Many of the possible triggers linked to an ineffectually functioning digestive system are associated with our eating habits, and can be amended simply through attention and awareness. The practice of mindful eating is supported and taught by three ancient schools of thought including Traditional Chinese Medicine, Buddhism and Ayurveda, as well as modern science. By slowing down and focusing on what we are eating, how our food is prepared, and how we eat it, we can learn much about ourselves, and can thus reap the rewards. Our bodies and minds stand to benefit from improved digestion by means of adequate nutrient absorption and metabolic efficiency.
Achieving mindful eating can be as simple as creating a heightened awareness of your current eating practices. Even before you start to make any changes, simply recognizing mindlessness during the preparation and ingestion of food will aid you in bringing mindfulness to your daily routine. Your preparation and consumption of food should revolve around enjoyment. Avoid negative emotions and contributing to an unhealthy relationship with food. If decisions around food and eating become stressful, confusing, or exhausting, you should re-evaluate your methods. Mindfulness should encompass relaxation, satisfaction, wellness, positivity, nourishment, happiness, and love.
Putting Into Practice:
Below I have summarized the practice of mindful eating into 10 basic steps. Some steps may be more challenging than others. The idea is to start with small gentle steps to allow your mind to open up to the concept of slowing down and engaging with more attention with both food and other life obligations. Absorption involves not only nutrients from food in the digestive tract, but also external surroundings and influences, as well as your own thoughts and beliefs. It is important to take time to comprehend these new concepts, just as you work towards taking time for eating and digestion. Recognize that everyone’s relationship and experiences with food is unique. Be kind to yourself by accepting your own successes and failures.
1. Play an active part in the preparation of meals.
- There are varying degrees of involvement you can take when becoming an active participant in your meals. If you like to garden consider the seeding, planting, growing, tending to, and harvesting of the food. If you don’t have the ability to garden, or choose not to, reflect on where your food comes from, the people and energy involved in growing that food and you receiving it, as well as any processing or preparing the food has endured. These practices allow us to comprehend what exactly is in our food, where it comes from, and other influences or outcomes related to our food choices. Furthermore, when we open our consciousness to what we are eating and the ingredients that comprise our meals, we are more inclined to make health conscious decisions.
2. Be gracious.
- Be thankful for the nourishment you will be receiving and for all people and resources involved in your obtaining of the food. When we reflect on the complex systems necessary to create the many ingredients that go into a single meal, the energy inputs can seem astronomical. Recognition and appreciation of these aspects are how mindfulness can encompass more than just our bodies and surroundings.
3. Engage the senses.
- Use your sight; observe the colors, textures, and presentation of your meal. Nature is beautiful and human creativity with food ingredients can be magical. Use your nose; smell the scents develop as the food is transformed into a meal. Appreciate the delicacy or strength of the aromas, feel the varying textures and temperatures. Listen to sizzles, splashes, crunches, and crackles. Feel how your body responds to the sensory inputs; experience how your stomach grumbles, your mouth salivates, and your hunger signals start firing.
- Use your senses when making food choices. Ask yourself questions such as ‘What am I really hungry for?’, ‘How hungry am I?’, ‘Am I eating for hunger or for other reasons?’. Physical hunger and satiety cues will guide your decisions on when to begin and end eating.
4. Create a space for eating.
- The space you choose to eat in should be specific for eating. If this is a multi-functional space just ensure that during mealtime it is only being used for that, without distractions. Avoid distractions such as television, smart phones, laptops, or other technology, as well as work or family related interruptions. Your space should be free from negativity, stress, pressure, or heated conversation, and should encourage relaxation. Whether you choose to eat alone or with others, ensure your company promotes positivity and light conversation. It is ideal to avoid multitasking and to focus all attention to your meal, but if necessary, try to break up the tasks. For instance, if you are immersed in a book while eating, try putting the book down, taking a bite and savoring it, then picking the book back up.
5. Take mindful bites and chew.
- This is helpful when working on eating slower. Take small bites and the put the utensil(s) down between each bite. Chew each bite thoroughly. Once fully chewed, you should not be able to distinguish individual pieces of food in the mouth. If you are consuming food with a texture which doesn’t necessitate chewing, such as a smoothie or pureed soup, swish it around in the mouth to allow salivary enzymes to thoroughly mix with the substance. This is also helpful in warming up cold or frozen foods to avoid the coldness affecting the warmth of the stomach necessary for digestion.
