The Benefits of Mindful Eating
Has eating mindfully been lost in modern times or were we never taught in the first place? When I suggest mindful eating to clients or students, they look at me like I am crazy. As a society, we pride ourselves on the ability to multitask, and we have become accustomed to the constant stream of distraction and information. The thought of sitting, eating, and doing nothing seems overwhelming. The smartphone is a 21st century invention, but its pull on our attention is nothing new.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s, my family ate dinner every night while watching Lavern and Shirley, M.A.S.H., and Happy Days. I was not alone. My friends were also taught that the “T.V. tray” was a dining room table. My own imbalanced eating habits have been built unconsciously over my entire life. Whether a residual of our family upbringing or a product of modern times, mindless eating has become the normal setting for most of our meals.
The Importance of Chewing
Years ago, one of my teachers gave me advice that I have never forgotten. It’s easy to remember—he said “drink your food and chew your drink.” What he was saying was to chew food until it was liquid before swallowing. This is very hard to do if you are multitasking, eating on the run, or if it is simply not the way you normally eat. Before hearing this, I had never paid attention to how I was not completely chewing my food. Old habits die hard, but these days I’m grateful to have the awareness to correct my chewing techniques.
What could he have possibly meant by saying “chew your drink”? Even if consuming a juice or smoothie (not ice cold please), we still need digestive enzymes. To do this while drinking, I make a few biting motions to release saliva and enzymes, which start the digestion process in my mouth. Give it a quick try right now. Make the chewing motion a few times and notice how the action produces saliva even without food in your mouth.
If you have a difficult time producing saliva, add a little of the sour taste to your food. You can even simply say “lime, lime, lime” to yourself and you will feel your mouth begin to produce saliva. The power of suggestion is very real.
The pre-digestive enzymes released in the mouth are critical for breaking down food before we send it on its merry way through the rest of the intestinal tract.
The Role of the Tongue
Now let’s look at how we taste the delicious food we eat. The tongue is an incredible instrument. The amount of joy received when eating yummy food is due to the tongue’s ability to savor the various flavors of the meal. Often when we are enjoying a meal, either by ourselves or with others, the tendency is to almost shovel the food into our mouths. But think about this—the only place in our body that we enjoy the taste of food is the mouth, not the esophagus, stomach, or intestines. If we take the time to keep food in our mouth longer, we will enjoy it much more than the quick repetition of habitual chew and swallow.
One Ayurvedic daily routine to help stimulate your taste buds is tongue cleaning. The pasty residue on the tongue is known as ama (toxic substance). It is the byproduct of undigested or partially digested food, and we do not want it in our body. Using a toothbrush to scrub the tongue simply pushes the ama back into the tongue. Gently scraping the tongue will remove the ama from our mouth. Adding this simple practice will also make your meals more enjoyable! A cleaner palate allows you to taste more complex flavors in your food.
Practice the Pleasure of Eating Mindfully
Here is an exercise to practice mindful eating. Choose a time to have a meal by yourself when you can tune in and be fully present with the experience. Make a freshly cooked, seasonal meal that you know you will love. Have fun while you are cooking the meal, knowing that you will be infusing your joy into the food you are creating. Arrange the food nicely on a beautiful plate.
Remember, you are serving a very special guest—yourself.
Choose a place to sit that has some nice exposure to nature. If the weather is pleasant perhaps sit outside. Once you are settled (with no technology, magazines, books, or other types of distractions), take a deep breath and say a word of gratitude over your food. Now take your first bite. Put your eating utensil back down and rest your hands in your lap. If you are enjoying a sandwich or hand-held food, place it back on the plate. Sit and experience the taste on your tongue and the texture of the food in your mouth. Notice how you are feeling right in this moment. How do the flavors of the food feel to your emotional body? These are all aspects of mindful eating. Once thoroughly chewed and savored, swallow and begin again with another bite. Continue until you are full.
Your Body Lets You Know You’re Full
When eating mindfully, how do we know we are finished with the meal? I have a clear memory of an ah-ha moment regarding conscious eating that occurred several years ago while at a retreat. I was sitting down to dinner in a beautiful natural environment and having a conversation regarding digestion with a new friend sitting next to me. She was saying to pay attention to when I burped and it would be at that point that I would know I was full. In a rather indignant manner I told her that I am not one to usually burp. She smiled sweetly and said, “Pay attention to your body, and when you are full you will notice a small burp.” I did as she suggested, and can I tell you that for the first time in my life I felt this small sensation of a burp bubble up. I looked at her and said, “Oh my gosh, I just felt a burp!” She then told me to stop and see how I felt. I informed her I was still hungry. She asked me to sit with it and notice if I was truly hungry or if continued eating was a result of habits, stressors, or emotions. After resting for a few minutes, I sensed contentment and was done with the meal.
Another signal that our bodies give us is a little sigh. Once again, we must be paying attention or the sigh will happen and we won’t even be aware. Have you ever been around infants when they are eating? At a certain point, they will give a sigh of contentment signaling they are finished. Unfortunately, so many children these days have tablets or televisions in front of them and may not even notice when they have finished eating. Often, they are so distracted that it takes them a long time to eat. This can lead to a struggle between parent and child, even though the parent is allowing the distraction. Being frustrated or upset while eating doesn’t support anyone’s digestion. We want to create mealtime environments for both ourselves and our families that will encourage being present and peaceful.
Consciously Create a Supportive Space
What are the benefits of consciously creating the space for mindful eating? The first thing you may notice is that you consume less food. Becoming sensitive to when you are full will automatically cue you to not overeat. This will also help to support a healthy body weight.
You may also become aware of emotional eating habits. Are you are stuffing feelings, eating out of anxiety, or perhaps not eating at all? Once you tap into your feelings around food, you become aware of how your body is or isn’t digesting. This can lead to modifying eating choices and choosing those that support optional absorption and health.
Hopefully this practice will encourage you to be more involved with your food choices. Make sure you are eating what is appropriate for you today. Always keep in mind your current state of balance and the strength of your digestion. Give yourself the gift of learning about the healing benefits of cooking spices. Have fun in the kitchen and let cooking be something that brings you joy.
Tune into the rhythm of nature and what is being grown locally. Food that has been picked too early and shipped across the country (sometimes from other parts of the world) will have much less life-giving power. Eating fresh food from local farmers, or even better from your own backyard, will be filled with more vital life energy, bringing great pleasure and satisfaction.