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Why do we need conscious eating in our lives when we can get around our day by eating mindlessly? Why wouldn’t we rather spend our time being ‘productive’ while we’re ‘grabbing’ our meals? Believe it or not, conscious eating can have long-lasting benefits for your mental and physical health including helping you lose weight, control diabetes, manage depression and anxiety, feel light after meals, reduce portions, and counter eating disorders.
Here’s an irony for you. We work for 8–10 hours a day so that we can put food on the table. By that logic, food must be very important to us, right? And yet, eating our food is one task we tend to do mindlessly. It is almost always accompanied by some other activity. We are driving and eating, or binge-watching and eating, scrolling and eating, or having conversations and eating. And before we realize it, the plate/bowl/bag is empty. If we were in a relationship with food, we would have hurt some feelings there with such lack of attention.
Conscious eating, broadly, is the art of paying attention and observing what we eat—taking in all the details, observing our levels of satiety and the relationship of our food with our digestive system.
The Science Behind Conscious Eating and Digestion
The concept of mindful eating is not new. In fact, the principle of conscious eating finds mention in the timeless body of knowledge that is Ayurveda. Ayurveda talks about how our mind is linked to our digestion, how one eats is as important as what one eats. The quality of your digestion is affected by mind, environment, body, and emotions.
Digestion is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, or involuntary nervous system. Now, what happens when you are eating while watching tv? You may feel emotions like anger or anxiety subtly come up while watching intense drama or thrillers, as you eat your food. At this time, the sympathetic nervous system responsible for fight or flight gets triggered. This increases blood supply to peripheral muscles instead of the digestive organs. As a result, the process of peristalsis is stalled, which is the wave of muscular contraction and expansion that happens in the digestive tract to facilitate the movement of food.
But when you are rested and mindful when eating, the parasympathetic system is active which is responsible for all the involuntary systems in your body while you are at rest including your heart rate, digestion, among others.
Unconscious eating is also the reason why you feel hungry soon after eating a meal versus when you have eaten a meal with more awareness. Our brain requires about 20 minutes to fully register the process of having eaten and digested the food. But when you eat quickly without paying any attention to it, for the brain it is as good as not eating a meal. And so, though there is food in your stomach, you may end up feeling hunger pangs soon again, which can encourage overeating. Overeating can lead to multiple metabolic disorders including diabetes, obesity, weight gain, and heart ailments.
Studies have now found out that mindful eating as a strategy can help one deal with mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, eating or binging disorders, excessive emotional eating, and obesity. Eating more mindfully brought about a positive shift in one’s food habits and portion sizes. An NIH-funded study showed mindful eating practices helped treat binge eating and depression. Additionally, mindfulness helped people actually relish their food rather than struggle with controlled reductions in their portions. This was because of more acute recognition of emotional hunger versus physical hunger due to one’s heightened awareness that mindfulness practices brought about.
Difference between conscious and unconscious eating: How do you feel after your meals?
Think about two eating experiences: One is when you had a small serving of the best tiramisu in the world. You remember its flavors, texture, lightness, and the feeling of joy and positive energy you were left with post-dessert. You felt satisfied, grateful, and remembered the sensory experience associated with it.
In the second experience, you had a big bowl of your favorite pasta that you polished off quickly because you were too hungry. You ended up feeling heavy and lethargic, with no food memory and plenty of regrets. You probably felt bloated and uncomfortable. Overall, nothing about this meal was memorable (at least in a positive way) or pleasurable.
The first experience is an experience of conscious eating and the latter is unconscious or mindless eating. In either case, your digestive experience will signal if the meal is supporting your metabolism or if it is rejecting or overburdening it.
A Checklist for Conscious Eating
Eating consciously can enhance our dining experience greatly. To see where you stand on conscious eating, consider these questions while having your next meal:
- Can you tell the taste of every bite that you take? Can you taste the juices swirling in your mouth as the food touches your palate?
- Are you enjoying the meal?
- What is your portion size? Regular, smaller than regular, or larger than regular portion size? Why are you eating less or more than usual?
- Is your mind right here with you focused on the food or are you daydreaming or planning?
- Is your food giving you guilt or joy?
- Is your food ethically and sustainably sourced?
- Are you rationalizing or justifying your decision to go for the extra slice of pizza or serving of ice cream?
Your honest responses to these questions will tell you where you stand in terms of being a conscious eater. If the responses are discouraging, this may be a good time to change your relationship with food, so that it supports your mind-body complex, enhances vitality, gives you health and longevity, and makes you feel lighter, satisfied, and more aware—instead of dulling your mind and adding to the risks of a string of lifestyle disorders.
The Ayurvedic “Check Engine Light”
How do you know you should stop eating? According to Ayurveda, eat as much as is enough to not feel hungry. This does not mean eat until you are full to bursting. Let me explain that. When we say ‘not full’ we mean, half of the stomach should be filled with solid foods, one-fourth with water and one-fourth with air. How do we know we have reached this limit? Burp is a sign that our stomach is three-quarters full and that’s when we stop. But to be able to understand these subtle signs, we have to start eating consciously.
