Sitting down together as a family for dinner is a practice that has been mostly lost in the last decade – unless it’s a special occasion or a holiday. These days, more and more people spend their mealtime while driving, working or doing some other form of multi-tasking. Time spent around the dinner table sharing the day’s events with family or friends is pretty rare; our connection (or relationship) to each other and our food has become distant.
How’s Your Relationship with Food?
Speaking of relationships, I know many people who have a love/hate affair with food. We love it because sometimes it can make us feel better, either emotionally or physically, but we also hate it because we often don’t know what to eat for our bio-individuality…or when we do eat properly it still doesn’t make us feel better or we’re bored with the foods we have to eat to be healthy.
Our relationship with food requires patience and practice, just as any other relationship does. Unfortunately, the mindless way we eat while driving, working or focusing on other things inhibits the body from concentrating on the food we put in it.
Before we eat anything, ask what kind of hunger we’re feeling. Are we physically hungry or emotionally hungry? If we’re physically hungry, we’re eating for nourishment and feel actual hunger like when our stomach growls. If we’re emotionally hungry, we’re using food to comfort an emotional need and feel better and will usually continue to eat long after we’re physically satisfied.
Mindful eating is a way to become reacquainted with the guidance of our internal nutritionist. – Jane Chozen Bays
Paying Attention to How We Eat
When we slow down and pay attention to the foods we eat, it’s called “conscious eating” or “mindful eating.” Mindless eating often causes us to misinterpret emotional needs for physical needs. For instance, a feeling of anxiety or fear that causes a discomfort or that “feeling in the pit of your stomach” can be interpreted as hunger, rather than an emotion. Identifying whether we are truly hungry or trying to fill an emotional need will help us to use food for its intended purpose of nourishing the body rather than soothing emotions.
Mindful eating is about awareness. When you eat mindfully, you slow down, you pay attention to the food you’re eating, and savor every bite. – Susan Albers
When we practice conscious eating habits, we are taking pleasure in the sight, smell, and taste of food, actively listening to how our body reacts to the food we consume and how it makes us feel afterward.
Practicing mindful eating instead of mindless eating, allows us to notice the signals that our body is sending us that we may not have recognized before. We learn to identify the type of hunger we’re trying to satisfy, identify the signs of fullness so we don’t overeat, and we’re more satisfied after meals – simply because we’ve taken the time to slow down from our busy, hectic lifestyles and to appreciate the food we’re eating. This can help reduce the need to snack on unhealthy choices later, and with mindful eating, we are more likely to choose foods that nurture both the mind and the body, as well.
Rest and Digest
The body and mind heal best in a relaxed, stress-free environment. Slowing down to give ourselves time to enjoy our food is the single most powerful nutritional and healing strategy when it comes to nutrition-linked health concerns and personal food issues. If we continue to eat mindlessly, it can be very difficult to heal chronic digestive issues, energy issues, weight issues and over-eating concerns.
Digestion is a parasympathetic process, which it means it’s controlled by the part of the nervous system that functions only during “rest and relaxation.” The sympathetic nervous system operates during periods of stress or the “fight or flight” mode. The sympathetic system kicks in when your body senses danger (whether it’s perceived or real), which includes chronic stress Digestion is one of the non-essential functions that shuts down when this happens, in order to divert the body’s resources to other systems designed for survival.
While it’s true that digestion is necessary to survive, the body cannot tell the difference between true danger and the stress of being overworked and overtired, so too often our body remains in “fight or flight” mode for extended periods of time. This, in turn, has a pretty major impact on how our bodies use the food we consume.
Practicing Mindful Eating
One simple way to nurture a healthy relationship with food is to eat while sitting down and without the distractions of computers, TV, driving or working. Remember the family dinner I mentioned earlier? That tradition has much more benefit than simply eating a meal together.
The time spent focusing on our meal gives the body time to recognize the nourishment we’re providing and be able to process it correctly. Along with slowing down long enough to enjoy a meal, these things are also an integral part of mindful, conscious eating:
- Count our blessings. Express gratitude for all the blessings in our lives, including the fact that we have food to eat. We should make sure we appreciate all the food we eat; not just the special dinners, but the everyday foods as well.
- Bless our food. Blessing our food doesn’t have to be a religious ritual. There is scientific proof that our thoughts and our words dramatically alter the physical world around us, and it’s been proven time and time again that speaking positive words changes us mentally, emotionally and physically. Blessing (or praying) over our food increases our bodies readiness for eating by increasing salivation and digestion enzymes and shifts brain function to a receptive mood to enjoy the meal. (For an interesting case study on the power of words, google Dr. Masuro Emoto.)
- Use all the senses. Eating is more pleasurable when you use all your senses to notice and enjoy the food on your plate. Observe how the food looks, inhale the smells, chew slowly to appreciate the flavor and texture. Chewing slowly and thoroughly allows your body the time to process the food and let you know when it’s had enough, and aids immensely in digestion.
- Feel the feelings. Using food to avoid feeling sad, lonely, bored, excited, happy or mad is part of mindless eating. We all have emotions, so don’t be afraid to feel them and know when you are substituting food for dealing with what you’re feeling.
- Take the stress out of eating. Create a relaxing environment when preparing to eat a meal. Play good music in the background (or sit in silence), enjoy good company and conversation, diffuse essential oils, or use the “good” dishes – even when it’s not a special occasion.
Let’s all try to change our habits back to a mealtime tradition that includes family and friends, conversation, good food and healthy, mindful eating practices. I hope that soon we’ll all have the opportunity to share a meal with those we love and savor the joy of nourishing ourselves while developing deeper relationships – both with our circle of people and with the food we eat.