Mealtime Mindfulness

by Jeremy McCarthy

The way we eat has a huge impact on our health.

I recently attended a workshop on “Mindful Eating,” which was offered by Laura Peterson, a registered nurse on the Mayo Clinic team at the Mandarin Oriental Resort in Bodrum, Turkey. I’m a big fan of both “mindfulness” and “eating,” but these are two words that rarely go together in my vocabulary. I’ve never been much of a foodie and rarely take time to savor what I am eating.

I usually approach food in a perfunctory way, thinking of eating as a chore, only necessary to maintain my biological functioning. While I eat, I’m typically demonstrating the opposite of mindfulness: either multi-tasking on a digital device or just trying to shovel the food in as quickly as I can, so I can go back to whatever it is that I really want to be doing.

Not surprisingly, there are benefits to taking a more mindful approach. First, mealtime is an ideal time to practice mindfulness (“focusing attention on the experience in the present moment” to use Mayo Clinic’s definition). Because eating is such a sensory experience, there are lots of things happening during a meal to help bring a practice of awareness, which can make mealtimes more enjoyable.

"At mealtimes, feed your body, mind and soul."

Bringing mindfulness to meals has other benefits, because the way we eat also has a huge impact on our health. Mindfulness allows us to observe our own relationship with food and to bring more awareness to eating patterns that may or may not be good for us. A more mindful approach can help us to see the differences between physical hunger and emotional hunger. The Mayo Clinic advises, for example, to “HALT” before eating and ask yourself if you are eating because you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Doing so, you may find that you are eating to fill an emotional void rather than a physiological one.

If you are hungry, you can also reflect on how hungry you really are, and how full you want to be at the end of the meal. When we eat mindlessly, we tend to be on “autopilot.” We may not realize we are eating even when we are not hungry or we may keep eating beyond the point of already feeling full. Does that sound familiar to you? It sure did to me.

Center yourself
Give yourself a pause before eating, to reflect on your day, express gratitude and take a few breaths.

Engage all your senses
Notice not only the tastes of the food but the sights, colors, smells and textures. Savor your first few bites of any new dish being fully present to the experience.

Slow down
Some recommended techniques include chewing each bite 20 times, putting down your fork between bites or eating with your non-dominant hand. These things force you to slow down and approach the meal with greater awareness.

I’ve been practicing these techniques since attending the workshop and I find them beneficial. For one thing, I’m eating less, but enjoying it more. I am more tuned in to my body’s own signals for hunger and satiety. Perhaps most importantly, mindful eating changes mealtime from being a necessary biological hurdle to being a meaningful and mindful respite in an otherwise harried day.

In a world where we are surrounded by technological distractions, mealtimes are a perfect reminder to spend time in the present moment, not only feeding your body, but your mind and soul.

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