The Application of Mindfulness in Daily Eating
In my very first blog post for HappiHuman.com, I explore the use of mindfulness-based practices as a way of creating conditions that cultivate positive therapeutic outcomes—this is not a new type of therapy or a new approach to dieting. My aim is not to add to the seemingly overwhelming assortment of mindfulness techniques—rather it is to offer a point of view that seeks to tap into the core clarity that is available to us right here, right now: the present moment.
Present day life has stressful demands, and so to keep up we multitask, aided by ubiquitous technology, we're always ready to tweet, text and email. While our devices have encouraged people to do more tasks simultaneously research paints a different picture and it's that multitasking is actually less productive, reduces performance and devastates the brain and body. If you consider multitasking a buzzword for a state of constant interruption then this shouldn’t land as a surprise.
Yet the myth that we can multi-task has never been more exaggerated than it is today—nor more misunderstood. When we multitask, we aren't actually doing two activities at the same time, rather we're pivoting our attention from one part of the brain to another with blazing speed. In so doing, we are degrading the part of the brain that is responsible for focus and concentration. Like with any muscle, by not exercising this part of the brain it becomes out of shape. When this happens we're likely incapable of extended focus and are less inclined to do just one thing at a time—we're mentally out of shape.
Multitasking also negatively impacts the ability to continue learning because attention span is critical to learning. A University of London study discovered that when in the act of multitasking individuals exhibit a drop in their IQ. The irony is that distracted, we actually impair our ability to produce our best work—we've spread ourselves thin. Further studies at the University of Sussex's Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science found that by using phones, laptops and other devices concurrently is changing the structures of our brains.
Poor attention (span) in the face of distractions, along with emotional problems such as depression and anxiety have been associated with a state of constant interruption and discursive thought. Neuroscientists at the University of Sussex found that the density of grey matter in the part of the brain responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions also declines; subsequently, we become less likely to feel empathy towards others as well as ourselves.
By making micro-adjustments throughout the course of a day, you can choose to play a role in reversing these damages.
It is my view, with the focused addition of a mindfulness-based modality, in this case, mindful eating (digestive hygiene), you can increase receptivity to self-directed and lasting change—doing so is a start in retraining your brain to stay focused while at the same time optimizing your weight.
Often, we eat mindlessly, while talking, watching television, driving, or alone in front of the computer with our discursive thoughts. When our mind is preoccupied we're probably multitasking and blindly eating nutritionally devoid calories. More importantly, we are preventing ourselves from a primary pleasure in life which is the enjoyment of life-affirming food.But, what is mindfulness exactly—let's unpack that overloaded word. Mindfulness is much more than an ability to pay attention. It's an ability to do so on demand, in the present moment, while being non-judgemental.
We're all victims of not being in the now or present moment. Indeed, being victimized by time is a byproduct of our fast-paced society. To not be in the present moment can be best described with one foot in the past, while the other is planted somewhere in the future—both of which do not exist. Mindfulness imparts a commitment to segue: to being here, in the current frame of life fully and completely.
But, what of mindful eating? Well, it is arguably one of the oldest possible approaches to awareness known: deliberate, clear, and non-judgmental attention to one's gestalt—with the sole purpose of generating a sense of inner peace and calm. It's an antidote to a world of multitasking, a 24-hour news cycle; and perhaps a small daily refuge with friends and family if you are so fortunate.
Mindfulness is truly a super-power!
Is mindfulness meditation? Generally speaking, meditation is not needed to to be mindful, however, meditation is an important exercise that can be used to cultivate an ability to be mindful anywhere, with anyone or anything at any time. Mindfulness can be considered a form of meditation on the one hand or a critical component of meditation on the other. I'd argue that it just doesn't matter.
If eating can be yet another way to practice mindfulness, how is this done? To eat mindfully is to focus on the actual process of eating. Mindfulness is an approach where the mind is fully applied to an item often referred to as an object. Objects can include physical articles or they can include mantras, sensations or feelings.
Breath is also considered an object and is a very popular and powerful one at that—because it's restorative, and grounding, but it also facilitates digestion. Moreover, it is an entirely democratic and accessible object—everyone needs to breathe. Hardly a new concept, mindfulness modalities and breathing techniques have assisted patients suffering with drug addiction, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, PTSD and TBI et al. for a considerable amount of time.
By remembering to consciously breathe we promote our parasympathetic nervous system to transition into what is known as a Rest & Digest state—the optimal state to eat in. Deep calm breathing is a remedy that counteracts the effects of stress because it safely hacks our autonomic nervous system. In a more relaxed state our bodies natural response is to slow heart rate, open blood vessels, and increase intestinal conditioning while keeping us grounded and in the present moment.
The binary state known as Fight or Flight is managed by the sympathetic nervous system—it's the system responsible for releasing the life-saving hormones that were needed to save our forbearers from prehistoric man-eaters. While this Fight or Flight state is designed to save lives it is harmful to our digestive process (and our overall health) because it negatively impacts our ability to digest among other things. Consuming food in this state promotes gas, bloating, indigestion, weight gain and more.
Our autonomic stress response holds massive influence over digestion and metabolism. By taking a moment to find your breath, you find your mind—in doing you can drop the baggage of the past, along with the unnecessary consternation of the future and perhaps enjoy a meal with others as you steadfastly become whole food optimized.
