Mindful Eating: The Gateway Art of Attentiveness

Photo by Meredith Rosenbluth | Pollinate Journal

In one segment early on in Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert recounts an experience she had in a busy office building in New York. Upon rushing into an elevator, she caught a glimpse of herself in the security mirror and registered her own reflection as a friend of hers, reacting for a fleeting moment with surprise and joy. Gilbert quickly realized her mistake and laughed it off in embarrassment, trying desperately to play it cool. She shares this story with us readers in the midst of a night in Rome, where she has been living most vivaciously, when she finds herself suddenly overcome with depression and loneliness. Turning to her own self for support, Gilbert thinks back to this incident in the elevator. She scrawls in her journal: “Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a friend.”

Casually gliding alongside Gilbert on her journey thus far, I was suddenly and unexpectedly jolted into deep feeling—stopped in my tracks by a book that I had, until that point, been engrossed in but not entirely moved by. The physical sensations spreading across my body felt like direct reverberations of this raw, urgent and vulnerable state of being. My heart fell heavy in my chest with compassionate empathy, able to relate all too well to the deep-seeded desire and impossible challenge of treating myself as my best, most unconditional, most unwavering friend.

But what does this even look like? This active effort of self-friendship, self-support, self-compassion? Many may write it off as cheesy or self-indulgent, but I will say it time and time again: this is a real thing. It’s a Big Deal. It is arguably one of the most important things we can do in our entire lives: learn to love, value and care for our own selves.

So where does that process begin? There are countless potential seeds to plant: combating negative self-talk; expressing gratitude daily; giving ourselves credit for our achievements and—falling short of success—our efforts; operating from a place of trust and truth rather than fear. These are all wildly important practices. But that’s not what we’re going to talk about today. Today, we’re going to talk about the practice that sparked the journey of self-care, in truth, for me. We’re going to talk about food.

Or, rather, the way we eat our food.

Mindful Eating, or The Gateway Art of Attentiveness

I first encountered the concept of mindful eating in Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food (which I highly recommend if you have not read it). He espouses this simple yet somehow radical — in today’s overly connected and attention deficient world — belief that when you eat you should just eat. Don’t eat and scroll through any media or communications on your phone. Don’t eat and watch TV. Don’t eat and read the newspaper or Bon Appetit magazine. Don’t eat while driving. Don’t eat straight out of the fridge while making your ritual boredom lap through the kitchen. Don’t eat standing up, rushing out the door. Don’t eat at your desk, working through your lunch break.

Eat and give your full attention to your meal (and your present company, if you are sharing the meal with others). Eat and relish the colors, textures, scents and tastes of your food. Take your time. Put your utensil down between bites. Chew thoroughly. Savor the flavors. Take deep breaths and feel the reactions of your body to your meal. Appreciate the care that you put into preparing your meal, or that someone else put into preparing it. Acknowledge and appreciate the hands that nurtured and harvested the raw ingredients and the wonders of our earth that enabled them to grow. And, while we’re at it, also be sure to eat off of proper dish ware, treating yourself like the deserving human that you are. You wouldn’t serve your guest breakfast straight out of a blender, a wrapper or a tupperware, would you?

I can hear you thinking, “That seems like wayyyy too much effort.” Or, “I don’t have time for that.” Or, “I won’t get to check my news feed if I don’t do it over breakfast!” Or, “I would feel super awkward eating at a table by myself with no distractions. What if my housemate walked in?! And I was sitting there, just…eating?”

These are all valid concerns, but hear me out. Mindful eating has incredible physiological, psychological and emotional effects. For starters, when we take the time to slow our eating and chew more fully, our bodies actually have greater access to the nutritional benefits of our food. Believe it or not, chewing is the first step in the digestive process. When we chew completely, our teeth essentially liquidize our food, which enables our bodies to digest it more easily and frees up internal resources to focus on absorption. Our saliva also contains digestive enzymes that are necessary to break down the food for optimum conversion into energy. Slowing down and chewing fully means we physically gain more benefit from the food we eat!

When we savor the process of eating, we are also able to tune in to our levels of hunger and satiety, more easily avoiding overeating and feelings of post-meal discomfort (as well as unwanted weight gain and chronic stress on our digestive system). Additionally, as our minds and bodies are constantly in relationship, eating with attentiveness helps us remember the experience of having eaten, which actually keeps us feeling fuller longer.

And then there’s the joy bit. The benefit of pure pleasure that comes from truly noticing and appreciating how delicious your food is, how curious of a sound it makes, how many hands it took to get from the field onto your plate, or how wonderful that even amongst your hectic/frustrating/ disappointing/exhausting day, you took time to create something for yourself. By making an effort to eat away from your desk, or off of real dish ware at the dining room table — even if you’re by yourself — you are actively showing yourself that you’re worth caring for. That, in itself, is something to be practiced, savored and celebrated.

Words really cannot express how radically the practice of mindful eating has changed my life. It has so many benefits and an incredible ripple effect. You start paying more attention to your food and your eating and suddenly everything in your life seems deserving of increased attention, care and even reverence. Trust me. You’ll see.


Originally published at www.pollinatejournal.com on September 8, 2016.