Mindful Eating Article
FOOD FOR THE SOUL
by Jane Egginton:
A growing mindful eating movement in the world of nutrition sees food as medicine – not just for the body and mind – but also for the soul. Looking way beyond the function of food as fuel, it incorporates exciting cutting edge scientific research while taking on board old food wisdom. Embracing culture and our very connection to the universe, it offers some real food for thought.
EATING AS AN ETHICAL ACT
The implications of eating as an ethical act go way beyond the notion of consuming local, organic and seasonal food. It can be seen as a kind of thanksgiving, not just for what is on our plate but for how it got there. In his insightful book Savor, Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, Vietnamese meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh looks at the role mindful eating can play in our life, explaining that it can allow us to see our whole universe on our plate, creating not just physical, but spiritual nourishment.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT?
Controversially, some nutritionists are now arguing that labeling ourselves in terms of what we eat – say as a vegan or carnivore – can be unhelpful. Rather, it is more important to be in touch with our body and soul so that we know instinctively what we need for optimum nutrition. At times, this may be vegetarian food, but at others we may need to ground ourselves by eating fish or meat. The key is to act with integrity and honesty when it comes to what we decide to eat or not eat.
EATING AS AN EMOTIONAL ISSUE
Digestion and gut health are crucial in the metabolism of food, meaning it is possible to be eating very healthily, but not converting that food effectively into the metabolites that your body needs. Eating mindfully can reduce stress and therefore increase gut health and improve digestion, soothing the body and the soul.
Most of us realize that eating is an emotional issue. There is a huge difference between physical and psychological hunger – the latter being a response to an emotional trigger and usually resulting in the consumption of sugary, carbohydrate rich food. Eating disorders often spring from a desire to block out emotions, which is the very opposite of mindful, or conscious eating, which can be a powerful form of meditation.
It is also difficult to eat unhealthily when we eat in this way. An obvious example of this is that people can eat huge buckets of popcorn and oversized soft drinks at the cinema where they are distracted, yet if they were in a different environment and focused on the food they would perhaps struggle to eat such large amounts of unhealthy food. Just switching off the TV and appreciating every mouthful can provide a focus that can be a very effective way of controlling portion size and getting much more pleasure from our food.
Katie Sheen who runs Soul Nutrition (soulnutrition.org) is an enthusiastic practitioner of mindful eating. “It would be amazing to start a ripple of happiness and relaxed eating. How we eat affects the core of our being. If we really taste our food, experience it and connect with it, it should nourish our body, our senses and our soul. In the midst of the demands of modern life, I believe that the ability to focus on the way in which we nurture our mind, body and soul is crucial to our wellbeing. The healing power of food can make a tangible difference to health and happiness.”
Sheen points to research that shows that 70 to 90 percent of serotonin is actually made in the gut. While most of us know that if we are anxious our digestion simply won’t work, this is a staggering discovery that points to a much greater link between the brain and gut, and therefore mood and food, than perhaps we had ever imagined. The role of the nervous system goes way beyond processing the food we eat. The latest research suggests that the enteric nervous system in our gut plays such a key role in our emotions that scientists are going so far as to call it the ‘second brain’. But still, this is only one small part of a very complex picture that scientists and nutritionists are really only just beginning to work out.
“Most of us are under an incredible amount of daily stress” says Sheen, who suggests we should always notice how our body is feeling before we eat, as this will affect how we digest our food. “Actually, saying a blessing before we eat a meal has a good biochemical effect. It is something I do with clients in a different form, getting them to relax, breathe, and concentrate on doing something for themselves in order to nourish themselves. Then, if you work backwards, you are not only giving thanks to the food on your plate but also to the person who stocked the supermarket shelves, going right back to appreciating the person who worked on the farm where it was produced.”
THE WORLD ON OUR PLATE
Many of us feel very unsupported in the world, yet the food on our plate epitomizes the world supporting and nourishing us unconditionally. Food represents one of our most meaningful relationships with the planet, with our food choices having the ability to nourish us on every level: physical and emotional and spiritual. If we can make this connection, we then are given more purpose in our lives. This is because we have not only chosen the food with thought and eaten it with gratitude, but we have become linked with the land, the world and even the universe.
Eat for your spirit, but for your environment too. So, don’t only choose good food that doesn’t harm the planet and food that was cooked with love, but food that was produced with love by people who were treated with love. “The most political act we do on a daily basis is to eat, as our actions affect farms, landscapes and food businesses”, says Professor Jules Pretty, from the University of Essex, UK.
Published in Nov/Dec 2011 issue of YOGA Magazine