Mindfulness in Eating

You know how when you look at pictures of Asian girls, they all look super skinny, like fat is somehow anathema to Asian genes? And you maybe figure, well yeah they’re skinny. They work like maniacs over there and all they have to eat is a bowl of rice. Okay, so here’s the deal. Every single one of my Asian cousins is that skinny, but they can pack away food like great woolly bears before hibernation. I’m being literal when I say I’ve seen a 110-pound woman (my sister-in-law) put away 7 bowls of noodle soup in one sitting. But when they come to the States? After a few weeks, the pound creep begins. Suddenly they need to discover exercise regimens.

It works in reverse too. Every single person I know who was born and raised American but lived abroad for at least a few months has shed significant pounds, mostly not even knowing where the weight went because they sure weren’t scrimping on the eats.

How does this happen?

We’ve heard a lot about poor consumer habits and choices: eating enormous portion sizes or being addicted to salt, fats, and sugars. Jamie Oliver does big spiels on getting away from processed foods, and in the speeches I’ve seen he uses some pretty extreme examples of people who’ve grown up extra large because they just don’t know how to cook for themselves. But what about the people in between? The ones who do eat fruits and vegetables, and stay away from processed goods when they can? The ones who do cook for their families, but still find themselves struggling? There’s also a lot of talk about what the food industry does to almost all of our food, not just the ones in prepackaged boxes: genetic modification, added preservatives, inserting corn (read: calories) into everything (if you haven’t seen Food, Inc., please do – and read Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle). Not only are these things related to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, there is also some concern (not yet scientifically proven) that genetic modification is increasing our children’s susceptibility to food allergies. It’s not substantiated yet, but we do know that food allergies among children are on the rise (not to mention childhood obesity).

I look at all this and I feel overwhelmed. I feel cheated, like all the time and care I put into cooking well has been sabotaged by my own lack of awareness. By the simple fact that at least half of the time, I don’t know where what I put in my mouth has been. I know a lot of it has traveled many, many miles to get to me. I know what the labels say (and most of it is a foreign language to me anyway, full of chemicalese). But I don’t know what has happened in those miles and I don’t know what the labels don’t say because the government hasn’t thought to include it. Or because a powerful industry lobby managed to prevent hortatory reform (laws that ensure full market information).

I decided it was high time I became more aware, more conscious. I want to be more mindful about what I am eating, where it comes from, and how I am eating it.

On a whim, I started looking into Ayurvedic nutrition. This approach to consumption is a bit daunting and intense at first, though it does emphasize eating mostly whole grains, unleavened breads, fruits, vegetables, and natural spices for flavoring. I’m not going to get into a full discussion of Ayurvedic nutrition here, but I found a lot of it fit neatly into my goal to be more mindful about my eating. I’ve started transitioning into an Ayurvedic inspired diet, but I’m doing it at my own pace and forgiving myself in the moments I don’t follow it strictly.

But here are some of the things I can do immediately.

* Eat foods in their most natural state possible.
This means avoiding processed foods and eating as freshly as possible. Buy local from local farmer’s markets. Side note: adding ground ginger to fruit or drinking a little bit of aloe vera juice goes a long way towards solving digestive problems caused by any foods that are more difficult to digest. (I’ll spare you the details, but let me just say this works and is far more pleasant than things like pepto bismol.)

* Shop for less, more often.
In Europe and Asia, you find that fridges are much smaller than they are here. That’s because Europeans and Asians don’t buy Costco-sized items to last for weeks. They buy just what they need for the next day or so. So what they eat is really fresh.

* Honor and respect the kitchen and dining area as sacred spaces.
Take negativity elsewhere. Cooking and eating peacefully reduces stress and irritation, making digestion easier, and bringing calm after the meal. I’m so bad about this. The table where I eat is also where I work and is also where we entertain and watch TV. When we move to Thailand, my first order of business is establishing a dining room table that is separate from my work space.

* Be present when you eat.
Have you ever eaten standing up, in front of your computer, or in front of the television and suddenly gotten to the last bite on your plate and felt unsatisfied? That’s me, in a nutshell. I am making an effort to shut everything off and focus on the ritual of eating. I try to chew slowly and chew each bite at least 20 times before swallowing (depending on the consistency of the food of course). I’ve discovered I get satisfied sooner.

* Take a moment to respect where the food has come from.
This is my bigger picture moment. This, right here, is why I’m offering up this post for the Bigger Picture Moment. Do you pray before meals? Do you thank the provider? If so, has it ever been just a habit to you…something that falls off your tongue without the words penetrating your heart and mind? Is it something you say without consciousness? I found something that will help me remember to respect that which sustains me. Before each meal, I look at the plate of food in front of me and take a moment to think about where it originated and what it took to get it to my plate. Sometimes I think of the vegetables as they were in the ground. Sometimes I think of the hands that plucked them. Sometimes I think of the oil that was consumed bringing it to my kitchen. Sometimes I think of it, as it might have been when it was alive.

