Imagine driving for the first time. Remember how vivid everything looked? The turns of the street, the car in front of you, the pedestrians, how mindful you were of the traffic lights? How the steering wheel felt under your palms? The exhilaration of driving, the joy, the responsibility, the awareness of mobility. And as you got used to this feeling, as you started driving all the time, it just became part of you, so automatic and ordinary that you didn’t have to think anymore. Your thoughts, or music, or stress about getting to the destination on time- all became the forefront and the driving itself a mechanical taken-for –granted motion.
Now you might well think what this has in relation to health. Well, here I am actually talking about the healthful aspects of eating- which surprisingly is a lot like driving in that you can do it with awareness, or you can do it mindlessly.
As social creatures, for centuries, we regarded food as a social, organic thing that was grown, harvested, cooked, and consumed in a social setting. Any anthropological study will tell you that food is an important aspect of preserving and transferring cultural values, religious beliefs, preferences and taboos. Not long ago- and people who are now only in the 30s and 40s- will remember this- eating was part of a daily routine, sitting down with the family and eating cooked, fresh food. There was no intruding television, internet, phone or any other screen taking our minds away from the act of eating.
None of us can really reverse time and revisit the Utopia I am referring to. However, we do need to become aware of the problem of eating when we are distracted, on auto-pilot and not in tune with the process of ingesting our food which is our nutrition, our basis for life and health. We cannot afford to eatmindlessly. An obvious danger of mindless eating, is the fact that we eat too much without regard to the hunger cues. Instead of the natural cues of hunger telling us how much or when to eat, our artificial cues are not dependent on the time of the day, or even a favorite program on the television which we like to watch when eating our dinner. Likewise, breakfast is a non-event or at best a rushed bite on the run and lunch typically at the desk at work.
Our other cue to eating when we are mindless, is the portion of food before us. And in the age of upsizing food and drink, portion sizes for fast food have increased dramatically, so too has our expectation of how much food is normal even when we eat at home. It is not surprising then that our obsession with diets and weights are in direct relation to the increase in weight.
Another effect of mindless eating is that we are able to give up control of our health to a diet which we think provides benefits or is a means of losing weight. Once we eat according to a diet’s rules, certain food become off limits causing a feeling of deprivation. Once we come off the diet, we fall into the trap of overeating to compensate for the period of deprivation. Strict diets cause nutritional deficiencies as we are no longer ingesting the wide range of foods we are supposed to derive nutrition from.
In mindful eating on the other hand we are prompted to eat when hungry. And no food is off limits. This might seem like a scary proposition, considering that this type of eating wants us to a) eat when hungry and b) eat what we want.
But if we really listen to our body and eat only when we are hungry, the body’s innate drive to get the most nutrition for survival, will direct us to the most beneficial foods and the most appropriate quantities. We have to retrain our brains to think beyond the obvious. For example, if you are hungry, really hungry, and the only thing you are craving is a sweet candy bar, it is a real indication that your glucose level is low. When you eat the healthier option of (for example) a small banana and a handful of almonds, you will find that your earlier candy craving has disappeared and your small meal will keep you fuller and satisfied for longer.
Learn to eat with all your senses. See the color, the presentation, smell the aroma, feel the texture and taste the food. Be aware of the actions of chewing, savoring, swallowing, understand how it feels to be full to a comfortable level. Leave enough room for water. And understand that mindful eating does not label food as good or bad- just food. Once these labels are gone, you will feel a sense of liberation, where you are in control of your own appetite, nutrition and ultimately, health.