I once saw a tongue-in-cheek list of ways to avoid gaining weight. It included things like “Always eat standing up” and “Eat the broken cookies because the calories have all leaked out.” Like all good jokes, it was funny precisely because it contained so much truth. A lot of us have complex relationships with food, to say the least, and have developed habits of mindless eating that aren’t healthy or helpful. This can vary from silly “rules” for eating, to snacking out of boredom, to eating on the run. All of these have in common a pattern of disinterest in just how and what we put into our bodies. I have to admit to standing at the counter and “cleaning up the edges” of the pan of brownies, believing I’m only eating a small amount. But studies have shown that this type of behavior actually results in eating more, rather than less. The worst part is, I don’t even realize it because I’m not being attentive.
Mindless eating also includes something I’ll call the multi-task meal. You know, where you’re really too busy to stop for lunch so you eat at your desk while answering emails. Or while driving. Or while on a conference call. The multi-task meal means eating has been relegated to just another thing on the to-do list. I can say from experience that food eaten this way is not enjoyed. In fact, it’s probably barely even tasted. As eating this way becomes a habit, it becomes less important what we choose to eat. Clearly this is a stuff-and-go operation, so quality of taste and nutrition aren’t a priority. Once we lose sight of the value of the food, the simple pleasures of a meal are ignored altogether. We eat on autopilot, whatever we can get and eat the fastest so we can get back to doing something more important. Yikes! What could be more important than giving our body the fuel it needs to be healthy?
We all know the pitfalls of a fast food diet, including obesity and heart disease. Mindless eating also has a negative impact on health. As I mentioned above, we may choose less healthy foods, but we also tend to eat more, and more quickly, when we aren’t paying attention. This can result in indigestion, heartburn, weight gain and irritable bowel symptoms. The rushed feeling of a multi-task meal can also increase feelings of stress. Meal times were designed to be a break in the action of the day. Our bodies actually need to be in a relaxed state to even digest food, so eating under pressure works against our most fundamental biology.
So how can we take back mealtime? One way is to apply mindfulness concepts to eating. Mindfulness means being fully present, and at home in all of our senses. We cannot be aware if our attention is divided, so the first thing to do is simply eat, with no distractions. Turn off computers, phones and the TV. If possible, leave the office altogether at lunch time and eat in a relaxed setting. Focus on the sensory experience at hand, including the smell, taste, and texture of your food. Eat slowly, and put your fork down between bites. Savor the meal and enjoy the time out in the day. Eating this way has been shown to allow us to recognize when we’re full, so overeating becomes less likely. Some studies have shown this can lead to weight loss. These changes also decrease the stress response at meal time, so digestion will improve.
We can start with meals, and then bring mindfulness to all of our eating. I can start by assessing why I’m choosing to eat in the first place. Am I hungry? Do I just want something sweet? Or am I bored and lonely? Awareness of my motivation should drive my next action, and I can be sure I’m making conscious choices. Then, I remind myself that every bite of food is worthy of my full attention. Therefore, every snack should be put on a plate and eaten sitting at the table. No more mindless grabbing of food, I eat slowly, savoring the experience. Over time, these habits create a consistent pattern of awareness that will improve health and well-being. Eating should be a multi-sensorial experience, a pleasure for every human being. Mindful eating can return us to that state.