Mindfulness and Diet
The further I travel on this path pursuing optimum health and wellness, the more I realise it is often the invisible qualities that make all the difference in whether or not something you take into your system gives you health. On a basic level this includes organic versus pesticide contaminated food, home grown produce versus artificially
enhanced, or local farmers market faire compared with mono-crop produce shipped from afar. It can all look fine, even too perfect – and perhaps the taste is fine, too – but something is not right… something is missing.
When you start becoming more aware of your environment through practices such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga, you become more attuned to how your food feels and how your body responds to it. Does your body want what you are feeding it? Is it enhancing your system mechanics? Is it boosting your vitality? Does it inspire you for
getting on with your day? Or does it reduce you to a comatose lump in need of a siesta?
Habits and unconscious action, learnt early and hard to shake
I am a very quick eater, having spent years imitating a whole family of fast consumers. Everyone would start eating as soon as the plates were presented and would eat and chat until the food was all gone. I was taught to never leave food on my plate even when I was full. This was cemented into my early programming at school, where we were constantly watched over by the looming dinner ladies, who would not let us leave the dining hall until our plates were empty. After one agonising afternoon of pushing around the pile of brussel sprouts on my plates for what seemed like eternity, I realised that was not how I wanted to spend my time, and I vowed to just get on with it and eat what I had for all future meals.
It’s incredible how these early experiences set us up for our life-long relationship with food, and it has taken a lot of work to change these deeply ingrained tendencies and start actually listening to my body. My journey to a vegan diet has been a slow transition. Once I left home, I naturally flowed into eating the same food I had been fed growing up. Food allergies and health issues, including eczema and asthma, had plagued me since early childhood and eventually forced me into making changes. On my own, once I started experiencing results and healing of my many maladies, I began to see how intrinsic food and diet was to my health, and the choices became easier.
On a social level, however, the change was harder. People felt my lifestyle changes were merely fussy and inconvenient. Society needs a big shift in acceptance and adaptability as people start to take individual responsibility for their own power to create or correct imbalances and work out what food groups work for their unique bodies. To be free to choose alternatives to the standard western diet, which is creating so much disease and sickness, and not be made to feel like a freak or an inconvenience would be a real boon.
So back to the mindfulness. Here are my top five tips for becoming more aware of how your food choices are interacting with your body, health and vitality.
1. Slow Down
This is the most important element of mindfulness, and it is especially relevant to eating and consumption in general. When we slow down and bring awareness to our food before we start simply shovelling it in, we are stimulating our other related senses including sight and smell. This prepares our body for what it is about to receive. If we are very present at this point and really feel how our body responds, we can also choose to NOT eat something. A key pointer for a yes is if our saliva glands start secreting. This in turn will give the stomach time to prepare the necessary digestive juices, and you will experience better digestion. Slowing down and chewing more increases the surface area of our food, which can then be broken down more effectively by our digestive system. Fully tasting and being present with our food provides a much richer experience, and studies have shown that we actually end up consuming less when this level of mindfulness is brought to our mealtimes. Slowing down is key to avoid eating too much food. It takes a while for the food to reach our stomachs and send the necessary ‘I’m full’ signal to the brain. Pausing between bites will give your system the time to determine when it has had enough, without being bombarded with extra food for which it has no need.
Each food group requires different digestive enzymes to break it down optimally. For example, protein requires protease for break down, where as starches are broken down by amylase or carbohydrase. When we consume highly complex meals with many different elements, it is challenging for the body to release the right amounts and types of enzymes, and we end up experiencing indigestion. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this at holidays or a buffet restaurant, eating a ton of different foods and experiencing less than optimal digestion.
When eating like this it is also very hard to work out any food allergies we might be suffering from, as there are so many elements involved. A great way to find out the optimum foods for your system is to try an elimination diet. I did this by eating just apples for a few days to cleanse my system and then adding in one new food every few
days and watching how my body responded. It is very clear when you add in a food that causes the body trouble. For me it was dairy and wheat, but also things I could have never imagined such as potatoes, which bring about a comatose-like state… That may be fine for a winters evening by the fire, but not for a time when I want to get anything done!
