A teacher once had our class envision a common interaction — the one that existed between us individually and a bag of candy, or some other snack item made up of little pieces. She proposed we consider how we would eat these treats. Was it one-by-one or by the handful? The students smirked, each of us envisioning some version of ourselves tossing back eleven or twelve peanuts at a time. As for myself, I could see it go further, witnessing my hand digging for more before I was had even finished the first portion.
We were nutrition students, so what did this have to do with nutrition? Were the candies not prohibited, regardless of how we ate them? Perhaps they would be, but it was far from the point. What she had highlighted was the lack of presence — the mindlessness of the act.
Mindful eating is the opposite way of consuming. It is eating with awareness — of the food, of ourselves, and of our surroundings. We practice it by tuning into all of our senses — into the body, the mind, and the heart. It is a practice that has us eating slower, with greater awareness of each bite and each moment.
If we consider that bowl of nuts or candy and try to envision ourselves chewing each individual piece — slowly, one by one — we might also feel a sense of irritation arise in the body. Similarly, if we consider eating a meal alone without a smartphone or computer consuming our attention, we might begin to feel uneasy. Given the discomfort of these practices, why do we bother? What might we gain from bringing awareness to how and what we eat?
1. Improved Digestion and Absorption
It all starts before we have even consumed anything. The smell of food is enough to stimulate our salivary glands to secrete digestive enzymes that help us break down our meal. If we sit with our food before we consume it, we give the digestive system a moment to get fired up in the mouth so that it can adequately complete the first chemical phase of digestion.
Once we start chewing, slow, deliberate bites help the body to physically break down food sufficiently. For healthy digestion, it is important that food is broken down to small enough pieces that are optimal for the stomach to perform the next stage of the process. Slower chews also mean that the food is in contact with salivary enzymes for longer, facilitating breakdown. Pieces that are too big when reaching the stomach (and later, the small intestine) will not be broken down adequately, leaving the body unable to extract and absorb the maximum amount of nutrients.
2. Enhanced Pleasure and Greater Gratitude
Eating slowly and mindfully can feel awkward, but once we overcome the initial discomfort of mindful eating, we find greater pleasure in the process of consuming. We become more attuned to the taste of food and better able to appreciate each bite. The experience also then lasts longer. A handful of popcorn, which used to be one big bite, is now a series of seven or eight savoury experiences. The more conscious we are of our food and our eating habits, the more likely we are to feel a sense of gratitude for the abundance on our plates and in our lives.
From field to fork, food production and consumption have become increasingly mechanistic; eating habits are most often automatic and unconscious. Mindful eating is an opportunity to break this cycle. By being aware of each bite and each sensation, we gain appreciation for the food on our plates and are present to enjoy it. If the mind is elsewhere, the moment and experience slips by, a realization we most often come to once the plate is empty.
3. Enhanced Wellness in Body and Mind
Mindful eating just feels better. For one thing, we are less likely to overeat when consuming mindfully because we become more in tune with the body’s needs. We enhance our ability to listen to the cues that the body has had enough and are more likely to avoid feeling unwell from overconsumption. The same thing goes with drinking. When we consume alcohol, sugary drinks, coffee, or any other substance with awareness, we find our limits for it change as actions begin to align with the authentic needs of the body and mind.
The practice also gives us a moment’s pause to consider not only the amount of food but also what type of it we are putting into our vessel. The internal nutritionist’s voice becomes louder; we strengthen our intuitive understanding of what macronutrients are required in the moment. Being that connected to the body is empowering and providing it with what it needs is crucial to our overall wellness.
4. Increased Self-Awareness
Not only do we strengthen our awareness of the body’s needs; mindful eating can also enhance the awareness we have of our entire selves — mind, heart, and soul included. The practice of paying attention while we eat is a form of meditation. As we practice, we will undoubtedly observe all the ways we distract ourselves, all the times we try to race through our food. By setting aside the distractions — social media, movies, and work, for instance — we are confronted with ourselves. Whatever lingers beneath the surface of our distractions is exposed. This is part of the challenge of mindful eating; however, if we find the courage to explore what is uncovered, we get to know ourselves better. If we come to this practice with compassion, patience, and curiosity, eating becomes a feeding ground for self-discovery.
Food is a centrepiece of human life, and eating is a savoury experience that brings us together; it is our common ground. Whether in gathering or solitude, eating is an intimate experience that nourishes the body, mind, and soul. A mechanistic way of eating strips the experience of the richness it offers. By paying attention to the quality of our food and by tapping into our full experience while eating, we benefit physically, mentally, and spiritually. If that is not reason enough to pay attention to the abundance in our bowls, I am not sure what is.