Introduction to Mindful Eating

“Mindful eating” has been gaining popularity, but as Jon Kabat-Zinn (founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program) once said, the practice of mindfulness itself is “deceptively simple.” How easy is it, really, to pay attention to our  present experience as we engage in an activity such as eating? As you may already know, it’s actually quite difficult. To begin with, so many other activities often compete with the simple act of smelling, tasting, or slowly chewing our food: Driving, watching television, reading emails, attending to thoughts or “to-do’s.” Let’s face it, we are a nation of multi-taskers, experts at squeezing the most productivity into each moment but rarely full participating – really landing, with both of our feet — in our actual experience as it unfolds. And so, we miss out on the richness of experiences such as eating a ripe, luscious strawberry, or savoring a piece of chocolate or an ear of corn. We are often unaware of our body’s cues of hunger or satiety (fullness), or even why we might be eating in the first place. As a result, many of us remain painfully disconnected from our bodies and from the food we consume, to our own physical and emotional detriment.

Curious to see what it’s like to actually be with your food as you eat it? After all, it’s a very intimate experience, this act of consuming an object of food to nourish the body in a nutritional, emotional, or spiritual way.  Sometime in the autumn months of 2011, I’ll be offering several free Mindful Eating events at local farmers markets, where we can practice bringing mindful awareness to the experience of choosing and eating several savory treats. In the meantime, however, check out the following instructions to “dip” your toes into the practice of mindful eating – this basic eating exercise is adapted from the popular “raisin” exercise used in many mindfulness-based programs:

Step one is identifying a food item that you want to use for this exercise. I would recommend that you use something that is small in size, such as a raisin or other piece of fruit (such as a slice of apple), but you can also use a piece of chocolate or a cracker, for example. If it is something that might melt easily, keep it in its wrapper or hold it in a napkin until placing it into your mouth. Find a location where you can practice this exercise undisturbed – it will take you about 5 minutes or so. It is important that you take the full time to complete this exercise.

Next, bring a sense of curiosity and playfulness to this exercise (remember what you might have believed as a child – food can be fun!) by imagining that you are a hungry visitor from another universe and your task is to gather information to take back to your home planet. To do so, you must carefully inspect and then consume this food to learn as much about it as you can. In the following order:
1) Hold the food item in your hand
2) Look at the food item, noticing any interesting details about its appearance (such as color, size, texture, contours, etc.). Imagine that you have never seen this item before. Play with this food item – hold it up to the light, squeeze it between your fingers, even rub it against your cheek.
3) Bring the item close to your nose, and carefully smell it. Take at least a minute to do so. Notice your body’s reaction to this prolonged exposure to the food item although you haven’t begun to eat it.
4) Place the food item in your mouth (but don’t chew or swallow!) – run your tongue over the item, noticing flavors, textures; explore the sensations of holding this item in your mouth
5) Continue holding the food in your mouth and observe your experience of doing so (but don’t chew!)
6) Make the decision to chew the item, and then do so, trying to chew it as slowly as possible
7) Try to bring intention to the act of swallowing the food item as well – did it happen before you were even aware of the decision to swallow?
8)  Note any lingering taste in your mouth from the food item
9) Observe any reactions (thoughts, feelings, sensations in the mouth or body) to your experience of consuming the food item

Remember, there is no “right” or “wrong” way of completing this exercise. If you noticed that your mind was busy critiquing your experience of mindful eating, if certain strong emotions arose because you’re currently limiting your intake of food (perhaps this was a “forbidden” food or you weren’t “supposed” to eat this food right now), or if you became so easily distracted that you gobbled up this morsel of food in one bite, that’s okay. You’ve just learned some useful information about how you might get caught in “auto-pilot” during your daily routine of eating, and how easy it can be to gobble our food even when we are attempting to attend fully to the experience of eating. Simply practice this exercise again and again, ideally once a day, and see how your experience varies from one mindful eating exercise to the next. It’s really that simple (and not that simple): biting, chewing, savoring, swallowing. Can you remain present from one bite to the next?