6. Check in with your body and mind.
- Before, during, and after eating continuously check in with yourself on how you feel, such as hunger and fullness, and recognize the pleasure you are getting from your food. Appreciate how it may fulfill you or make you feel warm, nourished, energized or content, or take note at how it may cause adverse symptoms such as indigestion, bloating, gas, discomfort, nausea, brain fog, or fatigue. Sometimes eating may trigger feelings of guilt, shame, fear, judgment, or emptiness. Be aware of this, remind yourself why you are eating and how the food is for nourishment and enjoyment.
7. Keep calm and chew on.
- Remaining calm and relaxed is important in promoting the parasympathetic nervous system. To assist with this, make sure you give yourself enough time to complete the meal without feeling rushed. If you find your mind drifting, your speed increasing, or any other lack of mindfulness, bring attention back to your breath and your chewing, taking full deep breaths, small bites, and slow, steady, purposeful chews.
8. Recognize hunger and satiety and learn to balance them.
- Make sure there is hunger present before you eat so the body is adequately prepared for digesting. Avoid letting yourself get overly hungry. Never skip meals, or engage in unplanned fasting, which can cause blood sugar fluctuations. Keep snacks light and space them out between meals so as not to spoil your appetite.
- Recognize how portion sizes influence our consumption. Start with less and take more if you feel necessary. If you aren’t sure you’re still hungry, take a few minutes to allow your body to cue you.
9. Apply digestion guidelines.
- While mindfulness is a vital part of proper digestion, there are other aspects to be aware of which will contribute to and assist in optimizing digestion:
Hydration: Avoid large amounts of water or other drinks while eating, especially cold drinks, as this weakens digestion by diluting secretions in the digestive tract that are necessary for breaking down food. Keep hydrated throughout the day and stop drinking half an hour before a meal, and wait one hour after a meal. Small sips are acceptable and even favorable if a meal is dry or sticky. Warm water, digestive herbal teas, or a small glass of wine, can be sipped throughout a meal to assist in digestion.
Be kind to digestion: Use proper soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and cooking techniques. Different preparation methods make certain foods more easily digestible. Many legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains contain high levels of nutrition inhibitors such as phytates, polyphenols, and goitrogens that block the absorption of nutrients. Certain soaking, rinsing, and sprouting techniques can help minimize the effects of these naturally occurring chemicals. Grains and legumes should always be fully cooked and harder vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, beets, cabbage, etc., should be lightly steamed or baked to make digestion easier.
Use herbs, spices, and mineral salt: Traditional remedies often use herbs and spices in relieving digestive disruptions. Many studies have shown that a large variety of spices assist digestion by stimulating bile acids and enzyme secretions necessary for digestion, leading to accelerated digestion and reduced transit time in the gastrointestinal tract. Herbs and spices are often high in antioxidants, B vitamins, trace minerals, and have antibacterial and antiviral properties. Avoid using refined table salt and instead opt for a mineral rich salt like sea salt or pink Himalayan salt. A mineral rich salt will deposit essential minerals in the body and assist with your body’s natural water balance. When cells are hydrated they are better able to absorb and assimilate nutrients from foods in the digestive tract. Refined salt can deplete mineral stores and dehydrate cells as the salt naturally attracts trace minerals and water, via osmosis, to re-balance itself to a more natural state.
Emphasize quality and source locally: Choose high quality whole ingredients for your meals. It is important to treat your body with respect and consideration by feeding it healthy, nutritious, and unadulterated foods. Choosing organic results in less exposure to harmful toxins and some studies show that organic options are higher in many nutrients like vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and micronutrients. The more local your ingredients, the less time it takes for them to get from farm to table, meaning they are more likely to be seasonal, picked when ripe, and received fresh, which results in higher nutrient values. Local food choices are not only more nutritious, but also support local economies and are better for the environment.
- Eating should be a pleasurable experience. If you’re not enjoying it, you’re not absorbing it! Allow the food to nourish you and allow yourself to take in the nourishment. If there is guilt or shame surrounding your food choices, let them go and concentrate on positive aspects such as how it makes you happy or how your body needs the nourishment.
To learn more about Mindful Eating, read the many other posts within the Mindful Practice category.