I was first introduced to the concept of mindful eating when I was doing a cleanse. For those unfamiliar with the idea of cleansing, it's usually a change in diet and habits, for a given amount of time, meant to rid the body of toxins and allergens. This particular one, called the Conscious Cleanse, focuses on eating whole foods and removing common allergens from the diet (gluten, dairy, alcohol and tobacco to name a few).
During the 4 week duration, the cleanse took me on a journey inward. Being forced to think before eating or drinking suddenly sparked a lot of thought. While having lunch, I was aware of how the food differed from what I might normally eat: how it tasted, how it smelled, what emotions it triggered. While digesting I could feel my body working, absorbing nutrients. When something didn't agree with me, I could feel my body’s disdain.
At the time, I was a smoker and would appreciate at least one drink per night. I had to cut those things out of my life during the cleanse. Caffeine had to go. Using chemical stimulants like caffeine or nicotine can distract from how you are actually feeling. Alcohol can dampen sadness or anxiety, momentarily providing an escape. Without those chemicals to hide behind, I was face to face with my emotions. It fell on me to deal with stress once my smokes and drinks were out of the picture. Without caffeine, I had to find ways within myself to become alert and awake in the morning.
Initially it was a shock to my system. I would feel nauseous without warning. Sometimes my body would feel like it was vibrating. My thoughts were scattered and erratic. It took a few days for the symptoms of detox to pass. Some nights it was hard to sleep without a beer. Some days I wanted a piece of bread so badly that I would become frustrated and grouchy. After those tough days in the beginning, it was like I woke up. I literally felt like I could see clearer; all of my senses were activated. On my way to work I noticed the bees buzzing, the children playing, the look on a homeless man’s face.
The new level of awareness started to expand to aspects of life outside of diet and habits, outside of my physical feelings. My mental and emotional alertness became very sharp. When I was angry, I could set aside my emotions and see the root of my troubles. Sometimes it was caused by hunger or nicotine withdrawal. Sometimes it was because I felt stressed or overworked. It was an ability to go beyond blaming a person or situation that sparked the anger. Mindful eating started to translate to mindful living. As control over my diet increased, so did control over my life.
Eating whole foods was essential. There was no denying that I was physically more energetic when eating that way. Where I once needed caffeine and nicotine to motivate me out of the house and into the world, the energy I got from fruits, vegetables and whole grains propelled me far past my old self. I had always loved food, but I finally saw the power it held. There are compelling scientific arguments against the assertion that natural, whole foods are healthier than processed or GMO equivalents. Those arguments mean nothing now, having felt the empowerment of making the switch.
When the cleanse was over, it was time to slowly start to re-introduce my old lifestyle, one thing at a time. I did pick coffee back up. I like the taste, it helps me focus and I don't think it detracts from my everyday health. I started drinking again too. But, I found a more healthy relationship with alcohol. I found that having a bottle of wine with friends at dinner felt good and had nothing to do with the escapist drinking of the past. I brought gluten back. In small amounts it didn't bother me. I did notice that if I ate a large serving of bread or noodles, my energy level bottomed out. But the act of noticing my body’s reactions was my biggest lesson; now, it was up to me on how to respond.
I also started smoking again. That was tough. It felt like I was taking a loss. My energy level decreased, along with my lung and heart function. But suddenly I knew for sure that I would quit one day. Knowing how I could feel, compared to how I did was constantly on my mind for the five years that it took me to finally quit. I write this today having not smoked for over five months. I see the cravings come and watch them go without having a cigarette.
To us, mindful eating means observing, being present. It means taking a moment to sit down and eat your food. How often do we rush out of the house, either skipping breakfast entirely or grabbing a granola bar and cramming it into our mouths while driving? We eat while sitting at our desks, typing and taking bites of food in between texting and checking email. While our minds wander, our body’s cries for help go unheard. When we are mentally and physically present while eating, it sets the tone for our lifestyle.
If you are preparing your own meals, how do you feel before you start cooking? While you are cooking? When you sit down to eat? While you are eating? Once you are done eating? I list all of these questions, because it is important to notice each step of the way. Do you feel different when you eat food from the supermarket versus food from the farmer’s market? Does it taste different to you? Do you feel bloated and tired after eating or do you have energy? For those that don't have time to cook for themselves or their families it's time to ask yourselves why.
Mindful eating isn’t saying that one way is better than another; it’s noticing how it makes you feel as an individual: mentally, physically, emotionally, even spiritually, and then making a thoughtful choice. Even if eating an apple sprayed with pesticides doesn’t make you feel ill in any way, what about the people spraying the pesticide? Does it harm them? Yes, this might be a lot to think about while grocery shopping. But, if we can be present for the most basic essential - eating food - it can teach us to be present in the rest of our lives. When we are present in our lives we can achieve things we had once thought impossible. I wonder how much human potential is lost to bad eating habits.