HEART TO HEART: Eating Mindfully
The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, not to worry about the future, and not to anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.
— The Buddha
Mindfulness isa way of thinking and being in the world. It was adopted from ancient Eastern practices of meditation and relaxation. Although it is a simple concept, it can be difficult to describe. The best way to understand mindfulness is to experience it. As you read this, you are cultivating a mindful state of focused and conscious awareness. Mindfulness is the practice of slowing down and clearing out the clutter in your head to pay close attention to what is going on in the moment. When you are mindful, you are fully present and your body moves into a state of relaxation.
Mindfulness as a Therapeutic Technique
Ancient mindfulness meditation techniques are still popular today and are gaining renewed respect in many scientific communities for their unique healing qualities. Mindfulness skills help people cope with everyday stressors and have been incorporated into treatments for a wide variety of problems such as AIDS, cancer, depression, and chronic pain. Therapists also integrate meditation and mindfulness exercises into contemporary therapies for eating disorder recovery. Research confirms that these practices are useful tools for changing certain problematic eating habits.
Eating mindfully means being diligently aware and in touch with what’s going on in your body and mind each time you choose to eat (or not eat). A mindful eater is nonjudgmental, compassionate, and above all aware of the taste, texture, and process of eating. This focused awareness allows you to know precisely how your body feels at all times. It brings you closely in touch with your internal state so that you know with greater accuracy when you are satisfied rather than stuffed or starving. Most important, a mindful eater maintains a conscious awareness of the emotional factors and thoughts that can halt or instigate eating.
On the contrary, a mindless eater is stuck in a repetitive cycle of what, where, and how much she or he eats. Many people with eating issues find it difficult to be flexible. This results in automatic, routine approaches to food, coping strategies, and habits of listening to or ignoring their hunger. My book Eating Mindfully identifies four kinds of mindless eaters: the mindless dieter, the overeater, the undereater, and the chaotic eater. Each has a unique struggle with a particular aspect of mindful eating.
For almost all mindless eaters, the most difficult challenge is monitoring their emotional and physical hunger on a moment-to-moment basis. An eating disorder itself is often to blame. It can prohibit a person fromaccurately identifying what’s going on inside and distort the recognition of hunger, fullness sensations, and true body shape. A person who is out of touch with the activity going on in his or her body and mind often ends up either ignoring or overfeeding hunger. Eating Mindfully skills help to strengthen and mend the mind-body connection.
Give It a Try!
For a brief “taste” of eating mindfully, try the following exercise. The purpose is to tune in on all the sensations of eating. Slowing down the process will make you aware of any tendencies to eat in an automatic, unthinking way. Let’s use the example of snacking on potato chips. You begin by observing the shape and color of each chip and feeling the saltiness on your fingers as you pick it up. As you put it on your tongue, you note the taste of salt. Then you listen to the loud crunch of each bite and the noise of chewing. You feel the rough texture against your tongue, the pressure as your teeth grind together, and the sensation as it slides down your throat. You experience each bite from start to finish by being fully aware of every movement, swallow, aroma, and feeling.
Perhaps you could even imagine these sensations as you were reading? This is your first minilesson in mindful eating. Try it out, the next time you eat!
How Does It Work?
How do mindfulness exercises like these actually work? Some studies show that when people are mindful, they experience an increase in EEG alpha brain waves associated with a state of relaxation. As brain rhythms slow, natural painkillers and endorphins are believed to be released. Also, when the body becomes more relaxed, the heart rate, stress hormones, and respiration rate decrease. These physiological changes make a person better able to focus and come up with alternative nonfood-related coping strategies. Other benefits include strengthening the immune system and increasing activity in the part of the brain that manages emotion.
Eating mindfully will change the way you think. You will begin to focus on watching your thoughts and actions rather than shutting down or running from relentless and obsessive thoughts about calories and perfection, which erode your sense of inner calm and tranquility. For example, if you hear thoughts like “I’m so fat,” you can observe them without getting caught up in them or letting them dictate what you eat. In a mindful state, you observe food cravings and negative thoughts rather than responding to them emotionally or obeying their commands. You can do this by “letting go” of troubling thoughts, thinking more compassionately about your body, and carefully studying your food preferences and dislikes.
Gaining Control over the Mind
For quite some time, therapists have noticed a striking similarity betweenmindful eating skills and cognitive behavioral techniques, which to date are known to be the most effective method of treating eating disorders. Both aim to help people gain control over what is going on in the mind, which we know is often what’s truly fueling eating problems. The blend of these two techniques is a useful combination for increasing one’s internal communication and developing a new, more flexible relationship to food.
To learn more about mindfulness or find one of the many clinics and universities around the world that specialize in mindful eating, go to one of these websites:
Baer, R. (2003). Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10 (2), 125–143.
Davidson, R., et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564–570.
Kristeller, J. L., & Hallett, C.B. (1999). An exploratory study of meditation-based intervention for binge eating disorder. Journal of Health Psychology, 4, 357–363.
By Susan Albers, Psy.D.
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Spring 2004 Volume 2, Number 3
©2004 Gürze Books
Susan Albers, Psy.D. is a psychologist and the author of Eating Mindfully: How to End Mindless Eating and Develop a Balanced Relationship with Food. Visit her website at www.eatingmindfully.com.