Also, different foods break down at different rates, and this can cause issues with digestion. One example is eating citrus fruit straight after a heavy steak dinner. While the stomach acid is breaking down the steak, the fruit is sitting on top and actually starts fermenting and off gassing, creating flatulence or burping. If you eat the fruit first or wait a couple of hours and eat when the stomach is empty again, the right enzyme can get to work on the fruit and digest it without problems. You can find out more about food combining and experiment with different combinations to completely change your digestion by simply following a few guidelines around when to eat certain foods.
3. Remove Distractions
We are surrounded by various stimuli throughout the day, and with busy lifestyles, we often try to combine many different tasks at the same time. How many times have you found yourself eating on the run, perhaps even while driving? In an office environment, many people will grab a pre-packed sandwich and eat at their desk while working. How about at home? Do you give your meal your undivided attention, or are you sitting in
front of a screen, barely glancing down at your plate? Studies show that you are more likely to overeat when you are distracting yourself like this, as you are missing the satiety cues coming through the gut-brain axis. Making meal times an event, sitting around a table together with no distracting screens, is a lot more fulfilling. Practicing a simple gratitude sharing or blessing is a powerful way to foster a closer connection with your food as well as your loved ones. Many monastic traditions practice silent meal times to foster greater awareness and mindfulness with the everyday mundane activities that today we often end up rushing.
4. Educate Yourself
Take more time when you purchase your food. Read labels and visualise how the food was created and from where it came. Was it made in a factory? Is the ingredient list really long with a lot of unpronounceable chemical additives? Was it shipped from another country? What are the working conditions like there? What are the health and safety requirements like there? Has it been independently certified as safe and free of harmful ingredients? Once you start educating yourself on potentially harmful ingredients it’s hard to think the same positive thoughts about those old comforting products. For me, sugar was a big one to cut out, along with all its relatives like high fructose corn syrups, dextrose, etc. I didn’t realise these ingredients were so harmful until I did the research.
5. Give Yourself the Best
When you shop, don’t just choose based on the price point. Obviously there are time when we feel we have to make compromises (although this is another breakable pattern rooted deep in our subconscious), but choosing based on quality is key when we are looking to improve our health. It’s easy to get into a scarcity mentality and choose the cheaper, non-organic option when you are presented with two seemingly identical products (I often feel that way about nuts!). Especially if you have a large and hungry family to feed. I recommend overriding that impulse by reminding yourself of why you would want the pricier option. The non-organic version has probably been chemically treated and there may be residue within the product. Do you want to take that risk when you have
researched the link with cancers and autoimmune diseases that are now so prevalent in our culture?
Huge corporate farms are not taking good care of the land, hence they have to add artificial nutrients and fertilisers to the soil. A healthy soil with balanced pest and predator populations doesn’t need chemical help. By supporting producers that are using non-organic practices, you are directly contributing to environmental harm such as the pollution of waterways and destruction of fragile ecosystems. On the other hand, when you support a small, local organic producer, you are supporting good stewardship practices such as organic mulching to improve the soil quality for long-term, sustainable plant and planetary health. You are supporting a thriving and balanced eco system where beneficial insects are encouraged as natural pest control and the farm workers do not have to wear respiratory or safety gear to work in the fields… Isn’t that a nicer picture? There are large corporate organic farms, which still carry out unsustainable practices and spraying, but with a little research it’s not hard to find smaller producers that you want to support, especially if you have access to a farmers market.
Feeling it out
When considering a product I would recommend going inside. How is your body responding to it? Were you naturally drawn to it, or was it just a habit grab? If it’s fresh produce, what does it smell like and how does your body respond to that? I am still prone to choosing items out of habit without checking in with my bodies changing needs. For me, spending this mindful time with my food is key.
In conclusion, I encourage taking more time and being present with our food and consumption habits. The more we listen to our natural intuition, which is always nudging us to make better choices, the easier it is to nurture the innate health and wellness that we are all capable of experiencing. Slow down and savour the best nutrients and quality to which we have access, and as we begin to step out as the best versions of ourselves, we will grow to experience a true and lasting vitality that better serves our lives and the lives of those around us.
With blessings on your mindful journey of health and healing, please follow my blog for more diet, lifestyle and healthy living exploration.