What does it mean and why is it so important for our health?
Mindfulness has countless benefits alone, with many emerging areas of research displaying the positive impact it can have on stress, anxiety, depression, sleep, and relationships. But have you ever considered incorporating mindfulness into your eating routine?
Changing our attitudes and practices around meals and mealtime rituals may be every bit as important as obsessing over what it is we actually put in our mouths. Mindful eating (AKA intuitive eating) is a concept with its roots deep in Buddhist teachings, which aim to reconnect us more deeply with the experience of eating, and enjoying our food. There is no right or wrong way to eat, but rather varying degrees of consciousness about what we are eating and the reasons why.
Mindful eating can also assist to realign our bodies’ signals to know when we are hungry, and when we are not hungry, through exploration of our physical cues, sitting in moments of discomfort within our minds and challenging thoughts on habitual behaviors.
But how does it affect our health?
When we use mindfulness whilst eating, we are able to enter a state of ‘Rest and Digest’. Being in this state requires the use of our Parasympathetic Nervous System, which is controlled by our Autonomic Nervous System (or Involuntary Nervous System). Our ANS controls the functioning of our bodies on a subconscious level, our breathing, our movements of our esophagus etc. Furthermore, being in this slower state of action is vital for our health for numerous reasons.
It allows our bodies to digest our food properly, by increasing the production of saliva, which is the beginning of the digestive process. When we are relaxed, our bodies can stimulate hormones such as insulin to allow our nutrients to be metabolized, without it, we are in a state of stress where are bodies place focus on survival modes of pumping blood and cortisol rather than absorbing nutrients from our food. When we feel bloated or gassy after a meal, is often a results of eating too fast, or eating while we are stressed or distracted.
To enter the state of Rest and Digest, we need to actively promote relaxation before we eat. But how do we do that and incorporate it into our daily routine?
Savour the Silence
Turn everything off including our mind! Switch off the laptop, put the phone on night-mode, and sit within before we begin to eat. Allow our eyes to gaze into a meal without distraction, be grateful for this quiet moment. Use our senses to engage in the present moment no matter what is going on around us. Yes, we might feel like a complete weirdo if people are looking at us, but at the end of the day, our body will thank us for it. We’ll have less bloating and indigestion, more awareness within our bodies and our mind, more energy from the nutrients being absorbed and a far healthier relationship with our food and ourselves.
Of course eating in complete silence can be difficult whilst we are in company; out with friends or with family and children, however becoming mindful in our daily routine outside of eating is where we will learn how to incorporate mindfulness into meals regardless of what is happening around us.
Getting To Know Our Food
Rekindle our relationship with food. Ask yourself how each piece came to be on our plates. Where did it all begin? Follow the journey of its life from harvest to plate. Recognize the colours, the textures, the shapes and the smells. Then, as we take each bite mindfully, chew slowly and savour the flavours. Try to pinpoint each different flavor in our mouths and how it makes our body feel. Imagine our food travelling through our body, with the nutrients being broken down and hurrying off to each of their different places of work, aiding us to thrive. Practicing this exercise helps us to gain a deeper appreciation of our food, and also our body.
Take a square of chocolate (I like to use Pana brand) and place it on your tongue with your mouth closed. Close your eyes, and keep your mouth as still as possible. Don’t chew, or swirl it around, let it melt at it’s own pace without any disturbance.
Ask yourself, what does it taste like, how does it feel on my tongue, picture it sitting inside your mouth. Recognize the different emotions and chatter that arises. Allow yourself to feel all the emotions that come up.
You might think, oh I really want to taste this even more, I want to move it around my mouth, I want to bite it to enhance the flavour. Become comfortable with the mental chatter. Don’t try to change it or answer it’s questions, just become aware that it’s there. Challenge yourself not to answer to it.
Practice this until the piece of chocolate is almost completely dissolved, then afterwards, reflect on how it made you feel to complete the task. Was it difficult or was it easy? Where was your mind running to? What kinds of emotions came up for you? Were you thinking, this is ridiculous I want more than one square?
Allowing ourselves to feel these sorts of things can only arise during a space that we actually allow ourselves to explore in silence. By becoming comfortable with silence we are able to discover the emotions that we push so far down with distractions. When we are constantly distracted with phones or TVs, we aren’t allowing ourselves the honor of knowing what’s going on inside while we are fuelling our bodies. After we become comfortable with what arises for us, we are able to see a clearer picture of what requires attention and addressing.
