Eating With Our Minds Turned On

by Ashley Solomon

With today’s average school lunch period allowing only seven to eleven minutes for children to consume their meals (I can barely peel an orange in that time!), it’s no wonder that we grow up seeing eating as simply one more task to frantically accomplish and cross off our ever-expanding lists. In our world of beat-the-clock, drive-thru servers become our dear friends, while our relationships with our local growers fall to the wayside. We eat while we work. We eat while we watch. We eat while we (eek!) drive. We eat in a way that elicits stress, frenzy, and a complete disconnect with the bodies we are unsuccessfully trying to nourish.

While these mindless and frantic eating patterns may in fact save us a few minutes here and there, the cost of treating our food, and our bodies, in this way can be staggering. First, the physical effects of mindless eating can include significant digestive issues. In fact, research shows that eating while our mind is “tuned out” can result in a 30% to 40% percent less effective digestive process, resulting in gas, bloating, and bowel issues. Lovely, right?

And it doesn’t end there. A lack of mindful eating has a major impact on the amount you eat as well, which can not only lead to an uncomfortable fullness, but overeating and subsequent issues with obesity. You might have heard statistics like this one: Eating in front of the television (watching it, I mean… not just being placed there), people eat 40% more, on average. This makes sense, as humans are not all that skilled at being able to focus on multiple stimuli (e.g. Alex Trebek and our feeling of satiety) at once. The more engaging stimuli (Alex, of course) will tend to win out, leaving us as mindless as cacti, absorbing water until we burst.

Brian Wansink, Ph.D, a food psychologist at Cornell, points out that we are constantly making decisions about food. In fact, he says that we make up to 250 decisions about what we eat per day, and unfortunately, most people he studied were unable to provide any kind of rationale for their choices. He suggests that if we are more mindful about our choices and our actual consumption, we would eat the right amount for our body and enjoy more. Who can beat that?

Beyond, bloating, heartburn, and weight gain (if that’s not enough…), mindless eating contributes to an even larger disconnect in our relationship with food and our bodies. When we fail to be in tune with the sensations of eating and our physical and emotional reactions, we lose out on valuable data. Our abilities to detect our hunger and satiety cues diminish. We fail to examine the way that the experience is impacting us physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. We begin to treat our food as, wince, garbage, rather than nourishment. And on a deeper level, we fail to experience appreciation and offer gratitude for the gift of our meals.

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you to turn off the television and set a place at the table, I’ll offer a brief exercise to practice mindful eating. You can choose the food, but it often helps to first practice using something that won’t melt or dissolve quickly in your mouth. Fruit – especially raisins – are really popular. So is chocolate. Here’s what you do:

  1. Choose carefully the food that you want to eat mindfully. Choose well, based on what your body is longing for. If you cannot yet tell, try a slice of orange.
  2. First, smell the orange. A deep inhale, taking in every ounce of aroma you can. What do you notice?
  3. Take one bite of the item and close your eyes. Do not begin chewing yet.
  4. Focus on the item rather than the thoughts that might be running through your mind (e.g. How many calories does this have? How long until I can take a bite? What is the point of this?) Notice that you are having these thoughts, but then return to the orange.
  5. Notice the sensations you are experiencing, including the texture, the taste, the temperature. Is it smooth? Bitter? Sweet? Hairy? Cool? What’s going on in your mouth? (Your eyes should still be closed!)
  6. Now chew, but slowly. Notice the sensations of this. Does the texture, taste, or anything else change when you chew? Notice how your mouth feels – your teeth, your jaw, your tongue.
  7. If you find yourself wanting to swallow, try to stay in the moment. Notice the subtle transition from chewing to swallowing. When you are ready to swallow, notice the sensations that arise.
  8. Once you swallow, take a deep breath and release. Observe what the experience was like. Where was it most challenging? What do you notice about your level of hunger now? Did it bring up any persistent thoughts or feelings?

I’d love for readers to try this and report on their experiences in the comments section below. Happy Eating!


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4 Responses to “Eating With Our Minds Turned On”

  1. I just finished dinner, but I’ll try to remember to do this with breakfast (apple slices & peanut butter) tomorrow.

    I eat quite slow (always the last to finish) and I think it’s because I chew a lot. I still remember the episode of Full House where Stephanie went to the dentist (or something… I don’t remember it *well*) and had a cavity, and part of the episode’s lesson was that we should all chew our food at least 20 times before swallowing. I used to count after that, just to see what was the norm for me, vs. how long it took to chew 20 times, and I honestly think that experiment evolved into my slow eating.

    (I talk a lot while I eat too, lol. Not with my mouth open or anything, but just in between bites, which slows me down quite a bit.)

    That said, I still think I eat “mindlessly” by watching TV or surfing the web at the same time, and I definitely enjoy meals more when I sit down and focus on the food (and the person/s I’m eating with!).

  2. Nice One, Ash! I know I eat mindlessly quite often so I will try your “experiment” and let you know.

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