3 Secrets to Mindful EatingThe art of mindfulness can transform our struggles with food — and renew our sense of pleasure, appreciation and satisfaction with eating. ~Jan Bays
This is a personal story of my disordered relationship with food and my own healing. When I wrote this a year ago, I thought:
There is absolutely no way I’m sharing this so openly and publicly. Especially since I’ve had such transformation over the past few months and now feel healed of this struggle. This is a closed chapter.”
Now, I think, that’s even more the reason to share.
My intention in telling you the details of my experience is so perhaps you will find the courage to inquire about your own relationship with food.
When we’re able to cultivate a deeper awareness with eating, we will also begin to wholeheartedly nurture ourselves and pay attention to other areas of our life.
I just returned home to Phoenix for a week and my first go-to destination — the scale: It read 124.5.
Immediate thought. “Holy shit!”
Second thought. “The 120’s?! That’s really, really awful … How did you let this happen?”
I had been living at a monastery for nearly two months, and I managed to eat my way to nine pounds heavier during that amount of time.
When you’re 5’1’’ and don’t have much length for the weight to spread, nine pounds is quite a bit. Let alone to gain in less than two months and at a monastery of all places!
Taiwanese and Fitness Models
Body image and weight is something I began struggling with at a young age. As a child, my family would travel to Taiwan during the summers, and I would always feel this pressure to be really thin and have pale white skin: this was the cultural norm of beauty, according to the Taiwanese.
But I wasn’t skinny or pale-skinned. My body was different. I grew up on a blend of Chinese and Western diet. I lived in Arizona where my skin was tan year round.
We would arrive at the airport in Taipei — it would be two years since my uncle last saw me — and the first thing he’d assess in Chinese: “Juen Juen — you’ve gotten fatter!” (Unlike here in the States, it’s not deemed impolite for Chinese relatives to comment on your weight.)
Phases of Food Struggle
This mentality I carried into my 20s — instead of comparing myself to the Taiwanese women, I’d instead compare myself the Yoginis in Yoga Journal, the fitness models in Shape and the hottest A-listers in People. The magazine photos and red carpet would become an idealized image for how I too should look.
At the gym where I worked out, there were many women who were training for fitness competitions. When I saw them, my inner perfectionist would envy: She’s so petite and fit. Oooh, I want her toned arms. And her perfect butt! Wow, and abs just like that!
Atkins, Zone, South Beach, Vegan Diet … Those sound really promising! Xendarin? Sure! N-O Explode? Yes, please!! Starting at age 15,I would try every faddy diet, weight loss supplement, heart-palpitating workout drink available to deliver me one step closer to looking “perfect.”
I would constantly strive to improve my body where maintaining my weight became primary.
My life evolved around my physical appearance at all costs. Calorie deprived, I would be irritable and snappy towards my husband, but I would validate it because I maintained my goal calorie count that day. Starved of carbs, my brain struggled to think critically for work assignments; that too was okay because I felt skinny.
Dysfunctional Inner Thoughts
I would count every single calorie on an Excel spreadsheet throughout the day (that was transferable to my cell phone when I was away from the computer). My rules? Stay under 1400 calories and complete two daily workouts.
This body-image mind-consumption became a dysfunctional pattern of thoughts. My critical inner voice would proclaim:
- You should be at the gym.
- Where’s your calorie count at?
- Did you have too many carbs at lunch?
- Did you eat enough protein for breakfast??
- When and what should your next snack be?
- Gosh, you shouldn’t have eaten so much!
- Your stomach is big. Your pants are snug.
- You must have gained five pounds by eating all that food at dinner!
- You’re hungry. You want that brownie dessert, but you really shouldn’t; you don’t deserve it.
- Maybe you can just have a small bite and repent on the elliptical for an extra thirty minutes tomorrow.
- Whoa — check her out: Did she just eat a plate of pasta? How does she stay so skinny and eat like that? Not fair! Too bad your genes and metabolism can’t afford to do that!
And on the less critical days:
- Your pants feel loose, nice!
- Your legs are toned — good work.
