You’ve probably heard a lot about mindfulness these days, but what exactly is mindfulness? Can mindfulness apply to our relationship with food? What is mindful eating? Think about it: When was the last time you sat down and ate a meal with no distractions? Not while driving in your car, walking to the train, working at your desk, watching TV, scrolling through social media, reading the paper, or trying to feed the kids before inhaling something – anything! – while rushing to the next thing? For many of us, it might be hard to think of the last time we enjoyed a meal or a snack with a sense of calm, a sense of presence, and a sense of awareness. Just like the rush and “busyness” of daily life is instrumental in perpetuating disconnection from others, so too does it form the foundation for our disconnection from food, from our bodies, and from our underlying emotional worlds.
What is Mindful Eating?
Exploring, understanding, and appreciating the nuances of our relationship with food is instrumental to exploring, understanding, and appreciating our relationship with our physical, mental, and emotional selves. No matter how we grew up, we all were raised with certain subtle and overt messages around food and mealtime, messages that were sometimes at odds with our natural bodily cues. A prime example is the “clean plate club” message many children receive from their parents, which had the unintentional impact of encouraging eating past the point of satiation. Because our relationship with food is complex, and because food is essential to our survival on a daily basis, developing a healthy relationship with food, including a present-oriented mindset while eating, can be a transformative experience that impacts a number of different and perhaps unexpected areas of our lives.
The Evolution of Eating
Historically speaking, the pursuit and consumption of food has been an inherently social experience, one in which the presence of others was both inter-personally enriching and necessary for survival, particularly in the context of nomadic hunter-gatherer societies. Journalist and author Michael Pollan, who writes about the intersection of food and culture, has often noted that Americans are spending less and less time cooking their own meals and enjoying food together either as a family unit or with friends. Additionally, in 2015 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that of all developed countries, Americans cook the least and eat the fastest, with lack of available time being cited as the underlying reason. Naturally, it makes sense that with a cultural shift towards busier lives, our meals have become both quick and increasingly isolated. However, by saving time through grab-and-go meals, aren’t we also sacrificing deep connection with the food we eat, with our bodies, with each other, and even with ourselves? Taken to an extreme, this disconnection from the mental, emotional, physical, and social aspects of food consumption may perpetuate patterns of overeating by laying the foundation for mindless consumption, even going so far as to perpetuate the unconscious use of food as a coping mechanism or numbing agent for challenging emotional states.
Physician and mindful-eating speaker Michelle May, MD, outlines a framework for better understanding one way in which our relationship with food can derail. In her books and workshops, Dr. May outlines what she calls the Eat – Repent – Repeat cycle. In this paradigm, mindless overeating leads to negative emotional states, which lead to vows to change eating behaviors, which then over time and without concrete strategies for change leads to a repetition of mindless overeating behaviors.
Eating is a Sensory Experience
Just like our moods and emotions, eating is a sensory activity. By tuning into all five of your senses as well as your thoughts and feelings while eating, you can learn to incorporate a present-oriented mindset into your mealtimes, thus enhancing your enjoyment of and appreciation for the foods you eat, even going so far as to connecting more deeply with yourself on an emotional level. The following exercise will take you through some questions aimed at engaging your senses, thoughts, and feelings, in order to promote mindful eating:
Mindful Eating Exercises
Explore Your Senses
What does my food look like? What are the colors and textures present on my plate?
What does the environment around me look like? Did I clear the table before eating and set myself a place? Am I sitting amidst clutter? How does my physical environment impact my enjoyment of my meal or snack?
Are there any sounds in my environment as I’m eating? Do these sounds in any way enhance or detract from enjoying my meal? If so, how?
As I take a bite and begin chewing, what does it sound like? Does my food sound crunchy or is it quieter because it’s soft? Can I hear my teeth, tongue, and saliva as I bite and chew?
What does my food smell like? Are there any sense-memories being triggered by these aromas?
What does my food or eating utensil feel like in my hands? What textures and temperatures are present in my food as I begin biting and chewing?
Engage the five main tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami/savory. What flavors are present in my food, and where on my tongue to I notice them? Do the flavors change as I continue chewing?
Engage Your Thoughts
As I eat, is my mind preoccupied? Am I thinking of past conversations or tasks, or planning what will come once I’m done with my meal or snack?
Does the food itself remind me of another time, place, event, or interaction? Am I recalling fond (or not so fond) memories?
If my mind has strayed, am I able to acknowledge these thoughts and gently remind myself to return to the sensory experience of my food?
Tune Into Your Feelings
Do I feel excited about the meal or snack I am about to eat? Am I proud about making healthy choices? Do I feel ashamed for indulging in less healthy options? Am I eager to enjoy something that’s a treat? Where in my body do I experience these feelings, and what sensations do I notice?
As I eat, what am I feeling? Am I present and enjoying the sensory experience of my food? Am I bored or restless? Do I feel pulled to turn on the TV, read a magazine, check my email, or scroll through social media to distract myself?
If I’m feeling pulled to distract myself, what is the discomfort lying beneath this? Are there painful experiences, judgmental thoughts, anxiety, or shame about what I am eating? Do I feel awkward or uneasy?
If pain, judgment, anxiety, or shame arises, how can I navigate these challenging experiences with awareness and self-compassion? What might I need either from myself or from someone else to help with this?
You might be surprised by what comes up as you pose these questions and challenge yourself to encounter mealtime with intentionality and increased mental/emotional awareness. True, it may be difficult at first to resist the pull towards habitual distractibility, and the space created through mindful self-awareness may feel uncomfortable. But creating this space allows the richness of the present moment to unfold, complete with robust sensations as well as increased emotional connection with our loved ones and with ourselves. And remember, if you find yourself or someone you love struggling at this intersection of food and emotions, mindfulness-based psychotherapy can help unpack this complex relationship so you can start building skills to improve your connection with food and ultimately with yourself. All of the therapists at Bergen Counseling Center are trained in mindfulness techniques, fill out the contact form on the right sidebar to learn more about how we can help you incorporate mindfulness into your daily life.