The challenges of eating on a different continent
Having spent the holidays in Europe with my two young adult children and their father, our family returned home jet-lagged and plumper. Well, at least three of us did. My oldest daughter lost a pound or two from her already lean 5-foot 11-inch (approximately 180 cm) frame because she found little she could eat.
Her vegan, soy-free, and gluten-free diet was difficult to accommodate in many of our destinations. We spent the majority of our trip in a small village in the south of France, where vineyards and mountains abound, but not many conveniences. The one market nearby featured two store-length aisles of every imaginable yogurt possible, but not many gluten-free products, so she ate salads.
Our host, my children’s grandmother, fretted about getting the right food for her. While the rest of us splurged on the local offerings like fresh oysters, foie gras, and haricot verts, plus French chocolate and lamb, my oldest ate salads and rice crackers. The glaring differences in our meals brought a self-consciousness that dominated meal talk, preparation, and shopping.
At home, my daughter makes her own food, including cashew cheese and butter, walnut meatballs, and coconut oil-based chocolates and cookies. The pantry is a virtual panorama of nuts, herbs, gluten-free flours, and any kind of nut oil. But in a host continent, we’re expected to eat like the locals do. And we did—like ravenous dogs.
While it was all so good, so delicious, I regretted it once I got home, and not just the pounds. I regretted plowing through meals and gorging myself on bread, desserts, espressos, you name it. I don’t recall the taste of one specific item because I ate to excess—’til it hurt.
Mindful eating is a dedication
Coming home with the scarfing-down November to December holidays over, I’ve resumed my habits with relish, like my daily Yoga-meditation practice, health blogging and tasting the innovative delicacies my vegan child concocts. However, one habit I’m definitely not resuming is mindless eating.
Extending the meditation that permeates my Yoga practice to my daily eats is now my practice. Mindful, intuitive, and conscious eating, or meditating with food requires a slow, deliberate and inquisitive exploration and interrogation of food from execution—picking up a morsel from the plate—to mastication, all the way to swallowing. It takes focus to concentrate on the sensation of each step, and it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Take, for example, sitting down to a plate of spaghetti. Mindfully eating the meal might include an active exploration of:
- how the fork feels when stuck into the pile of pasta,
- the proportion and placement of the food in relation to the plate,
- the twirl of the strands on the fork,
- the weight of the noodles as they travel from plate to mouth,
- and the first burst of flavour.
What is it? Tangy marinara? Does that initial taste gradually reveal the garlic buried beneath, deeply roasted in the simmered sauce, as a smoky afterthought at the end of the flavour brushing against your tongue? And the texture of the pasta, is it al dente or just past that?
Sit with that first bite awhile to feel it settle across your tongue and into your stomach, being sure to observe the entire experience. This kind of inspection takes time. Eating a forkful at a time, punctuated by pause and reflection takes patience—and practice—especially if you’re hungry. It’s easy to lose the fork in exchange for a shovel.
Not just for Buddhist monks
A 2012 article in The New York Times on mindful eating describes the same mindful eating exercise as above when done by Buddhist monks, except with a tangerine or a few raisins.
The article cites New York’s Blue Cliff Monastery, which opens up its dining to the public on Mindfulness Day (September 12) to practice mindful eating. There, diners eat in silence to promote thoughtful eating and experiencing. In that way, you get the most out of your meal and perhaps consider the way your body feels eating certain foods, where the food came from and whether or not you need as much as is on your plate.
But mindful eating’s not just for monks. Health experts have come to recognize the benefits of eating mindfully.
Registered dietitian Jenni Grover contributed her take on the subject to the Huffington Post, suggesting that mindful eating results in weight loss and greater physical and mental well-being. She offers five tips in relation to the practice, advising readers to eat more slowly, savour the silence, silence all electronics, pay attention to flavour(s) and contemplate the food. Christopher Willard of mindful would add paying attention to the body’s hunger signals, the environment in which you eat and your plate itself to that list.
Eat what you want—with attention
It’s not a diet. You can eat what you want. You just have to pay attention to what your mind’s telling you while you’re eating and ask yourself if you’re even hungry in the first place.
Not surprisingly, awareness naturally brings about changes in our diet and our attitude towards eating. When you realize what, how and how much you’re eating, it’s hard to ignore your bad habits. For instance, how many of us eat purely for fuel while on the go, in minutes, grabbing whatever’s convenient?
It’s not that we shouldn’t eat at our convenience. There’s so much in our world that’s been designed to indulge our eating habits—whatever they are—including websites that tell you about the latest food trends, recommending restaurants and nutritious foods to eat; and those that help you find food near you regardless of where you are.
At the same time, it’s important not to confuse convenience with quickness and mindlessness. In fact, convenience should promote time-saving, which is just the thing we need to open up space to eat slower, with devotion—like a prayer—to mindfully take inventory of, explore and investigate what enters our body, fuels us and ultimately becomes us.
Mindful eating just might make us appreciate food as culture, travel, adventure, industry, sacrifice and story. What we eat tells a story about who we are at any given moment. My daughter wasn’t always a display of restrictions. At 20, though, it’s her story. And in her way, she’s forced to go to great lengths to put the right thing in her mouth, from shopping at specialty stores to preparing her food herself. It’s her own meditation.
As for the rest of us, we just need to slow down and take note.
Read more about mindful eating in THE JOY OF HALF A COOKIE: 9 principles that’ll help you eat mindfully»