Mindful Eating: A Way to a Consciously Lived Life
Do you have an adversarial relationship with food and eating? Has weight become an insurmountable preoccupation for you? You are not alone. Our frenetic lives have made us wage a war on ourselves and many of us live without joy and self-awareness. We suffer constant anxiety. More often than not, to deal with our stress, we use food as a palliative, a way to soothe ourselves.
Mindful Eating (ME) helps people re-establish a healthy and joyful relationship with food and eating. The approach does not advocate diets or focus on weight but guides individuals in the practice of self-awareness, gentle movement, meditation and other exercises which when implemented daily have the potential to bring their lives into balance.
Eating is a natural, healthy, and joyful activity that has been turned into a weapon of control in today’s food-focused, diet-obsessed culture. To eat mindfully is to eat with intention, awareness, and without judgment. The practice of ME is an ancient one that has become relevant in the present time of fast-paced living. In ME we eat to nurture the self, not merely to satisfy our hunger. When people slow down they become aware of their eating patterns and have the opportunity to change them.
Emotions can be healthy guides
The human body has a wisdom that is different but not separate from that of the mind. Our emotions, which manifest as physical sensations in the body, can help us make wiser choices if we are aware of them. ME helps individuals cultivate nonjudgmental attention to emotions and to the physical needs of the body so they can make informed decisions about self-care.
ME also focuses on recognizing the triggers that are not connected to physical hunger. People who eat mindfully find new ways to meet needs that are not related to physical hunger, more effective ways than food consumption.
Can ME solve disordered eating problems?
Identifying the kinds of hunger is the first step in developing a healthier and more joyful relationship with food. ME is an effective way to end the tyranny of disordered eating, which is most often an aggressive form of self-aversion. Most people struggling with eating patterns eat on automatic pilot in order to satisfy physical hunger. Eating, under those circumstances, is done as a response to unexamined triggers. The practice of mindfulness brings non-judgmental awareness to patterns of behavior. For instance, a person practicing mindful eating will pause and ask who is hungry in there? What am I noticing? What part of me needs to be fed? Then she will determine what actions to take in order to exercise self-care and self-compassion or kindness.
Jan Chozen Bays, MD author of Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, has identified nine kinds of hunger, including eye hunger, stomach hunger, and heart hunger. According to the author, in order to assess the nine hungers it is imperative to get in touch with the senses, as well as with the emotional experiences in the present moment. Developing awareness of the nature of our needs enables us to make wise choices. Each one of the nine hungers has a voice. The practice of intentional listening to what the voices say is the beginning of exercising discernment when choosing how to live our day-to-day life. Once individuals identify the nine hungers, they are able to hear the different voices, weigh what each voice says, then make an informed, wise and compassionate decision about what to do next. This way, the individual gets to decide, for instance, if the kind of hunger would be satisfied by food or something else.
The problem with our fast pace
Often we eat quickly to get on to the next thing. Fast-paced eating impacts the satiety hormones that kick in after 20 minutes of eating and signal to the brain that you have had enough to eat. Rapid eating can impair our judgment on how much to eat, thus causing us to over-eat. By simply slowing down the pace of eating we can begin to enjoy our food and be better able to judge how much is enough. A little slower pace can help us recognize the sensations of physical hunger and to differentiate between it and other kinds of hunger. ME invites people to become scientists interested in learning about their own functioning and adaptability. In her book, Dr. Bays talks about how to differentiate between the symptoms of hunger and anxiety, which are very similar. Eating inappropriate foods and at inappropriate speed can increase anxiety and thus lead to a vicious cycle. ME is about checking in with the body and recognizing physical sensations, which help people to discern feelings of fullness and satisfaction.
Craving is an opportunity
A craving for something feels like there is nothing we can do about it. In mindful eating a craving is nothing but an opportunity to explore an experience we are living. Craving is an opportunity to look closely at what is happening in thoughts, emotions and physical sensations in the body, remaining curious about the experience and exercising kindness toward the self.
One example of working with craving would be journaling. Journaling can help people sort through their thoughts, emotions and physical sensations and more objectively weigh their choices and behaviors. A person may journal her thoughts about a craving by writing down simple things like: “I must have that!” “I am losing my mind.” I have no choice.”
Then the person might be invited to identify the emotions that go with those thoughts such as anger, sadness, shame and anxiety. After the emotions are explored, the person may then bring awareness to physical sensations in the body, such as tightness in the neck and chest or a clawing feeling in the abdomen.
Lastly, the person could be invited to explore the behaviors that are most likely to follow: eating too much and too fast; making excuses to go the store; sneaking food.
Finding other healthy ways to work with those thoughts, emotions and physical sensations can help to sidestep a craving. Here are three examples:
- Don’t ignore the craving. Stay with the physical sensations in the body. Surf the craving.
- Instead of giving into the craving, do mindful movements such as a few gentle yoga stretches.
- Instead of giving into the craving, take three minutes to breathe purposely and gently.
ME is about cultivating self-awareness and paying attention to our interactions with our inner and outer worlds. This practice is all about non-judgment and the practice of unwavering kindness toward the self and others. As Jon Kabat-Zinn indicates: “…cultivating mindfulness is not unlike the process of eating. It would be absurd to propose that someone else eat for you.” Let’s live life and eat our food using mindfulness as the foundation so we can free ourselves from ineffective patterns of behaviors.
Dr. Marianela Medrano is the founder of Palabra Counseling & Training Center, LLC with offices in Stamford and New Haven. Dr. Medrano has been trained in ME-CL. She works in conjunction with other therapists to provide holistic psychotherapy services to adults, couples and adolescents. For more information, please visit: https://www.palabracounseling.org.