- Now you deserve to be in a great mood; go ahead, you can celebrate with a dessert binge!
It was this relentless onslaught of self-criticism and self-loathing with the occasional praise peppered in.
Food as A Source of Guilt
These habits soon became addictions that would gnaw at my experience with eating. The conditioned thoughts evolved into an unhealthy development of my relationship to food: I would have to be deserving and worthy of a meal.
The intended purpose of food is to provide nourishment and energy for our body. Meals are meant to be shared joyously in the good company of friends, family and celebrations.
My experience was nothing like that.
When I ate, I was either guilt-ridden (I don’t deserve to eat this) or used food as simply health-fuel (Eat these bland greens, go on a run and stay fit!). The basis for how freely I could enjoy a meal would depend on the reconciliation of my calorie count that day.
Then, post-dieting — once I reached my goal weight — the struggles and criticism continued.
The reckless binge cycles would begin: Due to the impulses to restrict my diet — deprived of foods I really, really wanted to eat while dieting, but couldn’t — I would develop a love-hate relationship with food.
Love for the way it looked, tasted and the pleasure it would instantly deliver. And hate as soon as the pleasure escaped and I felt sick from serious overeating.
I became a vegetarian two years ago, and arriving at a Zen monastery during their guest season where every meal is vegetarian-friendly was like walking into the ultimate food buffet.
Every variety of food a sweet-toothed vegetarian could ever wish for would appear at Tassajara:Indian, Thai, quiche, pasta, tacos, Mediterranean, ginger white chocolate cheese cake, sticky date pudding, baklava, poppyseed cake, truffles and shortbread.
Living in a community, I had less room to control my food, judge my body or manipulate my eating. If I wanted to have a healthy relationship with eating, I would have to learn a sane way of being with food.
Being here I couldn’t implement the usual out-of-sight, out-of -mind technique that I used when living on my own. Meals were prepared by the cooks, so I could no longer restrictively control the ingredients in my food or obsessively read the calorie count from every label.
And even though there was an abundance of fruit and healthy choices, I had little discipline to choose broccoli over sweet potato gratin.
With this monastic setting came less outward distractions, and as such, the persistent, domineering inner voice that offered non-stop narration about food became louder and louder and louder.
I noticed that the way I related to eating was influencing the way I lived. The inner critic and perfectionist were all-consuming — thinking about food while eating food or in between having food left little space for happiness in other areas of my life.
After struggling with eating and body image for nearly half my life, I was ready to liberate more space.
Over the past four months, I’ve been practicing mindful eating exercises. What I’ve learned from practicing is a lifetime skill that can be accompanied with every meal. No special diet plan, no weight loss pill, no calorie count needed — just awareness and attunement to the body.
Here are the first three (of six) simple guidelines to cultivate mindfulness as we eat, taken from Chapter 4 of Mindful Eating:
1. Slow It Down
“When we gobble, gulp and go, we are going against our body’s nutritional wisdom”
Pause before you begin each meal. Take notice of your plate with your eyes: the colors, the textures, the arrangement. Smell the food and imagine being nourished by just the smell.
Begin eating like a wine connoisseur drinks wine. Roll the food around in your mouth and savor it; try to identity the ingredients. Chew slowly, swallow and take a sip of water to cleanse the palate. When the mouth is empty of food, repeat this process.
In the 1950s, a man named Howard Fletcher lost 42 pounds and improved his health by chewing his food well. He coined the term “Fletcherizing” or chewing each bite at least 32 times. This became a faddy diet that was adopted by well-known doctors.
Try chewing food 15 to 32 times before swallowing. Watch any reactions to the texture changes in the food as you chew, and pay attention to your reaction to the time it takes to eat this way.
You may want to do this for only part of one meal each day, but as you get used to it, you may find yourself chewing all your food more thoroughly.
Consciously chewing our food more not only brings more satisfaction but also sends signals to the stomach earlier. There’s an intelligence to eating slowly — if we chew more and our food is broken down into smaller particles, absorption of the nutrients can begin earlier in the mouth and stomach.
