“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
― Ernest Hemingway
The way American writer Ernest Hemingway enjoys his oysters is the way we should all eat. To the unknowing, he’s just being very descriptive with his food; but if you’ve heard of mindful eating, that’s exactly what he’s doing.
What’s mindful eating? Some of you may wonder. Should you really stop dieting, and start mindful eating?
Let’s take a step back.
Mindful eating relates to mindfulness, a concept that stems from Buddhism. Originally, it involves meditation so you become aware of your current state and being. This helps you better cope with your internal (emotions, thoughts) and external (physical) sensations.
I have to admit that when I first heard of this term, it sounded very fluffy. It’s a different approach to when I count calories with clients, or teach them about the nutrients in food. After doing some further reading about mindful eating, I came to realise that it should always go hand in hand with dietary change.
You come home after a tiring day at work where you barely had time to go to the washroom, let alone have a proper lunch. All you had the whole day was a bun, a few biscuits, and a gulp of coffee. It’s 9pm and cooking dinner will probably take an hour. You decide on instant noodles because that’s the fastest. While the pot of water is boiling, your stomach growls. You grab the pack of chips lying nearby and munch on piece after piece. You stare blankly out the window, distracted by your thoughts. The water boils, you put down the bag of chips, now half empty. You cook your noodles, pour it into a bowl, sit in front of the television, and turn Netflix on. Halfway through the episode, your bowl is empty but you feel like your stomach still has some space. Maybe dessert? You feel like something sweet. You run to grab the tub of ice cream from the freezer, just enough to last you the rest of the show.
As the credits roll, you bring your bowl and the empty ice cream tub to the kitchen. You see what’s left of the chips sitting on the kitchen counter. What just happened? It’s 10pm and you feel terrible because chips and ice cream are supposed to be sometimes foods. Yet now they’re sitting in your tummy, heavy and bloating. They are supposed to be your favourite foods and make you feel better, but why do you feel so crappy now?
Part of the reason is because you were not eating mindfully. In fact, you were eating mindlessly (yes, it’s a term)!
Here are 5 reasons why mindful eating is just incomparable to other diets out there, and why you should really stop dieting and start mindful eating.
1. You regain control. You are no longer enslaved by any diet.
When you eat mindfully, you give full attention to what you experience. Slowly, you gain awareness in 4 aspects, your:
- Body: All physical aspects. Are you holding your breath? Lifting a spoon to your mouth? Shivering? Feeling bloated? Is your stomach growling? Is your mouth tasting something? Are you salivating? Is your body lethargic?
- Thought: What you are thinking. It may be: “that looks delicious”, “I’m so hungry”, “I can’t eat that because its fat”, “That’s so sinful”, “I will never lose weight because I have no discipline”. Notice whether your thoughts are factual, positive, negative, critical, or judgemental.
- Feeling: Anything that deals with emotions. Boredom, excitement, stress, unhappiness, guilt, disgust.
- Mind: (personally, I find this the hardest to comprehend because your thoughts and feelings all go through your mind) The easiest way is to think of it as: the state of your mind. Is your mind focused, tired, observant, wary, preoccupied, troubled, calm, craving, restless, content?
These 4 aspects always link up to each other. They connect the intangible (our mind’s processes, our physical sensations, our thoughts) with the tangible (our physical senses). Normally, you wouldn’t notice it, but when you break it down this way, you realise the many things that form our actions and behaviours.
It is 12pm in the office, the air con is blasting, you are cold and your stomach is growling (body). You think you’re so hungry (thought: factual) you’re gonna get fish and chips at lunch (mind: craving, greed). But it’s so sinful (thought: negative; feeling: guilt) and your dietitian says it’s high in fats that are not good for your heart (thought: factual; mind: confused). You consider for a while: you really deserve the fish and chips because you’ve worked hard, you haven’t had it in a while, and you’re going to the gym later anyway (thought: factual; mind: observant). You decide to get the fish and chips, share it with a friend, and maybe have a fruit after if you still feel hungry (thought: factual). Best of both worlds—you get to enjoy what you like while still staying somewhat healthy (thought: positive; mind: content; feeling: comfortable, proud).