Why might we eat unconsciously?
Very often the solution to a problem lies in the right diagnosis of the underlying cause. Once we know what causes us to eat unconsciously, we can wean ourselves from it by addressing the cause.
Not in the moment. We may have eaten and still feel hungry, or we may be on an empty stomach and yet not feel hunger because hunger and satiety require you to be fully present at the moment. This explains, as we discussed above, why we may feel hungry soon after a big meal when we eat while multitasking.
Stress. The stress of an upcoming deadline or anxiety over an exam—these triggers can also lead to mindless eating. During stress-eating, you may not remember what you ate or how much you ate, and such meals are deprived of any pleasure or food memory. Having food memories is important since it helps manage portions of food in the following meals if we are unconscious big eaters.
Emotional response. Many of us eat when we are stressed, angry, sad, or depressed—engaging in what is called comfort eating. Comfort eating can make us overeat without our awareness, leading to more guilt and regret. For many children, food in the form of a cookie or candy was offered as a tool to distract the child from a painful experience of say, a physical hurt. But many of us have unfortunately carried that pattern well into our adulthood.
How to Eat Consciously
More dieticians today recommend conscious eating, which is often used interchangeably with mindful eating, though conscious eating may also involve the larger question of how our food choices impact the environment and sustainability. Here are a few things one can do be start becoming conscious or mindful eaters.
Eat only when hungry. Get to the dining table when you feel somewhat hungry, though not so hungry that you want to gulp your food down at one go— that defeats the whole exercise of conscious eating, as hunger gets the better of our minds. This may also make you overeat in an attempt to quickly fill the void. And for this reason, skipping meals also is not recommended.
Become conscious of why you are eating. If you find you are eating for any reason other than hunger, then turn yourself away from the table and try doing something else until the conditioned urge for running to food in an emotional situation, goes away.
Be a conscious shopper. Eating begins with your shopping cart. Pay attention to what you buy to feed yourself and your family. When you are totally present in this shopping experience, you are able to make better choices. Look for organic and seasonal options, more veggies and fruits, and less processed foods. Make sure everything you buy is sustainably and ethically sourced. These are conscious shopping decisions that one can make for the overall health of an individual, families, and the planet.
Study your portion sizes. Make sure your portion size is just enough to fill three quarters of your stomach, as we discussed above. Any less than that will leave you hungry and distracted; any more will make you feel lethargic and too full.
Have an immersive sensory experience. While you are eating, enjoy the taste, texture, aroma, sounds, and aftertaste completely, as if you were meditating on your food. Whatever the taste of the food is—bitter, sweet, salty, or bland—it is important to be with the experience totally. Try to identify the ingredients as you savor your meal.
Be grateful. When you eat consciously, you will also be more grateful for the food that has been served to you. Part of conscious eating involves the process of being thankful to the person who grew your food, the one who made it available to you, the one accompanying you, and the one who cooked it. Being grateful adds to the beauty of mealtime.
Chew well, eat slowly, and take smaller and more manageable bites. Chewing your food properly helps you digest and absorb the food well. When you eat slowly, it stops you from overeating and helps you enjoy the taste of the food more. Taking smaller bites not only helps you chew better, but also tricks your brain into eating less. For a full experience, try and chew your food 20 to 40 times each mouthful. You may experience flavors you did not know existed in your food! You can also place your fork down between bites, to make sure you are eating at a good speed and not rushing through your meal. This practice discourages overeating.
Remember what you eat. Another strategy that helps us control our portion sizes and pattern of overeating is to remember our previous meal—the items, ingredients, flavors, and aromas, everything about the meal. This may seem like a tedious task, but if you can do it, it can go a long way in increasing your knowledge and understanding about your food habits, choices, whether they are consistently healthy or unhealthy, and if your diet is lacking in important nutrients or if it is balanced enough, apart from rewiring your brain to eat less.
Do not multitask while eating. Research shows, we tend to overeat by as much as 25% if we eat while doing other activities such as watching television, browsing the internet, driving, or talking to others.
Make lunch your biggest meal. The body’s digestion is at its best around noon. Choose to have your largest meal around then when the food will be digested easily. Avoid eating within three hours of bedtime.
Avoid opposite foods. It is important to be aware of food combinations and how they affect your body constitution. Avoid eating foods with opposite energies together, such as having milk with fish or having fruits with milk in the form of milkshakes. Virudhahara—opposite foods in Ayurveda—is understood as mixing up the wrong combination of foods that become toxic for the body.
Reverence. Ayurveda prescribes that food should be eaten and cooked with utmost reverence to derive the most benefits out of it. Emotions and thoughts are believed to influence the quality and action of the food along with the body consuming it.