We all eat and drink, at least several times a day. This means that no matter what else is happening in our busy lives, we have several chances a day to enter a place of inquiry, a place of renewal, a place of simple happiness. When we are able to find happiness in the most basic activities of our lives – breathing, walking, eating, drinking, and lying down to sleep – we discover an ancient secret, the secret of how to become truly happy and at ease in our lives.
-Jan Chozen Bays, in Mindful Eating
Popcorn at the movie theatre. Grandma’s chicken pot pie shared around the kitchen table. A homegrown heirloom tomato. The last bite of a dark chocolate bar. For most of us, eating is imbued with memory, emotion, story, and connection. Although food is of course necessary for our bodies’ nourishment, the experience of eating holds much more than simply addressing physiological hunger. When we consider that the way we eat is related to the environment, justice and labor practices, our health and mental health, ethics and values, public policy, our personal history, current life stage, relationships, and overall well-being – essentially, the way we organize and experience our lives – we realize that each bite contains multitudes.
Indeed, our collective relationship with food, eating, and our bodies contains multitudes as well. Evidenced by our culture’s plethora of diet fads, food marketing, and increasing incidence rates of disordered eating, this relationship is complicated at best. Indeed, competing ideas of what to eat, how to eat, and the meaning of eating can easily cloud the actual experience of eating. In contrast, mindful eating calls us back to ourselves.
It is my hope that this article offers a brief introduction to mindful eating and provides the first basic tools to practice these concepts.
What is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating is a practice that honors our hunger holistically, inviting us to listen attentively to our bodies, minds, emotions, and spirit. In her book Mindful Eating, Dr. Jan Chozen Bays defines this concept best:
Mindful eating is an experience that engages all parts of us, our body, our heart, and our mind, in choosing, preparing, and eating food. Mindful eating involves all the senses. It allows us to be curious and even playful as we investigate our responses to food and our inner cues to hunger and satisfaction.
Mindful eating is not directed by charts, tables, pyramids, or scales. It is not dictated by an expert. It is directed by your own unique inner experience, moment by moment.
Mindful eating is not based on anxiety about the future but on actual choices that are in front of you and on your direct experiences of health while eating and drinking.
Mindful eating replaces self-criticism with self-nurturing. It replaces shame with respect for your own inner wisdom.
Because mindful eating is directed by one’s unique inner experience, the eater is the expert. When I introduce clients to mindful eating, clients oftentimes report experiencing the newness of this expert role. Indeed, it is easy to lose sight of the body’s expertise in eating; for many, a mother’s or a classmate’s or a diet book’s eating rules are heard much louder. A recent New York Times article, Mindful Eating as Food for Thought, emphasizes this idea of trusting the body’s expertise:
“Mindful eating is not a diet, or about giving up anything at all. It’s about experiencing food more intensely — especially the pleasure of it. You can eat a cheeseburger mindfully, if you wish. You might enjoy it a lot more. Or you might decide, halfway through, that your body has had enough. Or that it really needs some salad.”
Mindful eating re-trains us to tune in to our own inner wisdom.
How Can I Begin to Practice Mindful Eating?
The starting point for mindful eating is building awareness around the way that we eat: integrating the mindfulness skills of paying attention to the present moment, non-judgmental observation, and acceptance into eating. The “Four Foundations of Mindful Eating” are offered below as a starting point. Many find it helpful to process the exercise below by writing in a food journal.
The Four Foundations of Mindful Eating
Adapted from Susan Albers, Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful
Mindfulness of the Mind. Think about your level of awareness at this moment. Observe your state of mind, and notice the taste, texture, smell, and sound of food as you eat. Questions to consider: How present was I during lunch? Mindlessly munching? Zoned out? Distracted? Very aware? Obsessed? Attentive to each bite?
Mindfulness of the Body. Listen to your body. Think about whether you pay attention when body says to stop eating or whether you ignore your body’s feedback. Identify how your body tells you its hungry and full. Tune into hunger pains, a rumbling stomach, your energy level, movement, body posture, and muscle tension. Specify what kind of hunger you may be experiencing: emotional hunger, physiological hunger, or another kind. Questions to consider: Was I hungry? Did my meal fill me up? How did my body feel before and after I ate? Did I eat what my body wanted to eat? How quickly did I eat?
Mindfulness of Feelings. Being mindful of your feelings means to notice feelings that trigger you to start and to stop eating. Anxiety, guilt, stress, need for comfort, boredom, desire for pleasure, and sense of necessity are just a few emotions that can affect eating behaviors. It’s important to get in close touch with your emotions, noticing non-judgmentally and with curiosity what you may be experiencing related to eating. Questions to consider: What emotions came up for me? Nervous? Wary? Bored? Satisfied? Did I feel anxious about any element of eating in particular?
Mindfulness of Thoughts. Observe any thoughts you may experience, especially thoughts involving “should” or “should nots,” thoughts that begin “I’m so ___,” any food rules you employ, and “good” or “bad” food categories. Notice how your thoughts, positive or negative, may affect your food choices. Questions to consider: What was I thinking about while eating? Were my thoughts compassionate? Critical?
Mindful Eating Loving-Kindness Meditation
The practice of mindful eating can help infuse joy, gratitude, and play back into the experience of food. An adaptation to Buddhism’s traditional loving-kindness meditation, the meditation below is offered to you as you begin your mindful eating practice.
May your body be free from suffering.
May your body be at ease.
May your body be well.
Elizabeth Eiland Figueroa, LMSW
Center for Mindful Eating; www.thecenterformindfuleating.org
Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful by Susan Albers, Psy.D.
Mindful Eating by Jan Chozen Bays, M.D.
Women, Food, and God by Geneen Roth