mindful eating

Mindful Eating is Skillpower, Not Willpower

There is more to mindful eating know-how than just paying attention and chewing ten times.  As I see it, there are at least 10 different skill sets that constitute fully conscious, mindful eating.  These are: craving control, trigger control, hunger recognition, fullness recognition, mindful emotional eating, mindful social eating, philosophy of eating, process focus, satiety extension, and appetite control skills.  Note: each skill is really a skill-set consisting of sub-skills.  For example, craving control consists of such specific craving control skills as distraction, relaxation, self-talk, mindfulness and several combinations thereof.

Metabolize This!

We tend to think of metabolism in purely physiological terms.  I’d like to help you broaden your view of metabolism a bit.  I invite you to think of metabolism as information processing.  Let’s take the act of eating, for example.  We can think of eating in purely physiological, metabolic terms… or we can think of eating as an informational process in which an act of tasting is an act of knowing.

I describe this Info-Experiential view of eating in my book, Reinventing the Meal, but here’s a similar perspective from Dr. Hari Sharma, MD, a Western trained proponent of ancient Vedic approaches to healing:

“When the taste receptors first experience the different taste and textural properties of a meal, an enormous amount of information is delivered through the body (primarily through the limbic system), triggering basic metabolic processes.”

“The body eventually metabolizes the molecular constituents of the food, but it first metabolizes the sensory experience of taste.”

“Long before the food is digested, its influence has spread throughout the body.  A delicious meal is more than a treat; the taste can be nourishing in itself.”

“The body metabolizes the emotional content of every experience that it has,” writes Dr. Sharma.  And that includes the experience of taste.

In sum, to taste is to experience, to experience is to feel, and to feel is to know.

Metabolize this!

A Namaste of Metabolic Independence

All life distinguishes “inside” from “outside,” or “self” from “nonself.”  This is the fundamental duality of existence.  This dichotomy, this distinction, this bias, this sapience is the software of living.  Life (in order to begin, in order to continue) is self-preserving and, therefore, self-serving.  Life is partial to itself: it views its own self as the Subject and everything else as “other,” “environment,” or “objects.” All life objectifies other life as “environment,” to use and to eat, to flee from so as to not be used or eaten by it, or both. All life is fundamentally unfair to other life—until it understands its inevitable interdependence and, on a higher level, its essential sameness.

Early in our development—both as individuals and as cultures—we adopt an adaptively intense dualism of self and nonself. We are highly self-centered (egocentric). It makes sense. Being helpless and scared, we have to think in a highly conservative manner. This developmentally early dualism is there to protect us. “You’re either with me or against me” is the mentality that underlies our socializing. We socialize not for fun but for protection. We group into cliques and circle the wagons. We are busy surviving.

As we learn more about life, we begin to tame our fears and distinguish between physical and symbolic threats. If we’re fortunate, we eventually conquer our innermost fear: the fear of dying. As we progress from fear to nonfear, we become increasingly less invested in all of these us-versus-them distinctions. The lens of our perception is recalibrated to notice similarity, perhaps even the oneness of our shared essence, rather than superficial differences in form. We become kinder and more compassionate. We even begin to feel for the life that we consume each time we sit down to eat—not just the animals that died so we might mindlessly eat another meal while zoned out in front of the TV, but even the plant-based life we consume. We begin to understand that anything that is alive wants to stay alive, regardless of its level of complexity.

A sense of tender intimacy emerges as we eat—not guilt that we have to consume something living in order to live, but a sense of interconnectedness, a realization that as we eat this Earth, we become this Earth, that as we eat this food, we become future food. This creates a kind of camaraderie of existence: a baseline sympathy, a gradual but never complete dissolution of subject-object duality, a universal willingness to relate, to feel for the other—kindness, if you will.

Eating is a reunion of self and nonself, of me and not-me, of you and not-you, of eater and food through the enmeshment of eating. Eating is twofold yoga: a yoga that unifies your body with your mind, and, at a higher level, a yoga that unifies you with your environment.

An eating moment is a bittersweet moment of connection—a namaste of metabolic interdependence.

Weight Management Motivation Booster

What is inoculation?  Inoculation introduces an organism to a nominal threat with the purpose of hardening the organism.  Motivational inoculation is a series of challenges (in the form of questions) that help crystallize intrinsic, fail-proof motivation.  Here’s some motivational inoculation for weight management.

