Imagine this scenario: it’s lunchtime and you’re sat in front of your computer, facing a never-ending solid wall of e-mails. You’ve been hunched over your screen without moving for five hours. Drafting a quick response, you press “send” and reach for the cheese and salad sandwich bought hurriedly on your commute to work. After a large bite, quick chew and swallow, you set the sandwich down, grab a handful of crisps, and open the next email to repeat the process. Before you realise, lunch has disappeared without even noticing…
Our relationship with food is tangled up with thoughts and emotions; from a range of influences where food is used to sooth, distract, procrastinate, numb, entertain, seduce, reward, punish with the added factor of limited time. These factors can lead to us developing unhealthy eating habits with wider health and wellbeing implications.
Get familiar with the concept of conscious eating
The idea of eating consciously draws our attention to the different sensations experienced whilst eating. The whole approach encourages our natural curiosity to explore our inner cues to hunger and satiation and our relationship with food. This can include noticing the colours, scents, tastes, textures and sounds whilst eating. It means chewing slowly, getting rid of distractions like screens or books, and learning to cope with any associated guilt and anxiety around food.
These ideas can be traced back to Horace Fletcher, an early 20th-century nutritionist who believed paying close attention to our actions whilst eating solved many different kinds of health problems. The strategy to “be present” whilst eating, in theory, sounds simple; though in reality, focusing on a single action and resisting the urge to multi-task is challenging. This skill can be learnt consciously through diligent practice over a significant period of time to become embedded with our unconscious mind in line with the formation of any new habit or behaviour.
Enjoy a varied and balanced diet
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Don’t eat on auto-pilot – Try these 4 easy steps
People tend to underestimate the number of food-related decisions they make every day. According to research made at Cornell University, we all make approximately two hundred decisions around eating and 90% are unconscious. This statistical disconnect illustrates powerful unconscious drivers that exist in our relationship with food on a daily basis. To reconnect with yourself and food, spend a few minutes with these questions:
– Am I hungry?
– How hungry am I, on a scale of 1 to 10?
– Where do I feel hunger?
— What part of me is hungry?
– What do I really crave?
– What am I tasting just now?
– What emotions am I attaching to food right now?
Based on the advice of Harvard Medical School, here are 4 concrete ideas on how you can make your eating more conscious and healthy.
- Try taking a deep breath before opening the fridge or cupboard and ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?”. If not, do something else, like reading or heading outside for a short walk. Or try exploring the seven types of bodily hunger (eye, nose, mouth, stomach, cellular, mind and heart).
- Savour your every bite and eat slowly with long pauses. Take small bites and chew well. Try eating silently for five minutes and reflecting on the origins of each food item. Think about the journey from farmer to shop to preparation to plate.
- Try setting your kitchen timer to 20 minutes. This is the recommended time to eat a normal-sized meal. Or try eating with your non-dominant hand; if you’re a right handed, hold your fork in your left hand whilst eating. You can even try eating with chopsticks if you don’t normally use them. Stop eating when you feel full and feel able to leave food on the plate.
- Stop eating when you feel full and feel able to leave food on the plate. And finally, be flexible. If you overeat, simply “let it go” and move forward.
Make conscious eating into a habit
When should you consciously focus on eating? Every day and during every meal. We all have to eat regularly. It’s a basic biological requirement of being alive that fuels our bodies for physical movement and as knowledge workers; cognitive power.
Few other daily activities are loaded with such pain, distress, guilt, shame, longing, despair, “good” and “bad” labels. Our nutritional routine should be based on being conscious through a series of sustainable choices and behaviour. Over time; new habits will be engrained to optimise health, performance and wellbeing.
The difference between emotional and actual physical hunger has been studied by Jean Kristeller, a psychologist at Indiana State University. She focuses on the introduction of a “moment of choice” between the urge and physical act of eating. This conscious inclusion of a brief conscious meditation based thought process helps people enjoy their food more and have less sense of struggle with the notion of control around eating.
Fight or flight
Additional research into the connection between our mind and gut focuses on a complex series of hormonal signals between the gut and the nervous system. For example, digestion takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register satiety (fullness). If you eat too quickly, satiety may occur after overeating instead of when the brain signals “stop”. Evidence also suggests eating while distracted by activities (driving or typing etc.) may slow down or stop digestion in a manner similar to the “fight or flight” response. If the digestive process is disrupted or only partial we’re unable to completely absorb the full nutritive value of our food.
Over the next few days before you order at your local café or open the fridge door take a moment or two to consciously reflect on your relationship with food. Consider how you make decisions around your daily nutrition intake, what emotional connections do you have with food and what new habits could you embed to support a sustainable and healthy relationship with food?
If you want to read more about the ways to make conscious decisions about eating, Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food by Jan Chozen Bays is a book you might enjoy.