Mindful Eating

Food is a funny thing. This is because the partaking of it functions on so many levels simultaneously – physical, social, emotional, cultural, intellectual, economic and political – consequently it gets messy sometimes.

Ever think about why you eat what, when and how you do? What I’m about to discuss is a no brainer, yet, its vast significance is often the first thing to go out the door when we begin to eat. I’m talking about simply being present, with awareness to when, why and how you are eating.

Do you eat when you’re: watching TV, at the computer, engaged in conversation, reading, driving, walking at the mall, or working at your desk? How often do you reach for food when: you’re lonely, depressed, bored, or even tired?

Mindful eating isn’t new. The first time I ever experienced it was in 1995, in the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Programat the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where I was participating in the clinical internship program. The program utilizes mindfulness meditation as the core method to help promote health and healing for people suffering with chronic pain, illness, or life stress, and it has been taught to thousands of patients.

Though the exercise (taken from Buddhist meditation practices) is meant to be exemplary of how, too often, we miss the richness of our everyday experience, its “literal” application to food and eating is also extremely meaningful.

I invite you to play along and try a new way of approaching your age old experience of eating – with the mindful raisin eating exercise.

You’ll need three raisins, 5 -10 minutes, and to be alone where you can uninhibitedly try this exercise.

  • Please take three raisins and hold them in the palm of your hand.
  • Imagine you have never seen them before and are curious about exploring them.
  • Choose one, and begin to feel its texture between your fingers. Notice its color, size, and shape. Look at it like you’ve never seen it before.
  • Become aware of any thoughts you may be having about raisins or food in general. Observe any thoughts or feelings of like or disdain for raisins while you continue looking at it.
  • Does the raisin make any sound if you roll it between your index finger and thumb, next to your ear?
  • Does it have any smell? Raise it your nose and find out.
  • Finally, with all of your attention and interest, slowly take the raisin towards your lips.
  • Take the raisin into your mouth and eat it as slowly as possible. Taste one raisin.
  • If you haven’t already swallowed, observe the initial desire to swallow. Experience swallowing one raisin consciously.
  • You have just eaten one raisin mindfully, giving to it your full attention. Now that you know what to do, please eat the second and third one.

This is obviously an exaggerated way to eat food, yet it is highly informative. What was it like for you to eat a tiny raisin this slowly, with so much interest and care? Did you feel the gush of water from salivating, as your body prepared itself to receive food? What about when you took your first bite of it? Were you surprised at how much flavor one little tiny raisin could impart? Did you catch yourself automatically moving to eat the other raisins before finishing the one in your mouth?

I know it seems absurd to be able to ask so many questions about eating a few little raisins. And yet, this exercise is of paramount significance because eating without awareness, and too quickly, can cause us to overeat – for two reasons. If we’re “out to lunch” while we’re actually eating lunch, we finish our food before we’ve paid attention to having eaten it. We need to overeat just to make up for having not been there in the first place.

Furthermore, it takes 20 minutes for our brain to actually receive a message from our stomach that “it” is satiated. So if we eat mindlessly and therefore too quickly, we can overeat before our body has had the time to register that we’ve eaten enough.

You don’t have to be a recluse to practice this. You can start by simply taking three breaths before you begin to eat, noticing what is on your plate, where it came from, and how you are feeling before you eat it.

Mindful eating provides a wonderful way to reconnect to your body, your food, and to the natural and healthy pleasure of eating.

I hope you’ll try it out over the next few weeks. Grab a friend, colleague or family member and share it.

Photo credit: Dottie Mae, used with permission under Creative Commons license.