Bringing mindfulness to eating

mindful eatingEating is such a basic part of life. It can bring us joy, pleasure and connection. It can also bring angst, shame and distress. Our early ancestors evolved in times of scarcity and under harsh conditions. Getting enough calories to survive was much more challenging than driving to the local Macca’s. As a result, we are wired to seek food high in calories (e.g. fat, sugar) and keep consuming. And then there is our conditioning. As we were growing up, food was used for reasons not connected to our nutritional well-being.

Are any of these familiar?

  • food used as a reward
  • being required to eat past our satiation point
  • forbidden treats used as a secret way to push back against authority (parents)
  • refusing to eat as a way to have some control in one’s life.

Food and eating thus become disconnected from their biological purpose. We have learnt to override our sensations of hunger or satiation to the point where we are now not sure what the physical cues are. Our eating is often not related to our physical needs. Stress eating (inability to eat), comfort eating and eating for distraction are experiences familiar to many of us.

It doesn’t take much concentration to eat. In fact, you might have noticed that it really easy to eat and watch TV; to eat and talk on the phone; to eat and drive; to eat and check social media etc. In our busy lives, rather than taking time to eat, we “save time” by multi-tasking. This has an impact on the digestive process. Distracted eating is much less likely to engage the vital early stages of digestion – salivation, chewing and time. Full absorption of the nutritional potential of the food is not possible without optimal digestion. In a recent workshop I ran with Natalie Woodman of VOI Organics called Mood, Food and Mindfulness I offered participants the following as a way of starting to develop a more aware and connected relationship with food and eating. See what you think.

An ABC of a mindful relationship with food and eating

Mindfulness invites us to pay attention to how we relate to food and eating. Through noticing with greater awareness what our existing habits are, we become able to intervene in any automatic, conditioned patterns of eating that are emotionally based. This supports us to develop habits that are supportive of our long-term well-being. Here are the 3 key components:

Attitude (care not scare)

Mindfulness has embedded within it attitudes of care and curiosity (see the table below). Use these to approach food and eating. Some attitudes that get in the way of developing a healthy relationship with food are:

  • self-judgement
  • punitive approaches
  • short term self-indulgence
Bigger picture (interconnectedness)

Mindfulness invites us to broaden our perspective and reflect on the contribution of people and the natural world to the meal on our plate. Through considering the interconnection between our consumption and the environment we are more likely to consume in a way that is good for us and sustainable for the planet. An enhanced sense of connection is a boost for our physical and mental well-being too. A second aspect of taking a broader perspective is to consider your long-term goals. Often, satisfying an immediate impulse undermines your longer-term goals and well-being.

Consuming mindfully (the mindfulness practice)

Here the PAUSE is vital at every stage – from purchase to preparation to the actual eating itself. We become aware of the impact of our emotions on our choices and learn to ride the wave of impulse rather than have the impulse determine our behaviour. This is an ongoing process requiring perseverance and patience. We won’t always make the healthiest decision. That is when the attitudinal component becomes so important – self-compassion rather than self-judgement is shown to be a more effective strategy.

And last but not least, when you chose to multi-task while you eat – pause for a couple of breaths, acknowledge that you are eating on the run – notice what you are about to eat and say to yourself that you are going to eat on the run (while watching TV, checking FB etc). In this way, we use the mind to let the body know that we are eating and bring a bit of mindfulness to the process.

None of this is easy otherwise we’d all be doing it already. It takes time and repeated effort to develop a relationship with food and eating that is primarily about health and well-being. So, cut yourself some slack, do your best and let that be good enough.

Kathryn Choules (PhD)

Dr Choules is a qualified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats since 2013. With many years experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.

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