Mindful eating

Take a moment to stop talking and eat

Watching people scarf down a burger on the MAX, quickly maneuver through the cafeteria line to grab a bagel and coffee “to go” or slurp a cup o’ noodles on the way to class makes one wonder how well the thinking, loving and sleeping are going.

Take a moment to stop talking and eat

Watching people scarf down a burger on the MAX, quickly maneuver through the cafeteria line to grab a bagel and coffee “to go” or slurp a cup o’ noodles on the way to class makes one wonder how well the thinking, loving and sleeping are going.

Some might question the importance of the role of food, but really, it’s something we need for everything we do. Try taking an important test or doing anything that requires full mental concentration on an empty or upset stomach. Almost all you can think about is how hungry or sick you feel.

The sleeping part makes sense too. We all know a late shot of caffeine or sugar does not a good night’s sleep make. And, the loving? Well, it’s been said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and the amount of candy consumed on Valentine’s Day provides a snapshot into the relationship between eating chocolate and amore.

So it becomes obvious that food is important. In fact, according to an article in Newsweek magazine, Americans, on average, spend 13 percent of their income on food. That’s a big chunk. We like food. We like the way it tastes and the way it makes us feel. But if we were asked when the last time was that we engaged with our food, would we even know what that meant?

In a French study, it was observed that when Americans were asked what they thought “eating well” meant, answers were generally around the amount of calories, fat and carbohydrates consumed.

So, we love food, but we’re also scared of it—that it’ll make us fat. This ultimately entails a rather dysfunctional relationship and might provide clues to the fact that despite our paranoia we still have rising obesity rates.

According to the same study, Americans “see food choice as a matter of personal freedom, an inalienable right.” We want to eat what we want, when we want and where we want. For most of us, the days of sitting together and eating at a table every night are a quaint, old-timey notion. We eat throughout the day, on the go, and most often, we eat food prepared by someone else or packaged by a big corporation where nobody knows our name.

Life is busy—that’s the reality. And no one knows that more than students who juggle sometimes three or four classes a day, mid-terms and finals, a couple of part-time jobs and a social life. Finding time to fit food into all that is often a hit or miss scenario.

In a recent article in The New York Times about mindful eating, Oregon pediatrician and author Dr. Jan Chozen Bays said, “I think the fundamental problem is that we go unconscious when we eat.” We plow through our food in a matter of minutes and can barely say what we just ate, let alone appreciate and experience it.

Mindful eating, however, is the opposite. Rooted in Buddhist teachings, students are encouraged to meditate on the food, focusing attention on each bite, each taste. One common exercise involves three raisins that the student is given 20 minutes to look at, think about, hold and then slowly chew. About ready to hurl? Keep reading.

It may sound a little weird, but the basic premise of mindful eating is to enjoy and experience our food rather than inhale it. Savoring it and its purpose for our bodies brings us more in touch with what we really need. Dr. Lilian Cheung, who co-wrote the book Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, says it gives us the opportunity to ask, “Does my body need this? Why am I eating this? Is it just because I’m so sad or stressed out?”

More and more Buddhist monasteries are opening their doors to the public for a “day of mindfulness.” Food is eaten together in silence, devoid of cell phones, TV or a Facebook status needing to be updated—just an hour spent contemplating the textures, tastes, spiciness and warmth or coolness of every bite.

Carolyn Cronin, a regular attendee of these days of mindfulness, admits it’s an extreme challenge. “People are used to eating so fast. This is a practice of stopping, and we don’t realize how much we’re not stopping.”

But the very act of stopping allows us to discover what we’re craving and why. This awareness, says monk Phap Koi, leads to the realization that we really don’t need as much food as we think we do.

OK, we all can’t be monks, spending hours contemplating the intricacies of parsley. Before you dismiss it too quickly, take this example: Last year, Thich Nhat Hanh dropped by the Google headquarters in California for a day of mindfulness. There are few busier places than the Google campus, but the hundreds of employees that attended the event were so impacted that they now observe an hour-long, silent, vegan meal every month.

If Google can do it, how difficult can it be to carve out a little time in the midst of a busy schedule? Without intentionality—pretty difficult. Anything that involves slowing down seems to be met with an endless list of excuses. Maybe starting with small, manageable bites—literally and figuratively—is the way to go.

What if we planned one day a week where televisions, phones and computers were off, we got together with the people we love (or at least like), started with five minutes of quiet and then enjoyed a delicious meal? We might just find that the silence begins to speak volumes, and perhaps we’ll become better thinkers and better sleepers.