On Mindful Eating

©Carolyn Mason, “Pink Frosting,” 2004.

©Carolyn Mason, “Pink Frosting,” 2004.

In one segment of her book Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert recounts an experience she had in a busy office building in New York. Upon rushing into an elevator, she caught a glimpse of herself in the security mirror. Processing the familiar face, her brain registered her own reflection as a friend of hers; Gilbert reacted, for a fleeting moment, with surprise and joy. As quickly as this happened, she realized her mistake and laughed it off in embarrassment.

Gilbert reflects back on this moment in the midst of a night in Rome—where she has been living most vivaciously—when she finds herself suddenly overcome with depression and loneliness. Turning to her own self for support, Gilbert remembers this incident in the elevator. She scrawls in her journal: "Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a friend."

What a revolutionary concept: that we can be our own friend. That we can offer our own selves compassion and solace, even in the depths of despair. I would argue that this—this befriending of ourselves, this treating ourselves as we would our nearest and dearest—is one of the most vital practices in which we can actively engage. (And I say “practices” because it truly is evolving; truly takes repeated effort; truly takes disciplined attention.) A practice that makes life easier. Healthier. More fulfilling. And it is not just vital in moments of depression, strife or despair. It is work we can weave into each moment of our lives. What we allow ourselves to do with our time. How we approach our aspirations; our creativity; our play. How and when we work. How we judge and speak to our own selves.

So where does this process of self-befriending begin? There are many points of entry. Combating negative self-talk. Expressing gratitude. Giving ourselves credit for our achievements. Operating from a place of trust rather than fear. But those are not what we're going to talk about today. Today, we're going to talk about the point of entry that sparked the journey of self-befriending, in truth, for me. We're going to talk about food. 

Or, rather, the way we eat our food.

Mindful Eating or The Gateway Art of Attentiveness

I first encountered the concept of mindful eating in Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food, which I highly recommend. He espouses this simple yet somehow radical belief that when you eat you should just eat. Don't eat and scroll through any media or communications on your phone. Don't eat and read the newspaper or even Bon Appetit magazine. Don't eat while driving. Don't eat straight out of the fridge while making your ritual boredom lap through the kitchen. Don't eat standing up, rushing out the door. Don't eat at your desk, working through your lunch break. Don't eat while watching TV or Netflix in bed.

So what, just…eat? Yes, just eat. Eat and give your full attention to your meal (and your present company, if you are sharing the meal with others). Eat and relish the colors, textures, scents and tastes of your food. Take your time. Put your utensil down between bites. Chew thoroughly. Savor the flavors. Take deep breaths and feel the reactions of your body to your meal. Appreciate the care that you put into preparing your meal, or that someone else put into preparing it. Acknowledge and appreciate the hands that nurtured and harvested the raw ingredients and the wonders of our earth that enabled them to grow. And, while we're at it, also be sure to eat off of proper dish ware, treating yourself like the deserving human that you are. You wouldn't serve your guest a meal straight out of a jar, wrapper or tupperware, would you?

These propositions in and of themselves have the capacity to trigger all kinds of resistance—let alone what might come up in the actual act of trying them. Our internal monologue, that voice of defense, has its lines firing. I don’t have time for that! I won’t get to read the paper if I don’t do it over breakfast. I can’t get my work done if I don’t eat at my desk. What, I’m supposed to sit at home alone, at the actual dining table, and have a meal with myself as company? I could never have a meal out in public and not be on my phone—that is way too awkward! Why dirty a dish when I can eat right out of the jar?

These are all valid concerns, but hear me out. Mindful eating has incredible physiological, psychological and emotional effects. For starters, when we take the time to slow our eating and chew more fully, our bodies actually have greater access to the nutritional benefits of our food. Believe it or not, chewing is the first step in the digestive process. When we chew completely, our teeth essentially liquidize our food, which enables our bodies to digest it more easily and frees up internal resources to focus on nutrient absorption. Our saliva also contains digestive enzymes that are necessary to break down the food for optimum conversion into energy. Slowing down and chewing fully means we physically gain more benefit from the food we eat and help our digestive systems do their job with more ease and effectiveness.

These aren’t the only ways that mindful eating benefits our physical health. When we actually pay attention to (or dare even savor!) the process of eating, we are better able to tune in to our levels of hunger and satiety. This helps us avoid overeating and feelings of post-meal discomfort, which in turn helps prevent unwanted weight gain and chronic stress on our digestive systems. Additionally, as our minds and bodies are constantly in relationship, eating with attentiveness helps us remember the experience of having eaten, which actually keeps us feeling fuller longer. 

And then there's the joy bit. The benefit of pure pleasure that comes from truly noticing and appreciating how delicious your food is, how curious of a sound it makes, how many hands it took to get from the field onto your plate, or how wonderful that even amongst your hectic/frustrating/disappointing/exhausting day, you took time to create something for yourself. By making an effort to eat away from your desk, away from your phone or television, off of real dish ware at the dining room table—even if you're by yourself—you are actively showing yourself that you're worth caring for. That, in itself, is something to be practiced and celebrated.

Words really cannot express how radically the practice of mindful eating has changed my life. It has so many benefits and an incredible ripple effect. Start paying more attention to your food and your eating and suddenly everything in your life will seem deserving of increased attention, care and even reverence. The mundane made magnificent. Trust me. You'll see.