Get To Know Your Breath Signature
Take this moment to close your eyes, rotate your neck in each direction a couple of revolutions and curl your mouth slightly upwards into a smile. Relax and take a deep breath—fill your lungs, but don't force it. Slowly exhale through your nose counting a long ooooooonnnnnneeeee. Take another natural breath in, and again exhaling through your nose release the breath and count ttttttttwwwwwoooooo. Resume this activity of counting exhales up until five; at which point you can elect to stop or continue going on in this fashion.
Did you make it to five with the only focus being on your breath count?
Benefits Of Mindfulness in Daily Eating:
Mindfulness has the potential benefit to change completely people's affinity to food and to eating— this practice made manifest can lead to improved overall health as well as lifestyle improvements through a better understanding of personal balance and well-being.
Consciously paying attention develops an awareness of the What, When and Why emotional constructs like frustration, sadness, irritation, boredom, anxiety, anger and insecurity arise. Acknowledging these emotions, when they appear, affords us a "superpower" of choice as to how you select to address any automatic emotional response to food, with a more enlightened and evolved response without any judgment—right now.
In short, a practice of mindful eating can lead to:
- The ability to quickly recognize personal triggers for mindless eating; these can include emotions, social pressures, multitasking or even certain food
- Appreciating quality over quantity of what you’re eating and how it was prepared
- Acknowledging if what you’re eating is healthy or not
- Listening to your body for satiety prompts
- Enjoying the gratifying, and nourishing function of life affirming whole foods
- Feeling an attitude of gratitude that comes from truly experiencing food while also appreciating where your food originated, who grew it, and the quality of life the animal enjoyed
- Refuge from multitasking
Preparing For Your Mindful Eating Practice:
Begin your mindful eating practice (digestive hygiene program) by committing to eating this way when conditions can be better controlled. Maybe it is at home alone or perhaps it's with a family member or maybe it's with a friend at a café over tea or coffee. My suggestion is to start with a realistic goal, select a meal that is the most auspicious time for you. If early morning breakfast is your thing that's where you should begin, if you're not a morning person—commence your new practice at lunch or dinner.
Set yourself up for success by dialling-in a daily experience that most suits your needs for the desired outcome. Just don't ponder or put it off and certainly don't be shy about socializing your change with friends, and family. There is no greater gift to give someone than to provide them with your full and undivided attention.
How long should you commit to? Ideally, it is a forever thing, but to get the ball rolling why not commit to a 40 day, 40 lunch, 40 bites digestive hygiene program—you get the idea. As with anything, It takes time to change behaviour patterns, but achieving lasting change and transformation is worth the effort.
If you happen to forget a day—no problem it happens. Acknowledge you missed a day, don't beat yourself up about it, but reset the counter back to one. There are no mulligans. It doesn't matter, just start over and if pesky discursive thoughts arise about your practice, accept it and let those negative thoughts go!
Mindful Eating Exercise
Find your stride by simply starting, and then move from one success to another by beginning to expand your practice to include breakfast, lunch and dinner to your regime. The choice is yours as to how you proceed, but as I maintain don't capitulate into a state of complacency and analysis paralysis. Begin...
Before beginning to eat, close your eyes, breathe in deeply and with each exhale soften the belly, relax your shoulders, and release the jaw. Clear away the tension of television, radio, internet, etc—let these meaningless distractions go. For the time being, they are the opposition.
- Begin counting exhalations by letting your breath escape through your nostrils in a slow controlled and deliberate fashion. Smile and mentally count: Oooooone, Twooooooooo, Threeeeeee, and then stop to look at your food and others you may also be with.
2. Use Your Senses:
Eating isn’t just about the taste buds. By focusing on your breath your are choosing to relax which will then help stabilize the mind as a prelude to your meal.
- Notice your mouth salivating, while the pleasurable aroma of your meal fills your nostrils—take another moment and linger on the taste and texture of the food
- Bring a portion of food to your mouth while paying attention to the movement of your fingers and arms. Consider your chewing, and how the food mixes with your saliva, and tongue as you swallow
3. Rest & Digest:
When you become aware of any mindless eating—and you will, take a breath, slow down as best you can and don't be upset. Remember your breath signature is a gateway to a rest & digest state.
- As you eat, remember to consciously breath—breath awareness not only promotes relaxation, but it can help to let you know when you are full, which helps in preventing (emotional) overeating
- Try putting the utensil down between bites, lowering the lights, or cultivating an attitude of gratitude by contemplating your food, family and friends for a few seconds as you chew.
- Does putting the utensil down increase or decrease your awareness? Is there any difference in your awareness when dimming the lights slightly? Do you eat more or less when you’re around others—so forth and so on; ad infinitum
4. Own It:
Make this routine your own and play around with the process—yes, pay attention to the process of eating, but focus on slowing down and enjoying your food. It should not be mechanical:
- Pay attention to the process of eating, but focus on slowing down, enjoying your food and the others you may be sharing a meal with
- By being mindful you’ll remove any of the guesswork.
Changing a habit is never easy but recognizing the difference between cravings and hunger is a solid start. By becoming a mindful eater you’ll remove any guesswork on your eating paradigms, you’ll also get to understand your breath signature which can help in so many other areas of life, you’ll become whole food optimized, and probably have a desire to begin cooking your own meals.
Mindful eating is an opportunity for us to participate in no other task but eating—not television, texting, the internet or even working should be tolerated—just enjoy a meal in solitude or with others.
A daily practice may keep you off the operating table.
Joseph Aiello | KRI & RYT Certified