You've been working hard on a project on the computer, and it's time for a treat. You've been holding off, waiting for the delicious taste of __________ (please fill in the blank). Coffee ice cream? a piece of dark chocolate? a donut? an onion bagel? some fresh strawberries? For me, it would be a creamy, sweet‑sour lemon tart.
You take the first bite. Very yummy! You take the second bite. Still yummy, maybe a little less yummy than the first bite, but never mind. You glance at the computer and something catches your eye. A Hollywood scandal, a political gaff, a weird and wacky video. You click on it, watch, and continue eating.
Suddenly you look down. Where did that treat go? Your fingers are sticky and there's still a trace of flavor on your tongue, so it must have disappeared down the hatch while you weren't looking . . . or smelling, or tasting, or enjoying. Disappointment and dissatisfaction set in. "That one just vanished! I'd better have another one." Next the internal critic voice pipes up "What are you thinking? One treat is enough. You know you're trying to lose weight/eat better/stop grazing/etc."
Thus begins the struggle over the simple, biologically natural, pleasurable act of eating. When I tell people that I've written a book on Mindful Eating*, and describe what it is, almost everyone will relate some difficulty they have with food, from an embarrassed confession of an addiction to chocolate to the palpable misery of binging and purging.
How is it that food and eating have become such a common source of unhappiness? And why has it occurred in a country with an abundance of food? The fundamental reason for our imbalance with food and eating is that we've forgotten how to be present as we eat. We eat mindlessly.
Food, fat cells and the stomach are not the problem
We decided that the problem was in the food, so we've used chemical technology to take the calories out, the fat out, and to substitute chemical sweeteners and artificial fats. Food is food. It is neither good nor bad. Then we decided the problem was our fat cells, so we liposuctioned them out. Fat cells are just trying to do their job, which is to store energy for lean times ahead or for famine. For most of our evolutionary history, starvation was one snowstorm or drought away. Our fat cells are there to help us survive! When I lived in Africa I discovered that skinny women there have trouble finding a spouse. They aren't considered good marriage material ---- they'll get sick and die on you!
Then we decided that the digestive system was the problem, so we staple the stomach or surgically bypass the small intestine. The digestive system is just trying to do its job, breaking down food, absorbing nutrients and excreting what's not needed. (There's no question that bariatric surgery can be an emergency life-saving measure for some people. It works by forcing people to eat mindfully, causing pain and vomiting if they don't. It is very expensive, has lots of side effects, and is not a long-term solution for the majority of people or for children with out-of-balance eating.)
The problem is not in the food, the fat cells or the stomach and intestines. The problem lies in the mind. It lies in our lack of awareness of the messages coming in from our body, from our very cells and from our heart. Mindful eating helps us learn to hear what our body is telling us about hunger and satisfaction. It helps us become aware of who in the body/heart/mind complex is hungry, and how and what is best to nourish it. Mindful eating is natural, interesting, fun, and cheap.
What is Mindfulness?
Let's start with what Mindfulness is. It is deliberately paying attention, being fully aware of what is happening both inside and outside yourself -- in your body, heart and mind -- and outside yourself, in your environment. Mindfulness is awareness without criticism or judgement.
The last sentence is very important. In mindful eating we are not comparing ourselves to anyone else. We are not judging ourselves or others. We are simply witnessing the many sensations and thoughts that come up as we eat. The recipe for mindful eating calls for the warming effect of kindness and the spice of curiosity.
What is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating involves paying full attention to the experience of eating and drinking, both inside and outside the body. We pay attention to the colors, smells, textures, flavors, temperatures, and even the sounds (crunch!) of our food. We pay attention to the experience of the body. Where in the body do we feel hunger? Where do we feel satisfaction? What does half-full feel like, or three quarters full?
We also pay attention to the mind. While avoiding judgment or criticism, we watch when the mind gets distracted, pulling away from full attention to what we are eating or drinking. We watch the impulses that arise after we've taken a few sips or bites: to grab a book, to turn on the TV, to call someone on our cell phone, or to do web search on some interesting subject. We notice the impulse and return to just eating.
We notice how eating affects our mood and how our emotions like anxiety influence our eating. Gradually we regain the sense of ease and freedom with eating that we had in childhood. It is our natural birthright.
The old habits of eating and not paying attention are not easy to change. Don't try to make drastic changes. Lasting change takes time, and is built on many small changes. We start simply.
Further Reading and Listening:
- Mindful Eating: a Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, by Jan Chozen Bays, with an introduction by Jon Kabat-Zinn, released February 3, 2009 by Shambhala Publishing. (Includes a CD of 14 mindful eating exercises and meditations.)
- Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, by Brian Wansink, published 2006 by Bantam Books. (A very funny look at very interesting research about how we all eat mindlessly.)