Inoculation 1:   What is my stated motivation for this weight management attempt?

Inoculation 2:   Have I tried to lose weight for this reason before?  If yes, then on what basis do I believe that a reason that wasn’t strong enough for me to stick to the plan before would be sufficient this time?

Inoculation 3:  is my reason to lose weight for me or for somebody else?  If for somebody else, then what reason will I have to keep on track if my relationship were to change with this other person?  What if my relationship ends?  What if my relationship stabilizes and he/she no longer cares how I look, how much I weigh? What reason will I use then to stay on track weight-wise?  And why am I not using that reason now?!

Inoculation 4:  Is my reason for this weight management project situational in nature?  Am I trying to lose weight so that I look good at somebody else’s wedding?  Shine at a school reunion?  Get a date?  Competitively snub somebody else?  Am I trying to impress random minds on a spring break beach?  Is my weight management attempt part of my seasonal body-transformation as I get out of the “weight camo” winter clothes into a more revealing wardrobe?  If so, what will help me stay on weight management track when the situation changes?  And why am I not using that reason now?

Inoculation 5:  Is my motivation for weight management in line with my definition of psychological health?  Is my motivation for weight management in line with my life-values, my priorities, my spiritual/existential compass?  If not, why am I misguiding myself?  What would be a motivation for weight management that would express and extend the rest of my life-values and life-priorities?

Inoculation 6:  Would I be comfortable making my motivation for weight management public?  Would I feel at all embarrassed or ashamed if I had to acknowledge my true reason for weight management?  What would be the motivation/reason for change that would help me feel psychologically healthy?

Inoculation 7:  Will my reason/motivation last a life-time?  If not, what is such reason?  What would be an open-ended motivation for weight management? What would be the motivation that would withstand any change in circumstance?   List such reasons.  Use them.

Ask, ponder, inoculate.  Or run the risk of running out of motivational gas…

Mindfulness-Based Craving Control

I've been offering mindfulness-training as a form of impulse control and craving control to my clients for years.  Here's one way to introduce mindfulness as a craving control strategy for overeating:

See the Dissatisfaction (of the Desire) as It Passes (Rather Than Looking for Satisfaction)

A craving is a desire.  Desire - as strange as it sounds - is a state of frustration.  To want is to feel incomplete, to feel agitated and thwarted until a given desire is satisfied.  Wanting is restlessness.  Wanting is dissatisfaction.

Mindfulness involves two essential mechanisms: applying a certain kind of attention and practicing dis-identification. Attention can be active or passive: that of an active observer or that of an uninvolved witness. This distinction is easy to understand through contrasting such verbs as “to look” versus “to see.” “To look” implies an active visual scanning, a kind of goal-oriented visual activity. “To see” implies nothing other than a fact of visual registration. Say I lost my house keys. I would have to look for them. But in the process of looking for my house keys, I might also happen to see an old concert ticket.

Mindfulness is about seeing, not looking. It's about noticing or witnessing without attachment to or identification with what is being noticed and witnessed. This is where dis-identification comes in.

Cravings (for dessert or something specific to eat, or just to keep eating) come and go. Mindfulness—as a meditative stance—allows you to recognize that craving as a transient, fleeting state of mind, and just one part of your overall experience. Mindfulness teaches you to realize that this impulse to keep on eating is but a thought inside the mind. Yes, it’s part of you, but it isn’t all of you—which is exactly why you can notice it and see it without having to stare at it. In sum, mindfulness—as a form of impulse control—is a strategy of controlling by letting go of control.

In sum, mindfulness allows you to see through the fleeting moment of dissatisfaction (to experience this momentary mind-tantrum of "I want this and I won't be okay without it") instead of looking for a rationalization to justify the attempt to satisfy this fleeting desire.  Practice the following dis-identification attitude: "I am noticing this craving, I see it, I see that I am not this craving, I see this craving coming and going, I know this craving is but a fleeting state of mind, I don't need to look for a satisfaction, for a way to act upon this, I am already full in the calmness of my mind."

Counting Experiential Calories

Conscious eating isn't just about being calorie-conscious.  Conscious eating is about being conscious.  It's about counting moments, not just calories. So, put aside this tedious business of counting nutritional calories for a moment and ask yourself: What else am I getting out of this eating moment? How is my mind being enriched?

