Mindful Eating is not a Diet

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For several months I was teaching a meditation class at a small Catholic college. The class would meet in the evenings, and the curriculum was based on Koru, a mindfulness course created specifically for young adults by two psychologists at Duke University. That week, I was supposed to do an eating meditation, but realized too late that I had forgotten to pick up some food.

Eating meditations, or mindful eating practices were popularized by Jon-Kabat Zinn as a part of his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program. And typically, the practice requires that you eat one raisin. I have done this practice myself in a few different trainings, rolling the little dried fruit around in my mouth, feeling it plump up and thinking about the sunlight and rain that fell on the plant. It’s a fun experience, and one that opens the mind to the idea of eating and consequently, living more mindfully.

I’ve also taught this practice many times. Sometimes I use the raisin method. One particularly memorable time was when I was teaching mindfulness to a group of lawyers. The lawyers approached meditation in the most efficient way possible, asking me what the minimum number of minutes they could practice for maximum results. During the lesson on eating though, one of them frowned visibly when I brought out the raisins. Apparently, she had a real dislike for them. I told her that of course she was free to skip this exercise, but if she wanted, she could use her aversion to the raisin as part of the practice. And she could try really exploring those feelings of disgust and dislike. All in all, the exercise itself takes only about five minutes, so it wasn’t too demanding. She opted to try it, and maybe even learned something interesting that day about accepting her feelings.

This particular evening, as I pulled into campus, I figured I’d just grab something out of the vending machine instead. And I decided to buy a bag of Skittles. This may seem like an odd choice to people, especially other teachers. Isn’t the point of the exercise to create more wholesome habits with food? Wouldn’t eating candy sort of defeat the purpose? Personally , I don’t think so. To me, the whole point of meditation is to be accepting of whatever comes up. Candy can be a fun object of concentration. There’s so many things to think about, and so many potential emotions to explore.

That night, as I gathered the students to a seated circle on the floor, I explained we would be doing an eating meditation and passed around the bag of Skittles, instructing everyone to take only one. We spent a little time breathing and using all of our senses to observe the candy. I instructed them to begin by noticing the color, the shape, the smell and feel of it. I invited them to notice any emotions they may be feeling, maybe feeling impatience to eat, or even a strong craving. I also asked them to think about how it was created, where each of the many ingredients had been sourced, and how many hands it had potentially passed through to get to the vending machine here on campus.

The contrast between the life cycle of a single raisin and a single Skittle is pretty striking. One is cultivated, grown and picked. One is created in a factory and made of many different ingredients. I reminded the students to notice judgements as they arose, to notice if they were having negative thoughts or feeling any particularly strong feelings. Many of them remarked afterwards that they had become anxious thinking about the environmental impact, or the nutritional content — but they were able to notice these thoughts, and not let them carry them too far away from the practice. Returning to the present moment, to the single little skittle resting innocently here in their palms.

After ample time examining, I let them finally eat the Skittle. But, I asked them not to chew it right away, to hold it in their mouths, and notice how it changed, and how the mouth reacted. After a brief period, they could chew and swallow. Afterwards we closed our eyes and tried to see how long the taste remained in the mouth. Like listening to the ring of a bell fade away, the sensation of taste lingers, and eventually disappears.

The students enjoyed the whole process and most of them remarked that they wouldn’t be able to eat an entire bag of skittles if they were eating them like that. This is generally the reaction that people have after doing an eating meditation. They notice how unaware they are of the experience of eating. I reminded them that while they certainly can’t be expected to eat every meal and snack that way, that it might be useful to at least try it now and then. Maybe even just the first bite. Slowing down, breathing, noticing.

I’ve taught eating meditations in lots of different settings and with lots of different foods. For one class, I even included a small glass of wine and several different kinds of treats. With each instance, we took the time to slow down, and pay attention to how the foods not only tasted, but how they looked, smelled and most importantly maybe, how they made us feel.

Mindful eating practices have been applied to dieting and have even helped many people with disordered eating, and addictions. Noticing positive or negative thoughts and feelings around food can be so healing, and necessary in order to change habits. Also as important is noticing if you are eating on autopilot, having no thoughts, or even numbing out.

But, it’s not a diet itself. The entire point is not have judgements, to not decide that this food is bad and this food is good, or that you are bad or good for eating them. The point is to be present with what IS. Be present with the foods, with the feelings that the foods evoke. When we do this, we often notice how our emotions have actually been running rampant, and that food has been the tool we’ve been using to turn down the volume on those feelings. We may eat because we are lonely, for example. But what we really may be longing for is connection. I believe that our bodies know exactly what they need. And if we are quiet and we listen, it will tell us.

Psychologist and Human mood ring.

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