, enjoying our food. 21st-century science has now revealed a wide range of benefits that are associated with mindful eating, further emphasising the practical benefits of incorporating this ancient and ancestral practice into our frantic modern lives.One piece of research which tracked more than 1,400 ‘mindful’ eaters has claimed that participants had lower body weights, a greater sense of well-being and fewer symptoms of eating disorders. Other mindfulness-based eating intervention studies have shown their participants experienced improvements in:
- Cognitive restraint (self-control) around over-eating
- Greater control of eating inhibition (less behaviour in which food intake is negatively restricted)
- Binge eating
- Perceived stress and anxiety related to food
You get the idea…But eating mindfully doesn’t only affect our psychological relationship with food. Harvard health advice now recognises mindfulness-based eating practice in the exploration of the gut-brain connection and its association with treating physical conditions. Recognised conditions include autoimmune conditions and gastrointestinal (GI) disorders such as increased gut permeability (more of which can be explored here for those interested).If you are eating while overloaded with stimuli and under stress, your body doesn’t know that it’s supposed to be digesting. The message that we are giving our bodies by failing to pay attention to eating is “you don’t need to get digestion firing”. Because of this, the digestive system is less active, meaning that fewer digestive enzymes are released and less hydrochloric acid is secreted to aid in the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats, and protein.Without stomach acid, many vitamins and minerals can’t be broken down, liberated, or absorbed.This is surely paradoxical – we try harder than ever to eat healthily and nourish our bodies, yet we don’t approach eating and digestion in the way that is needed to ensure the ‘tank gets filled properly’. Whether or not you believe that paying more attention to eating our food is good for our body and psyche, it’s not hard to test it for ourselves – after all, what are the best or worst things that can happen?At best, we might discover how much more we can enjoy our relationship with food and experience better bodily function, or – the VERY worst scenario – nothing at all changes?All that can be asked is that you give the following ideas a shot:
EATING MORE MINDFULLY
I’m not an eating psychologist. I’m not offering strict medical advice to anybody, but I would like to share some simple ideas that assisted me, personally, to start eating more mindfully and joyfully.
It’s more about taking the time to savour the taste of your food. Practice now allows me to eat slower and more intuitively, but I remember times as a child (or more recently as an adult) where I or my family would set a challenge to see who could eat their meal the slowest (without taking this to the extreme).When I was a child, my motivation was to win the challenge (and ice-cream dessert prize). These days are different, I realise how much more I enjoy my food, and how much more satisfied I feel afterwards when I make good use of my teeth and tongue before swallowing.I’ve read various pieces of research suggesting that we should actually chew our food between 20-30 times before swallowing. This may seem like a lot, but it’s necessary in order to assist the body in breaking down the foods before they reach the stomach and eventually the upper intestinal tract. This is particularly important in two situations: -When eating carbohydrates – this is because salivary enzymes present in the mouth are the first step in beginning to break down these foods. For those who have increased intestinal permeability, also commonly known as leaky gut, undigested food particles can make their way into the bloodstream with devastating effects concerning autoimmunity.
SHH, DID YOU HEAR THAT? (SILENCE)
Eating in silence is not realistic all the time. In fact, eating and talking amongst friends is one of my favourite times of the week, but, there is a difference between talking and eating, and eating whilst you are talking. Silencing your mind while you enjoy your food is how your brain can devote more attention to appreciating it.
Our daily lives are full of distractions that come at us from every angle. The only way I could fully break away from this was putting my phone away while I eat, until avoiding distraction almost became an automatic habit. I still get distracted while I eat, I still eat the occasional pizza, ice-cream or chocolate mindlessly in front of the TV – it’s just that I try to make this decision consciously and only on a few very limited occasions (usually Christmas), instead of it being the norm.
This goes a bit further than just eating food. Sometimes, I find it easy to focus when eating and other times it can feel more difficult, particularly if I’m facing distractions or a build-up of pressure. A number of free smartphone apps such as ‘Headspace‘ or ‘Insight Timer‘ can introduce you to meditation and mindfulness, helping you to develop the habit of becoming more focused, aware and attentive. Failing that, there are plenty of resources online that do a much greater job at explaining mindfulness than I ever could. Try YouTube for a wide range of guided-mindfulness sessions – you might be pleasantly surprised at the range of benefits you gain from a more mindful approach to life.