Health Hack #18 - Eating (Real Food) Mindfully
We’ve spent the last few Health Hacks rummaging through the weeds, getting fairly deep into nutrition science and potentially leaving some readers a tad exasperated. To lighten things up a bit, we’re delving into an easily digestible (pun intended) subject that many are likely unaware of: Mindful Eating.
Mindful eating is an offshoot of the school of meditation known as Mindfulness, which has its roots in very ancient traditions. To those who have practiced Mindfulness meditation even for a single session, the concept of mindful eating should be pretty intuitive. However, one need not be in touch with their inner Buddha to get the grasp.
Rather than delving into the actual practice of Mindfulness meditation - though it provides a nice context - we’re simply going to focus on the eating practice. As a standalone pursuit, it’s actually quite approachable. Literally, mindful eating boils down to being mindful of the process of eating, during the meal. Noticing the food as it enters our mouth. Paying attention to the pleasure that it brings to our palate. Taking our time as we chew. Honoring the process, and treating it with grace and slowness.
For those rolling their eyes at the woo woo connotation of such a practice, consider that we initiated this weekly newsletter as advocates of actual food science. Woo woo culture has no place in Real Food culture. As it turns out, Mindful Eating is quite beneficial to our health. We’ll outline these benefits below, and we’ll also provide very simple steps to building a practice for oneself. But before we do, a very quick FYI about your author.
I’m horrible at mindful eating. On most occasions I eat faster than my dog. But I now recognize the beauty of the practice, and am cognizant of my behavior. For countless years I would find myself having no other choice but to eat in a fevered hurry, which provided the best excuse to stay fixed in a bad habit. There was no alternative! But I see now that I was caught in a false paradigm. Our health should never take a permanent backseat to anything. In the past few weeks alone I’ve made significant strides, though they’re mere baby steps in the grand scheme of mindful eating. But like all positive feedback loops, we make a change, we see some progress, we improve our well being as a result, our serotonin increases, and we’re suddenly tethered to this new habit. As we’ve covered in depth in the past (link here), goal setting and goal pursuit has a powerful impact on our well being.
|Before exploring the benefits of Mindful Eating, it’s important to first understand what is a likely trade off for engaging in its practice: time. Eating mindfully takes longer than eating like the average person. Time can be chalked up as the greatest barrier of entry for the neophyte. “My day is filled to the brim as-is. I’m lucky enough if I can even find the time to eat 3 meals, let alone have time to truly appreciate what I’m shoveling in my mouth.” Heard. But this shouldn’t discourage you. Even if you can’t fathom devoting a bit more time to every meal, maybe just shoot for the last one of the day. An extra five minutes could be all it takes. Please keep this in mind while we explore the benefits of mindful eating. One of the allures of ushering in this new mindset is the bang for the buck. It costs nothing and can start with five extra minutes of daily input. In many cases it may not come at the expense of any additional time dedicated to eating, but rather an altering of how that time typically gets spent. Few health hacks operate on this premise, one that requires so little effort at truly no cost.
Digestion begins in the mouth. The more finely ground many foods are, the more easily we digest them. We all know what happens when we eat too fast...we get the hiccups. Our digestive tract is literally telling us to slow down.
The digestion component of mindful eating definitely puts the time component in a better light. We’re not suggesting you set a stopwatch and force yourself to eat at standard speeds, but take breaks every few minutes in an effort to stretch the experience by 20%. Instead, a helpful hack is simply to chew longer. Taking breaks isn’t fun. Savoring wonderful flavors is. Give each bite a bit more time and even the most ravenous of eaters (like myself) may notice a world of difference.
In addition to allowing for better passage through our digestive tract, mindful eating also increases the bioavailability of foods. When we eat more slowly we grant our bodies more time to absorb all of the good stuff. If food particles are swallowed too large and/or too quickly, they’re not broken down as effectively. Tougher textured foods like nuts are a prime example. Studies have shown a strong increase in micronutrient absorption the longer that nuts are chewed. Many times the good stuff is locked deep inside of the food, and patience is the most effective key for accessing it.
This is so simple and obvious, but well worth noting. We most often have control over what we eat. Even when relegated to an office catered lunch that we didn’t select, we have options and are able to decide based on what we like best. In other words, we generally like the foods that we consume. Otherwise why eat them? If we’re engaging in an act of joy, then why not prolong it a bit? Many meals suggest that once we’re done, it’s back to the grind. If we can prolong the good, at the expense of delaying or maybe even cutting into the bad, then we’re better off. And if healthier as a result, then what’s standing in the way?
|Tips for Learning to Eat Mindfully
In essence, we need to learn to spend more time and be more mindful of the experience. Seems simple. But it’s helpful to make sure that our surroundings and habits are such that we create as conducive an environment to slowing things down as we can. Here is a list of 4 simple tips that can truly help you turn the dial…
1. Go offline during the meal
Shut off visual electronics. If that’s not feasible, then at least shun them. Learning to truly appreciate the process is tied to having as few distractions as possible. If this is impossible during the workday, then try at dinner. Maybe turn off the TV, and fire on the music. At lunch, close the laptop if you’re having your meal back at the office. Find yourself a bit more engaged in the eating experience.
2. Chew slowly, thoughtfully, and carefully
Rather than heaping more food into your mouth prior to finishing the previous bite, strike a deal with yourself. “I’m not putting more food into my mouth until I’ve swallowed and appreciated the previous bite.” It’s truly not that difficult to comply with, and it bridges the most difficult gap for many, which is slowing things down. Though this runs the risk of stripping the fun away from eating, one approach could be counting the number of times that you chew. Find your existing baseline and then try and increase it just a bit in the beginning. Focus on counting for a week or so, and chances are you’ll be able to cease the counting, having found a higher baseline. Maybe then repeat the same process again a month or two later, continuing to improve.
3. Rotate between eating and drinking in a conscious manner
Most of us habitually drink while we eat, certainly when it comes to eating our primary meals. If so, great. Maybe create a rule for yourself that (like the counting) can in time organically become your new norm, without even needing to think about it. After a few bites of food, take a sip of your beverage. This will allow your body more time to break down and process the food. And if this beverage happens to be water, all the better. Water consumption around eating enhances the digestion process significantly.
4. Hardcode your eating windows
Rather than abiding by a mindset of “I’ll eat once I finish this project”, consider the reverse: “I’ll finish this project once I’ve finished eating.” By allocating ourselves non-negotiable eating windows, we’re honoring the ritual and carving out an appropriate amount of time. Even when this is hardcoded into our workday lunch, we still manage to find ways to resist and delay, leaving us having to cram. We should learn to rethink this framework.
Mindful eating is a logical stepping stone towards more mindful living. In the brief spell of time I’ve explored the practice, I can truly say that it has a very grounding quality during an otherwise high intensity, stressful day. I was extremely resistant to the idea, as I’m sure many of you also are. If scoffing at the notion of exploring for yourself, consider once more that it costs nothing and requires next to no additional time. It doesn’t take much effort to try it on for size…
Stay Calm, and remember to try and eat (real food) slowly!