Sometimes I know I don’t know where it has come from. And that is okay. The point, for me, is to just be aware. The point is to not eat lies I tell myself. These are the words I have added to my eating ritual to help me remember to respect my place in this world:

In this plate of food, I see the entire universe supporting my existence.
~Thich Nhat Hanh

Saying this helps me see where I fit in the bigger picture. Food nourishes, it comforts, it sustains, and it has profound effects on our entire psychology. It connects us to family and friends, but it is also our link to the greater world. I want this part of my life, which is such a large part of my existence, to be characterized by honesty and awareness, at least as much as it is characterized by flavor and variety.

Om Shanti.

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17 thoughts on “Mindfulness in Eating

  1. You are right. Being an Asian raised in the states, I think the Asian benefit has lost it’s effect on me. I think the difference is more of the way food is prepared.

    Portions, yes, are smaller. But more importantly, it’s the ingredients that goes into the food. True Asian cooking/meals rarely or never use butter, milk, cheese, or any other dairy. Contrary to the whole “no-carbs” diet, Asians generally eat a lot of carbs (rice being the largest group).

    You are right, people don’t stack up a month worth of food in the fridge. Rather, they go and buy fresh meats and vegetables everyday from the markets.

    Those don’t sound like big changes but they are huge.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. That’s definitely a good point about the lack of dairy in their diet. Although…there is no shortage of coconut, sugar, and deep-fried goodness too! :) However, the nutrient-dense items like rice, fruits, and vegetables are generally the largest part of the diet and they are very filling.

    I’m also thinking that Asians also spend a lot of time eating, drawing out their meals (especially dinner) so they last several hours. Europeans do this too. When I visit family in Thailand, we eat slowly and enjoy small bites over a long period of time and plenty of conversation, rather than scarfing everything down in 20 minutes or less. Restaurants here in the States tend to prevent leisurely eating, trying to get everyone in and out as quickly as possible. I wonder if drawing out the meal helps with digestion and maintaining proper metabolism. Is that your experience too?

    Thanks for your input! I appreciate it!

  3. Good reading. What you said about slowing down the meal made me think–we not only need to watch what we eat, but how we eat it–and it is all so counter intuitive to our culture.

    We were just discussing last night the issue of the lack of dairy in the Asian diet as we spooned cheesy rigatoni onto our plates and thought about how our meals might change once our Koren exchange student arrives.

  4. Another good book is Omnivore’s Dilemma. Anyway…. I’ve been casually looking at Ayurvedic nutrition for several months, but haven’t found any resources that have really been helpful. A few articles here and there, but they’re not very in-depth, and the in-depth stuff is waaaaay in-depth. Will you let me know if you see anything that might be helpful…. =^)

  5. The book I read was “Freedom in Your Relationship With Food” by Myra Lewin. It’s definitely way in-depth. But I took notes on the stuff I found personally relevant and it helped me keep it (a little) straighter in my head. (And a lot of it is really repetitive too, just about bringing yogic principles into eating choices and lifestyle.) But yeah. It’s hard to just jump in wholesale, which is why I’m just “transitioning” and taking it in baby steps. And I give myself full freedom to never get full Ayurvedic if it’s too much for me.

    However, I did also just look at Ayurvedic cookbooks and they’re pretty good at just outlining some of the essentials and plus have the benefit of recipes to work with. One I found that I really like is “The Modern Ayurvedic Cookbook” by Amrita Sondhi. Recipes are coded with cute icons for different doshas, making it an easy reference. In combination with what I learned from the Lewin book, I thought it was super helpful. I’m toying with the idea of buying it, but I’m talking myself into just waiting for Thailand since the cookbooks there are probably more regionally appropriate with what foods are available there.

    One great idea I got from Sondhi’s cookbook was Indian spiced milk drinks. The other day I was craving dessert after dinner (like I usually do) and instead I made a hot cup of Almond Honey milk (using soy milk) and it was so satisfying. It totally satiated my sweet tooth and I didn’t even finish the whole cup. There’s another one I want to try that involves spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and allspice. YUM.

  6. Very well said Jade! I have been frequenting Plow to Porch’s shop on upper State for my veggies and fruit. The farmers market is more fun, but these guys are open regularly – check it out if you haven’t already. And let’s get together and eat some local food soon, Miles is dying to meet you now that he is on the outside.

