Next time you are out and about in the world, take a look around and notice what people are doing. Most days of the week, people spend time at work, driving, in front of the TV, or doing the “have-to” things in life. These “have-to” things include tasks like laundry, cleaning, shopping for food, picking up the dry cleaning, dropping the kids off at music lessons, or soccer practice, or dance class, or karate. Most of us rush around from activity to activity, we sleep when we can, we eat when we can, and we just keep going. After all, that’s life!
Let’s take some time to focus on this whole eating thing. When I was a kid, I was told by my parents that “some people eat to live, and other people live to eat.” Like much of their wisdom, my folks were right on the money with that one! If we look back on the history of the species, most of our efforts here on Earth revolve around obtaining and eating food. Although it seems hard to fathom sometimes, there is still a large portion of the world’s population today whose main concern every day is getting enough food to eat. If you are fortunate, you get to work hard for the rest of your life to “put bread on the table” for your family and yourself. Food is kind of a big deal.
Here in the US, and most other industrialized nations, it’s easy to forget that most of the struggle of human existence revolves around the procurement of food. More than half of the population is obese, and when was the last time you really worried that you wouldn’t be able to find a meal? Instead, we have the opposite problem: A constant parade of delicious, high-fat, high-protein foods sold on every street corner, mall, office building, train station, and even in hospitals. Without even thinking about it, we can easily consume epic amounts of calories while just going through the motions of daily life. If the opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness, then mindless eating is an accurate way to describe how most of us eat on a daily basis!
What is the purpose of eating?
This is a serious question. The real purpose of eating is to provide our bodies with the calories and nutrients needed to sustain life. We feel the need for food as hunger, and our bodies know that putting food in our mouth will stop that horrible empty feeling, so we eat. When we have eaten enough, our body will send a fullness signal to the brain which is supposed to tell us to stop eating. That’s how the mechanics of the whole eating thing work, but the primary purpose of eating itself is to provide fuel for our bodies.
Thus, we really are supposed to “eat to live” and not the other way around. Life is what happens when we are not eating, just like driving is what you do when you’re not filling your car with gas. Except it’s not really that simple…we are not cars, and eating serves many purposes other than simple caloric needs! Let’s explore two different ways of thinking about food:
Food as fuel
Yup, food is just fuel for the body. When you’re just trying to grab a quick bite on your way to the office, or between running errands, you are really just trying to fuel the machine. This kind of eating should be healthy and clean, the purpose is to feel good and not eat junk…you just want to keep moving and not feel hungry or weighed down with a giant meal. Just like you wouldn’t gas up your sports car with junk gas, you shouldn’t fuel your body’s furnace with garbage food!
Food as pleasure
Sometimes it is all about the food! If you’re going out to a nice restaurant for a special occasion, you may want to indulge a little…or a lot! Maybe you and your friends are making a special trip across town to check out the new barbecue place, or you’re taking out the kids for ice cream after going to the beach, or you’re having a lazy Sunday night dinner with the family and can’t wait to have some of Grandma’s pasta with red sauce and meatballs! Food is totally pleasurable…it’s all good!
How do we eat most of the time?
I’d risk a guess and say that most people eat for pleasure most of the time, and rarely only look at food as simple fuel. And why not? It’s super-easy to get extremely pleasurable foods anytime anywhere. You can eat junk food when driving, or someone can deliver it to your house or office! It’s so easy and feels so good at the time, how can anyone resist?
When most of us are hungry, and given the choice of grabbing a quick slice of pizza or eating a salad, most of us choose the pizza! It’s easier, faster, cheaper, possibly more filling, and usually tastes a lot better too! Walk into any pizza shop and for about 5 bucks you can be eating delicious pizza within two minutes, but order a healthy salad and be prepared to wait ten minutes while it is prepared, pay about 10-12 dollars, and then take fifteen minutes to sit down and eat it. It’s no wonder why we look for fast, cheap, tasty eats most of the time!
What is mindful eating?