When food exits the stomach and enters the small intestine, the appestat signals the brain and body: “We’ve had enough. We’re satisfied. Time to slow down. Think about stopping eating soon.”
If we eat too quickly, we’ve already packed in too much food before the satiation signal can arrive. Then we don’t stop eating until we’re physically uncomfortable, which is after we’ve consumed more calories than our body needs.
Put Down the Fork or Spoon
This is one of the most reliable and simple ways to slow down your eating. Each time you put a bite of food into our mouth, put down the fork or spoon.
Don’t pick it up again until the bite in your mouth is chewed and savored completely and swallowed. For real appreciation of the bite that is in your mouth, you can close your eyes as you chew and swallow.
Eat with Chopsticks
This practice works to make us slow down and be more attentive to each bite. It works very well if we are not skilled in using chopsticks.
It could be one of the reasons obesity was not historically a problem in Asia. Using chopsticks makes wolfing down a bowl of ice cream completely impossible.
2. Know The Right Amount
“When you think that after another five mouthfuls you’ll be full, then stop and drink some water and you will have eaten just the right amount. But that’s not the way we usually do it. When we feel full we take another five mouthfuls. That’s what the mind tells us.
It doesn’t know how to teach itself … Someone who lacks a genuine wish to train their mind will be unable to do it. Keep watching your mind.” ~Ajahn Chah
This guideline has to do with eating the right amount. Many adults have ignored the signals from their body for so long they have no sense of when to stop eating.
They rely on social and visual clues and generally stop eating only when other people at the table have finished eating and the food is gone. Or they rely on painful signals from an overstretched stomach.
Okinawans, the longest-lived people in the world, have a practice of eating only until they are about 80 percent full. This practice is called Hara Hachi Bu.
In the monastery our meals were an essential aspect of our spiritual practice. During the monastic practice, we’d eat at least one meal a day according to the ancient Zen ceremony called oryoki. Oryoki means “just enough.”
“Just enough” is not a fixed amount. It changes according to our circumstances.
If we follow the advice of Zen masters, we can practice eating to 80 percent full and drink some water.
This technique has been very beneficial for me.
3. Understand the Energy Equation
“Small changes work best.”
Another way to cultivate mindful eating is to become aware of the energy equation.
Food is energy. When we live our lives, we are releasing and spending energy. If our weight stays constant, it is a sure sign that the energy flowing into our body is equal to the energy flowing out.
We are in energy balance. If we want to lose weight, there are only two ways to do it: We have to decrease the energy flowing into our body or increase the energy flowing out.
The energy equation may seem obvious, but even well-educated people can be ignorant about it. This equation explains normal fluctuations in our hunger and in our weight.
For example, most people find they get hungrier in the fall, as the weather gets colder. The body is burning more calories just to keep a constant internal body temperature.
Once we gain extra weight, it is not easy to lose it. Fat cells act like an endocrine organ. You could say that they keep themselves alive and full of fat by secreting various chemicals and hormones. If we try to lose weight too quickly, it sets off the body’s famine alarm.
If we want to avoid setting off this alarm system we should lose weight slowly, about one to two pounds a month. This translates into taking in 100 to 250 calories less a day or using up 100 to 250 extra calories a day in exercise. Small changes work best.
Alongside my daily meditations at the monastery, each meal has become my teacher and an opportunity to cultivate a strong practice.
And, often, sitting at the dining room table is no different than sitting on the cushion in the meditation hall: both places I learn more deeply about self.
The self-criticism still arises, but another more self-compassionate voice speaks up to soothe. Relearning how to eat joyfully and restore my balance with food has been a huge takeaway these past few months.
The exercises in the book have given me tools to be kinder to myself — body, spirit, mind, food — my wholeness. And when I do treat myself to Choc de Crem, a voice of gratitude eases me into the smooth texture, one slow … satisfying … savoring … bite at a time.
The full picture of our relationship to eating — the relevance to our individual lives both at and away from the dinner table — can be more intimately explored in Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food.
I would highly recommend the book for anyone who is or has ever struggled with dieting, obesity or an eating disorder, as this article only touches on one aspect of our relationship with eating.