People eating at a table.
Putting consciousness into food and eating is important. We know that what we eat has a tremendous impact on our health, but seldom are we aware that how, when, where and why we eat is just as important.

Mindful eating

Sound Consumer | November 2006

by Samia McCully, ND

(November 2006) — The holidays are upon us once again. It’s a time for celebration, family, friends and eating ... and eating and eating and eating! Special family recipes passed down from one generation to the next may be an excuse to indulge — a luxury indeed and one afforded to most of us only recently.

Never before in history has there been a time when food was so abundant and available. In earlier times, abundance was reserved for royalty and the very rich. Now, we all can indulge if we’re so inclined, and many of us are.

Consider Thanksgiving, an American tradition since 1623. In my family, it starts out with a grace of some sort. This lasts a little less than 30 seconds. If we’re being extra thoughtful, we go around the table and individually give thanks for the blessings in our lives. This takes only a fraction of the time that we’ll spend gorging ourselves with food.

Turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green beans, turnips, yams and stuffing. The drink is wine or beer. Then there’s dessert: apple pie with ice cream, pumpkin pie and whipped cream. Coffee or tea. As if that weren’t enough, a new addition has appeared recently: pumpkin cheesecake. After dinner, we push our chairs away from the table, undo a belt or a button, and let out a sigh.

Thanksgiving is not alone here. There is Christmas dinner, the eve of Yom Kippur, the end of each day’s fast during Ramadan. Then there’s New Year’s Eve — time to repent for our sins of overeating. We join the gym, swear off sweets or go on a diet.

Mindful eating
Would resolutions be necessary if we paid more attention to our body’s signals? Would we stuff ourselves to the point of great discomfort? Unlikely, but the fact is that most of us do not eat mindfully during the holidays — or any other day of the year.

When I say “eat mindfully,” I’m not talking about “watching what you eat.” It is all-encompassing. Each facet is practiced with forethought and presence. If adopted, the practice of mindful eating will improve your health and sense of well-being.

The question is why do we gorge ourselves during the holidays and eat so mindlessly the rest of the year? It has been said that Americans know how to work but fail at the art of living, of which eating is a great part. We have become so numb to eating that we need a food pyramid to tell us what and how much we should consume each day.

Putting consciousness into food and eating is important. We know that what we eat has a tremendous impact on our health, but seldom are we aware that how, when, where and why we eat is just as important as what we eat.

When all of the important aspects of eating are tied together, we digest better. We assimilate nutrients more efficiently. We eat just the right amount.

The advent of modern technology has replaced the need to be conscious of these aspects of eating. For example, in most pre-packaged foods, serving size is decided for us. If not, the nutrition facts on the label suggest a serving size for us.

Limited time
Most of us feel pressed for time. So much so that some people might prefer an IV drip for lunch rather than take time out of their busy day! American society reveres success, which often involves getting the most done in the least amount of time. Really living — being present to our experiences — is considered a luxury, not a necessity. This sets us up for mindless eating.

Portion size
A drastic increase in serving size at a popular fast-food restaurant was a major point of contention in the 2003 movie “Super Size Me.” Portion sizes had almost tripled from the 1950s until the time the movie was released.

A portion of French fries went from 2 ounces to 7 ounces. A meal including French fries, soda and a hamburger was 590 calories in the 1950s. In 2003, the super-value meal contained 1,550 calories. As a result of public outcry, the situation was rectified to a degree. The super-size option was eliminated from the menu.

But was the problem solved? To this day, the same restaurant offers large sodas that contain 310 calories and 25 teaspoons of sugar.

Fast-food restaurants are not the only culprits. A popular fruit juice chain that sells “health drinks” offers a 32-ounce glass of freshly squeezed carrot/orange juice. This “health drink” contains 320 calories and almost 19 teaspoons of sugar. It’s fruit sugar, but sugar is sugar — no matter its source.

To put this in perspective, you would have to eat 15 to 20 oranges to get this much juice. When was the last time you sat down to a serving of 20 pieces of fruit?

Restaurants also are guilty of confusing our senses. Meals for one easily could accommodate two. We are so used to these epic-sized portions that many of us don’t think twice. Although the rule of eating everything on your plate is mostly a thing of the past, many of us habitually do it.

Our everyday dishes are another effective manipulator of portion size — albeit more subtle. I was shocked last year when I sat down to a turkey dinner on my grandmother’s china. The plates were 9 inches in diameter. Most dinner plates today are 12 inches in diameter. That is 33 percent more food to fill your plate. These changes in portion size have led to a disconnection with our innate sense of fullness and satisfaction.

Convenience
Preparation is another aspect often eliminated from our eating experience. Many of us are frequently short on time. To compensate, we have developed just about every food convenience under the sun.

Modern-day fast food began in the 1920s at White Castle in Topeka, Kan. After that came vending machines, prepackaged foods and frozen dinners. Marathoners now can squeeze gel into their mouths to refuel during a race. We can eat, literally, on the run

Convenience robs us of control over what we are eating. Packaged foods often contain ingredients that we never would add to a home-cooked meal. This includes items such as preservatives, coloring, binders, fillers and other unwanted chemicals. While consuming pre-packaged food makes our lives easier, it often compromises our health.

Distractions
I remember being told by one of my college professors that a person living today would be exposed to more stimuli in one year than a person living 100 years ago would experience in an entire lifetime. The stimuli he was talking about were all external.

The intensity of these external stimuli is so strong that it often overrides more subtle internal cues of fullness and satisfaction or discomfort. Distractions while we eat can come in the form of watching TV, having a phone conversation, reading the daily news, doing homework or other work, driving or having a heated discussion. These distractions lead to mindless eating. As a result, we’re often not aware of what we’re eating, how it tastes or when we are full.

Where we eat
Where we eat often is dictated by our primary activity. One would hope that during mealtime, that activity would be eating. However, the yearning to watch TV often supersedes the importance of the sit-down meal.

We now eat in the car, in front of a computer, at a desk, or standing in front of the refrigerator. I call these New Age dining options. Not the best choices for optimal digestion! In order to digest well and absorb the nutrients provided by our food, we need to be able to focus on the act of eating.

The sympathetic nervous system responds to things such as stress and motion. It is what we know as the “fight or flight” response. When this is activated during eating, our digestive function shuts down and we are left feeling heavy and lethargic.

Historically, meals have been a time for social gathering. Whether it is at the kitchen or dining room table or gathered in a circle on the floor, the best digestion happens when we’re relaxed and engaged with our food.

Why we eat
Food is an integral part of living. It is culture, pleasure, health and survival. For some, it’s an emotional panacea. Many of us also eat when we’re bored or just out of habit.

It’s important to be aware of what our food is really feeding. Sometimes our hunger is for something other than food. If we can gain awareness of true hunger, mindful eating becomes a little easier.

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