A Nutritional Calorie is a unit of energy. The job of a Nutritional Calorie is to fuel your Body. An Experiential Calorie -- to coin a term -- is a unit of awareness, a unit of conscious presence, a unit of meaning. The job of an Experiential Calorie is to enrich your Mind. Take a moment to count the latter...

Ask yourself:

What are the Meditational Calories of this moment? Indeed, as you eat, pause to consider the interdependence of people, places and events that converged into one seamless process in time to finally reach your lips. Of course, the Sun didn't shine for you and the grapes didn't grow for you and the farmer didn't collect the grapes for you and the canner didn't can the grape jelly for you in particular... And yet, somehow, as you are spreading grape jelly on your toast, you are now the beneficiary of this endless process of transmutation. Or, as you focus on the automaticity of your hand-to-mouth motions, on this smooth machinery of your habits, perhaps, you will awaken the eating zombie for just a moment, to both marvel and fear this ease of mindlessness with which our lives run. Or, perhaps, as you watch this food and this moment come and go, you will consider the impermanence and transience of things, and of yourself.

Ask yourself:

What are the Spiritual and Ethical Calories of this moment? How am I expressing my life values in this moment? Are my eating choices an accurate reflection of what I stand for -- ethically and spiritually? Is my eating kind? Is my eating graceful? Is my eating meaningful? Is my eating grateful?

Ask yourself:

What are the Aesthetic and Hedonic Calories of this moment? Am I enjoying this eating moment, this moment of living? Am I allowing myself to notice the humble, unpretentious beauty of what I am about to eat? Am I sensing, tasting, savoring or just shoveling that which a moment ago I so carefully and meticulously selected off the lunch menu? Am I noticing the dynamic art of food, the poly-sensory drama of the flavor as the taste and the aroma and the texture come into one experiential focus?


Ask yourself:

What are the Existential Calories of this moment? Am I... here? Am I... present? Am I... consciously present to feel that I am alive? What is this "I" that is eating? What is this "I" that is pondering its existence? Will I remember myself having this moment or will it go unnoticed?

Ask yourself:

What are the Social Calories of this moment? Who am I with and why? Am I eating because they are hungry? Are they eating because I am hungry? Are we eating because we are hungry for food or because we are hungry for connection? Or are we just -- randomly -- in this moment with the food in front of us -- perhaps -- being the only common social denominator?

Just ask yourself.

Mindful Eating is Yoga

Yoga is union. Mindful eating is also yoga -- in the sense that eating unites your body and mind's intention through a moment of eating presence. Create an eating mindfulness placemat that you could carry with you like a yoga mat, from table to table, from setting to setting, whether you are eating in or eating out, as a kind of portable eating mindfulness space of your own.

Sketch out a placemat that includes a visual diagram of mindful eating. For example, draw a picture of the eyes to denote the mindfulness of the appearance of food, with an arrow pointing to a nose for the mindfulness of smell, with an arrow pointing to a picture of the tongue for the mindfulness of taste, with an arrow pointing back to your mind (to remember to "open your mind before you open your mouth").

Or, to awaken the eating zombie, include mindfulness call-outs to get your own attention, such as:

  • Eating is Movement, Pause the Flow!
  • Redefine "Enough" - Mindful, not Mouthful!
  • Mindful Eating is Self-Synchronization.
  • Eating is physiologically inevitable, but mindfulness isn't - wake up!
  • Who's eating?
  • Open Your Mind Before You Open Your Mouth.
  • Made of Earth, I am eating Earth and becoming Earth.

You can also include various pointers on craving control, fullness, process of eating. If you have already formulated your Philosophy of Eating, you can summarize it on the placemat as well:

  • Eat to live, not live to eat!
  • Eating changes both body and mind, the total of who I am. What I eat and how much I eat changes who I am physiologically. Why I eat and how I eat changes who I am psychologically.

Your mindful eating placemat can also include mindful emotional eating harm-reduction tips on how to shift from mindless emotional overeating to responsible emotional eating such as:

  • When eating to cope, remember that emotional eating does not have to mean emotional overeating. Emotional eating is not a problem.  Mindless emotional eating is.
  • Whenever I eat to cope I begin with a course of relaxation!