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Mindful eating benefits both body and mind
There has been increasing interest in the subject in recent years, and a growing movement that connects eating with meditation and other calming exercises has emerged. “Mindful eating is not a diet. There are no menus or recipes. It is being more aware of your eating habits, the sensations you experience when you eat, and the thoughts and emotions that you have about food. It is more about how you eat than what you eat,” says Dr. Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of five books on the practice of mindful eating.
Our hectic lives usually don’t leave us much time for paying attention to the foods we consume. And when it comes to food preparation, efficiency and convenience trump almost all other aspects. So we never really become aware of the taste, smell and mouth feel of our edibles, let alone cultivate positive emotions like comfort and gratitude we could derive from eating.
Instead, Dr. Albers says, we regularly overeat, graze all day, skip meals, or do a thousand other things while munching on something or other that has little meaning for us. That kind of mindless relationship to food then can easily lead to overeating and unwanted weight gain or worse.
“The fundamental reason for our imbalance with food and eating is that we’ve forgotten how to be present as we eat,” says Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and Zen teacher in Oregon, who has written a guidebook on mindful eating. “Mindful eating helps us learn to hear what our body is telling us about hunger and satisfaction,” he says.
In particular, the holidays are a time when we should pay more attention to our eating behavior. When we get stressed out over all the shopping and preparations ahead of us, and festive meals and treats are offered everywhere, we would be well-advised to stop once in a while and take time to relax and reflect a bit. That’s when mindful eating can play an important role, says Dr. Lilian Cheung, a lecturer on nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health who co-wrote a book on the subject with Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, titled “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.” “We need to be coming back to ourselves and say: Does my body need this? Why am I eating this? Is this just because I’m so sad or stressed out?”
Thankfully, engaging in mindful eating does not require lots of practice or training. You can begin at any time and without further ado. Just settle down and become quiet for a moment. Focus on something edible in front of you. It can be a three-course meal or a single raisin. Make yourself aware of aromas, tastes and textures, and also your responses, both physical and emotional. Eat in silence. Eat slowly. Chew with your eyes closed. Try not to let your mind drift elsewhere. If it does, bring yourself gently back to the present experience without judging.
It also helps to create an environment that is comfortable and keeps you safe from interruptions.
In any case, you will be making progress simply by finding yourself slowing down and becoming better aware of your actions. Your body will take care of everything else.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian and author. Find out more at www.timigustafson.com.