One bite at a time

Experts extol mindful eating as a way to stay healthy

The first time I practiced mindful eating was during a weekend retreat at Shasta Abbey, the Zen Buddhist monastery just north of Mt. Shasta City. The experience challenged nearly everything I knew about food and eating.

We ate without talking, the only sounds the clinking of utensils, the rustling of the monks’ robes and birdsong from outside the building. Before each bite, we put our hands together and bowed to our bowl of food. Then we picked up the bowl and fork and took a bite, set down the bowl and fork, and bowed again. Then we chewed, 28 times for each bite, until the food was fully masticated. I noticed that the more I chewed my rice, the sweeter it became. I enjoyed the crunchiness of the vegetables, the saltiness of the soy sauce.

When I’d swallowed and was ready for another bite, I bowed, beginning the process once again.

I had rarely, if ever, paid such attention to eating, nor eaten so slowly. As important and enjoyable as eating was, I’d usually found some way to distract myself from it—reading a book, chatting with a friend, watching television, you name it. Often I’d finish a meal and realize I hardly remembered eating it.

The first thing I noticed about eating mindfully was how intensely delicious the food was. We usually ascribe deliciousness to the food itself, but it really has more to do with how we experience the food. The more attention we pay to eating it, the more delicious the food becomes.

I also noticed that, when I ate slowly and mindfully, I ate less than usual and was satisfied with half the quantity I otherwise might have consumed. Among all its other benefits, mindful eating is an excellent way to keep the weight down.

The notion that the simple—and cost-free—act of eating slowly and relishing each bite could be a remedy for much that ails us, including the obesity epidemic, is rapidly gaining credence among nutritionists and other experts.

The problem, they suggest, is that as we eat we become unconscious and eat mindlessly, so we eat too fast, and we eat too much. If we could learn to slow down and pay attention to what we’re eating, we’d be inclined to eat less, and to eat better food.

Dr. Jan Bays, a pediatrician and meditation teacher and author of Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, calls mindful eating “the anti-diet.” By paying attention to the experience of eating and drinking, both inside and outside the body, she writes, “gradually we regain the sense of ease and freedom with eating that we had in childhood. It is our natural birthright.”

One of the interesting results of mindful eating, I’ve noticed, is that it makes me experience the deliciousness of food, but it also makes me more aware of the food’s nutritional value—or, just as important, lack of value. Eaten slowly and mindfully, processed and junk foods just don’t taste very good.

Mindful eating also means making mindful choices about what to eat. It means asking, “Does my body need this?” And it means being aware of one’s motivation for eating and asking, “Why am I eating this?” My reason for eating that big piece of chocolate cake may have little to do with hunger and much to do with anxiety or stress. If we’re paying attention, we’ll make wise choices.

Most practitioners of mindful eating advise that people ease into it. Bays suggests they begin by eating in mindful silence for the first five minutes of a meal once a week, and expand from there.

You can enhance the experience and make it even more special by putting flowers and candles on the table to create a sense of serenity.

Or, while having your morning cup of coffee, drink the first three or four sips mindfully, feeling the warmth of the cup in your hands, watching the steam rise and savoring the rich flavor of the coffee. Just being fully present with your drink, if only for a few moments, is a step toward more mindful eating.

When you eat alone, just eat. Don’t read a book or check your emails or update your Facebook status. And resist the temptation to eat fast by chewing patiently, 25 or 30 times for each bite, and take pleasure in knowing that, if nothing else, you won’t get heartburn!

If you say grace before a meal, hold on to that feeling of gratitude as you eat. Be aware of all that has occurred to provide these nutriments. If you look deeply into your food, you’ll discover Earth and sky there, as well as the hard work of those who brought the food to your table. With such awareness, how can your food not be delicious?