Maybe we are rushing our meals because we feel like we don’t have enough time, or we have too much on our ‘plate’, this could require some prioritizing and delegation of tasks at hand to lighten our load. Maybe we use distractions in order to hide feelings of shame or guilt around what we are eating. This could require exploration of where the feelings of shame and guilt have arisen in our lives. Maybe we distract ourselves with food because we aren’t doing what we love, our work doesn’t make our heart sing. What can we change in order to feel fulfilled rather than using food as a distraction to how we really feel?
Or maybe we use distractions because we aren’t enjoying the food we are eating, maybe it lacks flavour but it’s convenient, and we are eating it because we had no time to prepare a better meal, or we don’t know how to cook or even like to cook. Further exploration of why these feelings arise is when we can begin to make changes around being mindful.
This technique is also a fun one to try with kids!
Made With Love
Mindfulness eating can also begin far earlier than what goes into our mouths, and even before our food reaches our plates.
How good is having a home cooked meal from someone we love. We can taste the amount of love that has been poured into the idea; the preparation and the time spent making the meal. Do we get those same feelings from buying drive-through take-away after a long day of work?
Preparing a meal is a form of meditation in itself. It requires focus, breathing and intuition. From the moment we ‘feel’ like a certain meal, to the choosing of quality products, to the way we extract the flavours within the meal through different methods of cooking, we are placing our love and emotions into each bite.
If we are able to use this type of intuition into preparing our meals, we change our mindsets from the hustle and bustle of curbing our hungry tummies and ultimately living in ‘Fight or Flight’ mode, to completely immersing our sensory into the journey of cooking with love and eating with intention, and being able to share that with people who are most important to us.
Turning Mindfulness Into A Habit
So now that we know how to use mindfulness strategies with our food, an easy way to make it a habit is to start by introducing mindfulness into the simplest of things throughout our day.
Start with walking.
Our lifestyles exist upon multitasking, multitasking, and multitasking. When we are walking from one place to another, from the car to the gym, to the coffee shop, to the train to work, to pick up groceries, to pick up the kids, to ballet, soccer, gymnastics, school meetings, mums group, yoga, picking toys up off the floor, backwards and forwards in the kitchen, putting dinner on the table, lifting clothes from the basket, the list goes on and on and on.
Can we think back now and remember each step that we took through the day? Can we remember which foot we put first when lifting the groceries into the car? Can we remember which foot was placed on the last step on our way to work?
Incorporating mindfulness into the most mindless tasks of your daily routine can initially be difficult, but also the most effective.
Tips to start our day with mindfulness:
Before you get out of bed each morning, sit on the side of your bed and place your feet on the floor gently, keep your eyes closed, and take 3 deep breathes in and out. Focus on the way your feet feel against your floor, ask yourself questions around what you can feel, is it soft or is it hard, is it cold or is it warm, are my feet hot or are they cold, which parts of my feet are touching the floor, is it the outer edges or the inner edges, my toes or my heels, or both, imagine the connection of your feet to the floor in your mind whilst your eyes are still closed.
Best Foot Forward
As you take each step to begin your day, focus on the way your foot connects with the floor, the pressure, the temperature, the stride, the motion in which your foot moves up and down on the floor, the differences in the feelings of different surface against your foot. When you find your mind wondering about the things you need to do today, work, school, list upon lists; come back to your breath and the motion of your feet, the feeling of each toe and the sensations you feel.
Practice this whenever we start to walk. Once we can re-learn to identify that walking somewhere means practicing mindfulness, we are then teaching ourselves a new habit which will cascade into other activities through our day.
After using these strategies in our daily routine, we will soon become more aware of our ‘mindless’ tasks. Creating these healthy habits will help us to become more mindful in everything we do. It will begin to flow into situations where we would normally switch off in order to achieve a job, a goal or a daily routine.
When we are serial-multitasking offenders, our energy becomes scattered and our focus is strayed. Simplifying our lives by using mindfulness techniques can help us to become more efficient at what we want to achieve, whether that be our current tasks at hand, having more meaningful conversations, becoming a better listener, or simply creating an environment where we are better able to digest our food.