The idea of mindful eating is just an offshoot of the general concept of mindfulness. To be mindful about something is to experience it fully and without judgement, to remain focused on the present while acknowledging your feelings and thoughts about the experience. For example, here are two ways you can eat an apple: You can eat an apple by grabbing it out of your fridge and chomping it down while you are folding some laundry thinking about all the things you need to get done in the next few hours, then checking Facebook while you chew the last few bites, and wait…where is my apple? Did I even eat an apple? I still feel hungry…I think I should get some chips!
In contrast to the above example, to mindfully eat an apple you would start by taking it out of the fridge and noting how firm the apple is, and that it is somewhat heavy for its size. You wash the apple and dry it, and pause to think of all the people that worked hard to get this perfect apple from a farm somewhere far away, to a store nearby, and now into your hand. You inspect the surface of the fruit and find the best place to take the first bite of the apple. You acknowledge your hunger and note the slight feeling of pleasure you get from just knowing that you’re about to eat a delicious apple. You imagine how the skin of the apple feels against your lips, then teeth, and when you bite into the ripe apple you can actually feel the tiny latticework of fiber and water inside the apple exploding from the pressure of your bite. You savor the first bite as the cold apple juice pours out of the fruit while you chew it, the sweet and sour juice mixing with the slight bitterness of the skin to make the perfect flavor in your mouth. You swallow the first bite and pause, you can feel the first hint of your hunger being satisfied. Then comes the next bite…
How to be mindful in the real-world?
While it’s a nice exercise to try real mindful eating once and a while, let’s face it…no one has time to eat like that on a regular basis! You’ve got to get to work, there is a meeting starting in 10 minutes, you’ve got to pick your daughter up from the bus at 3:30, you have 25 emails to catch up on, or you’re 20 minutes behind schedule during your office hours and an emergency patient was just added-on during the normal three minutes you typically budget for lunch! Ahhhh!
How can we be mindful under these circumstances? It is not as hard as you would imagine. Here is what mindfulness means to me when it comes to real-life eating:
Before eating anything, I think to myself: Why do I want to eat this? Am I simply hungry, or do I want to eat because I am bored, or anxious, or procrastinating, or for the pure hedonistic pleasure of eating itself? Am I going to have the time and focus to enjoy what I will be eating, or am I going to be eating in front of the computer, or while walking from here to there, or driving a car, or eating as fast as possible standing up in the back room of my office while the next patient is getting their vital signs taken?
If I am eating solely because I am hungry, and won’t have the time to truly enjoy what I am about to eat, I go into the “food is fuel” mindset. Give me a salad, lean protein, fruits and veggies, something healthy. This is one of the secrets to staying lean: Realize that 95% of the time you are eating just to fuel the machine, and eat accordingly. Don’t subject your body to unhealthy junk food and sugar if you’re not able to get the full amount of pleasure out of the experience…save that stuff for the right moment when you can fully indulge. Your day-to-day breakfast, lunch, and dinner doesn’t need to be a carnival of gastronomic pleasure!
This is not to say that you cannot truly enjoy eating a healthy meal…far from it! When you start eating healthier foods regularly, there is a true pleasure that comes from it. Your “tastebuds” seem to change over time, and when you’re not exposing yourself to concentrated sweets and fast food on a regular basis, your body stops craving that junk food after a while. Eventually you will begin to desire different flavors, especially if you wait until you are actually hungry to eat. You can then practice a short version to the traditional ideal of mindfulness when eating healthier foods–appreciate the flavors and textures and the feeling of eating things that are good for your body. Then one day an amazing thing will happen: You will find that you get just as excited about a salad with fresh tomatoes and avocado, or a bowl of plain yogurt with some fresh fruit, as you used to get about eating two slices of pizza with mozzarella sticks and a large Coke!
But what about those times when you really want to treat yourself to a big steak, some fries, a glass of wine, and a piece of cake? Do you always need to deprive yourself of such pleasures? NO! The key is recognizing when these somewhat rare events happen, and indulging mindfully. Celebrating something with the family by going out for a nice dinner? Meeting up with good friends after a long work week? Getting together with extended family for a holiday? Well then by all means, please indulge! Savor each bite and sip, revel in the company of your friends and family and truly live in that present moment. Don’t worry about the calories, simply acknowledge the calories without judgement. Besides, you know that 95% of the time, you’re eating healthy and therefore you can allow yourself to mindfully indulge once and a while!