Rooted in ancient forms of Buddhist meditation, the practice of mindfulness has come fully into the mainstream of how everyday people manage their physical, emotional and spiritual health. It has practical applications for virtually everything we do, including the way we eat. Mindful eating creates a whole new level of consciousness around good nutrition. It's about loving the food that loves us back.
Here are four bite-sized tips for eating mindfully.
1. Keep it real: The explosion of highly processed foods that began in the 20 th century has wreaked havoc on the digestive systems and overall health of consumers, feeding an epidemic rise in heart disease, diabetes and other life-threatening conditions. Off-the- shelf products filled with laboratory-engineered ingredients with names you couldn't pronounce began replacing many of the fresh foods and simple ingredients once found in the home pantry.
"Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," says nutrition author and activist Michael Pollan. Fill your cart with plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, along with a balanced selection of plant-based protein sources (like beans, nuts and seeds), sustainably raised meat and seafood. It's ok to be realistic and occasionally go for convenience. Some ready-made, store-bought foods can be acceptably healthy, as long as you choose wisely. Pick products with no more than five basic ingredients. Stay away from sugar and especially high fructose corn syrup.
2. Take your time: Eating too fast is the surest path to overeating. And yet, today's lifestyles seem to lend themselves to eating way too much as we watch television, surf the internet and work the keys of our cell phones, sometimes all at once. One of the essentials of mindful eating is savoring the moment and the flavors. Whether you're eating alone or with others, sit at the table and turn off the distractions. Focus on the meal. Take small bites and chew slowly, consciously tasting each flavor. Try eating with your non-dominant hand or even chopsticks to deliberately slow the place. Spend as much time enjoying your meal as you did preparing it. Forget what anyone ever told you about eating everything on your plate. Stop before you're full and take a few extra minutes to mindfully appreciate the meal you just had.
3. Plan Ahead: Mindfulness requires planfulness. As creatures of impulse, we often learn the hard way that we can't always rely on perfect judgment as we're running through the grocery store. That end-aisle display of cookies is calling us. Those potato chips are just so easy to grab and toss into the cart. Take a deep breath, slow down and stick to your written list. Know what foods you're going to buy before you enter the market. Do your homework, with the wealth of information quickly available online today or download an app like www.fooducate.com to help make good choices. Get a sneak preview of the ingredient statements and nutrition fact panels of the foods you plan to buy. You'll arrive a lot smarter, shop a lot more quickly and be a lot less vulnerable to in-your- face merchandising and front-of- package health claims. Oh, and of course, don't shop on an empty stomach.
4. Be grateful: Even if you don't "say grace" in the traditional religious sense, consciously reflecting on or verbally expressing gratitude for your meal is an important part of the mindful eating experience. It takes the physical act of food consumption and brings it to a higher level consciousness. Take a moment to appreciate the bounty that not everyone in this world can access. Be thankful for the farmers who produced your food, the people who prepared it and the friends and family with whom you share your meals. It's a simple form of meditation that mindfully connects us to the food that sustains us.
Maureen L. Daniels, MEd, is Director and Jennifer Ward, RD, is a Wellness Dietitian at Wellness at Work at Berkshire Health Systems.