…..is this year’s theme for National Nutrition Month®. For over 30 years, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has sponsored this annual month-long campaign in March to refocus the American public’s attention on the basics of eating healthy. This year’s particular theme was created to remind us all to:
- develop mindful eating patterns for ourselves and our families;
- think beyond what we eat and also consider the how, when, why and where; and
- encourage us to take time to enjoy food traditions and appreciate the pleasures, great flavors and social experiences food can add to our lives.
When reading that mindful eating is a focus of this year’s campaign, my thoughts immediately went to Jon Kabat-Zinn and the “raisin exercise.” You may have heard of him? He has authored many books on mindfulness and meditation and was featured in the PBS series Healing and the Mind with Bill Moyers as well as on Oprah. Kabat-Zinn knows what he’s talking about— he is professor of medicine emeritus and the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. I was fortunate enough to attend one of his mindfulness workshops decades ago and that’s where I was introduced to the raisin exercise: participants held, smelled, studied, gazed at, and then finally tasted and chewed a raisin, all with great awareness. As you can imagine, the underlying premise of the exercise is that you become more aware of your thoughts and actions and live in the present moment, regardless of what you are doing: washing your hands, doing the dishes, walking, eating an apple, etc. How many of us can say that we regularly fill our body’s senses by eating mindfully?
I recently taught a class that included the topic of mindfulness, and I, in turn, introduced my students to the raisin exercise. Their reaction was wonderful! They laughed at the idea of the exercise at first, but reported that it was a pretty cool experience. The consensus was that the taste of the raisin, when finally instructed to chew, was an explosion of flavor. Some students said they never knew a raisin could taste so good! As a result, I encouraged them to eat an entire meal mindfully.
“And what would that look like” they asked. “Is there more to it than just focusing on the food and eating more slowly?” For starters, meals would be eaten at a table, not behind the wheel of a car or in front of your computer as you skip your lunch break to prepare for your next meeting. Ideally, meals and snacks would be fresh, healthy, and prepared at home as opposed to being purchased at a drive-through or convenience store. All reading materials would be set aside. Conversation and other distractions would be kept to a minimum if possible, as would stress. And, any and all screens would be turned off.
Sound impossible? It doesn’t have to be. Start small:
- Try taking the first four sips of your drink with full attention.
- If you normally read while eating, alternate these activities by reading one page and then putting your book down. Take a few bites and really savor the flavors and textures of your food.
- If eating with your spouse and/or children, ask them to refrain from talking for the first few minutes. When conversation resumes, ask everyone to share their thoughts about the food you are eating.
- Try eating alone and in silence at least once each week, even if it means in your car in the parking lot or an empty conference room.
As you and your family become more comfortable with the concept and practice of mindful eating, gradually introduce the following:
- Notice the beauty of your food and silently give thanks for it before your first bite
- Chew food slowly, aiming for at least 25-30 bites per mouthful
- Focus on the texture, flavor and sound of each bite in your mouth
- Put down your silverware between bites, and use utensils regardless of what you are eating
- Extend the mindfulness practice to include the cooking process itself
As you can imagine, there are many benefits to eating mindfully, more so than just having a calm environment in which to eat. As we focus on the present, we become more aware of our physical and emotional cues for eating and recognize non-hunger triggers that may be at the root of the adversarial relationship that some of us have with food. As a result, we can begin to explore other ways besides eating to address unmet needs or issues. And, as an added bonus, by taking longer to eat, we may lose weight. Since it takes approximately 20 minutes for your brain to register the chemicals that are released when eating and drinking, by slowing down we give our bodies a chance to feel full and satisified.
In the spirit of “Savor the Flavor of Eating Right,” I encourage you to incorporate some of these mindful eating tips this month. Use all of your senses to enjoy and appreciate your food and its nourishment, and let me know how this mindfulness approach enhances not only your meals, but permeates other areas of your life as well.
Websites: Psychology Today, Am I Hungry?, and Zen Habits