  7. Interesting. Not fair, but interesting.

    Having lived abroad for years and seen differences in my weight I would say this: Yes, over there you eat much more fresh, natural food – not processed or filled with artificial anything. That’s huge. There are a lot of little differences that add up.

    You also get more exercise elsewhere. How many Europeans (or Asians – I’ll take your view here because I don’t really have one) get in a car right outside the door. I walked like crazy over there. Grocery shopping involved a three or four mile hike at least 3 times a week – the return trip was laden with many pounds and all uphill. The first time around over there I spent a great deal of time pushing a VW to get it started. THAT will take the weight off no matter how much pasta you eat. At least it did with me.

    I really think our problem is lack of exercise combined with a lot of junk – artificial ingredients, fast food, too many yummy dense desserts, snacks and such. Small changes could have large results. Just my opinion.

  8. The exercise thing is definitely different there too. That’s a good point. Asians do walk or bike a lot. Even in the suburbs outside Bangkok, people often have little neighborhood salons, mini grocery stores or noodle soup/stir fry shops operating out of their garages so the neighbors walk or bike there to pick up food on their way home from work. Such a foreign idea here, walking to your neighbor’s house to get your nails done, right?

    And it’s not like you go to one store and get everything there. You have to walk or bike to multiple locations (at least from what I remember of Europe). You go down one street to the butcher’s to get your deli meats, then down a block or so to get some bread from the bakery, then a few more doors down to get fresh produce. All those steps add up.

    I sometimes wonder if all the time we spend in our cars as opposed to walking or biking amongst neighbors makes us a bit more anti-social or isolated too. But then that’s probably another subject for another post.

  9. I LOVE this post! I feel the same way about this very topic … and I feel like I'm constantly evaluating my own family's food habits and sharing the benefits of mindful eating with others. {We own and operate a Curves, and we focus greatly on education about nutrition and, of course, exercise!}

    I have to thank you, though, for giving me a really great term to use — mindful eating. It's more than healthful eating; we really do need to be mindful.

    And I love your BPM! We thank God for our food at every meal, but I could defintiely stop and pause longer to really celebrate his provision and faithfulness in providing.

    Awesome post. :)

  10. Thank you so much for your comment! I'm impressed you own and operate a Curves. That seems to me such a wonderful occupation.

    It seems ironic, doesn't it, that our nation is so rich in resources and natural bounty, yet our culture over the past few decades has become consumed by haste, convenience, and quantity in life rather than quality in life? But then here's another irony: critics bemoaned the digital age for fear it will cause us all to become disconnected and more isolated from one another. But what I see (on the blogosphere at least) is people talking about a multitude of ways they try to become more connected. I find myself optimistic that the digital age might actually push us back into balance, and that the more time we spend in front of computers, the more we remember to appreciate family, nature, and spirituality.

    Here's hoping anyway!

    I know this started as a post about food and morphed into more than that, but I do think our relationship with food is very indicative of and has implications for our entire well-being.

  11. Totally agree with this. I like the idea of taking a moment to think about where stuff comes from, too. I do this in a less global sense: my parents and I have always thanked the cook and commenting on the food at the beginning of every meal. It's kind of a more immediate grace: a recognition that someone (usually my mom) has spent a lot of time and energy to create this meal. We find nice things to say (which isn't hard with my mom's cooking) and thank the cook for taking the time to feed us. This has always helped me remember that not everyone has the food I'm about to eat — and when I was growing up, it helped me remember that my mom wasn't *obligated* to cook for me, that this was an act of love. So I definitely like the idea of not taking food for granted in any sense.

  12. With the taste of my lunch (which I ate while standing in a co-worker's office proofing a document) still in my mouth, I needed to read this. I think my next meal (and hopefully many after) will be more intentional.

  13. It's so easy to get caught up in everyday minutiae isn't it? And so hard to focus on one task at a time. (I think especially for us women who have honed our multi-tasking skills to a fine art.)

    I say I'm trying to approach eating with more care, but that doesn't mean I'm always successful. It's definitely a challenge sometimes. But I can say, when I do slow down and take the time to appreciate, my mind and body feel a hundred times better for it.

  14. What a wonderful article. That's how it read to me: an intelligent, well-written, thoughtful article, and it was inspiring. Since reading In Defense of Food, my mind has been opened to the faulty-ness of our fast, processed western diet. I love that you're being mindful of your meals, and mindful of how they satisfy your need for food.

    Thank you so much for this post!

    • Thank you so much! That's very sweet of you to say. Michael Pollan's work appears well-recommended. I think I'll pick up one of his books!

  15. Ever since the local Farmer's Market has been open, the kids and I have been going there every Saturday to stock up on our produce for the week. I've found we've been eating so much more fresh produce for snacks than processed items. It will be a sad day when it closes down for the season in late October.