It may not be possible to analyse every single thought or action like that example. However, you can start thinking about these 4 aspects at times where you remember losing control before. If you can determine the why behind the what that you do, then you slowly start regaining control of your action and your body.
2. Mindful eating does not criticise or judge, it accepts.
Because it focuses so much on you and your awareness, it helps you filter out all the unnecessary and meaningless “noise” around you. It may be your family’s negative comments or your friend’s successful weight loss transformation on Instagram. If you do mindfulness right, all these things don’t matter. All that matters is you. Gradually, you become confident because you know your body best, you know what’s going through your mind, and the thoughts that guide you or sabotage you. You stop criticising the way you look or feeling guilty about having dessert. You accept foods for what they are and live with your choices. You can stop dieting. You are free.
3. Mindful eating lets you enjoy every single bite of food.
Look again at the very first scenario above. Think about a similar situation that you may have went through, picture it in your mind. If I asked you to describe the food you were eating in detail, would you be able to? Now, did you enjoy every single bite of it? Did you enjoy the last bite, or the middle few bites, as much as the first one? Most of the time, it would be a no. I myself have been through such meals. When I have nachos, after that first explosion of flavour in my mouth (creamy, sharp, salty cheese on crunchy corn nachos), the bites that come after are just a fleeting taste before it is all wolfed down.
If you pick up mindful eating, you would learn how to savour food with all your senses.
For me, when I try this with a food that I know is unhealthy but is a treat that will make me happy (a warm fudgy brownie with vanilla ice cream, drizzled with butterscotch and caramelised peanuts please!) I end up enjoying it more. This is because I am savouring every mouthful slowly. I appreciate the food for what it is and how it makes me feel. If you try this enough, you will realise each bite does not necessarily taste the same. At the halfway point, you may feel like it’s starting to get too sweet, the brownie too soggy, or the ice cream lukewarm and watery.
Going through the process of mindful eating allows you to realise when you stop enjoying a food, and to stop once you’re done, especially with treats.
It allows you to enjoy food for what it is, in appropriate portions, with no guilt—just pure happiness.
4. Mindful eating is not restrictive like other diets (e.g. intermittent fasting/keto/atkins/low-carb/high-protein/blood-type, etc.)
Mindful eating is not a diet, and so it does not restrict what you eat. If you’ve
worked through the last step right, you will realise that mindful eating is
naturally self-restricting. In time, you learn to be aware of your thoughts and behaviours, and how that affects your feelings and your bodily sensations. Eventually, you learn to stop eating when you feel just right. A client once shared his thoughts after practicing mindful eating:
“I started realising how bloated I feel after dinner (note: good on him that he did not say “fat”), especially if my mum cooks rice and curry. I cannot resist her curry, and I need rice to go with it. So, I switched from scooping myself a big plate of rice to just a small portion. I will enjoy each mouthful slowly, while being aware of the spice and salt on my tongue, the tenderness of the chicken pieces, and talking to my family about my day as I go. When the plate is empty, I’ll ask myself how I feel, whether I need more. If I’m still hungry, I’ll just add a spoonful of rice at a time until I don’t feel hungry anymore. If I had a busy day and wanted to reward myself, I’ll acknowledge it and give myself a treat by having one more mouthful. But I never let myself get bloated again.”
5. Being mindful teaches you how to be a better human
A better human to yourself, and the people around you. Mindfulness can be applied to so many aspects of our lives. You start reflecting on: the way you yell at your children who are throwing a tantrum while the TV blasts in the background and dishes lie piled up in the sink, the way you half-heartedly nod and “uh-huh” in response to your spouse telling you about his or her day, the way you purse your lips and passive aggressively strut out a meeting you were unhappy about.
Being mindful of what you’re thinking, how that affects your emotions, how it translates into a physical response, and how that physical response in turn affects you, is a form of reflection. This reflection can change your behaviour and make you a better person.
- Albers, S. Eating mindfully: second edition. New Harbinger Publications; 2012.