Why Mindful Eating Makes Life Better
With all the issues on your plate when making food choices–like buying organic, local, nutrient dense foods while avoiding food sensitivities, GMOs, BPA lined canned goods and hormone disrupting pesticides–how can you possibly add “eat mindfully” to the to-do list?!
Fortunately, it’s actually pretty darn easy and will help you to enjoy your food more, too!
HOW you eat is as important as WHAT you eat
Ever stop to wonder what actually happens in your body when you have a sit-down meal as opposed to “dining” while multi-tasking or eating on-the-run to soccer practice? Check this out!
Digestive benefits of eating mindfully
Taking the time to dine resets the nervous system to "rest and digest" mode. In physiological terms, the parasympathetic nervous system governs digestion and only operates in relaxation mode, as opposed to the stressed "fight or flight” mode of the sympathetic nervous system. This allows your body to properly assimilate and absorb your meal. Many of us, children included, are in productive “fight or flight” mode much of the day at school or work and that stress switch remains in the “on” position when we eat on-the-run or while multi-tasking, leading to a slew of digestive issues.
Many digestive disturbances (gas, bloating, heartburn, indigestion, constipation) and assimilation issues (low iron, food sensitivities) are exacerbated when we eat on-the-go. When our “rest and digest” mode is off, our bodies don’t effectively make the digestive juices required to break down the foods we consume. If you don't give your body the chance to make the enzymes to metabolize your food, you won't get the benefit of any of the healthy food choices you’re trying to implement! The efforts of buying well and taking the time to prepare healthful meals are simply wasted if we don't actually digest our food properly.
Mental & emotional benefits of mindful meals
Bookending the day by meeting around a table as a family is conducive to cultivating a healthy family connection. Having the chance to talk about what lies ahead and meeting again at the end of a full day to catch up and re-group is grounding, relaxing, and critical for kids’ social development as well as their confidence. Studies show that children who regularly eat at the table with family have increased self-esteem.
5 Simple Steps to Mindful Eating
Get out of stress mode
This means no more multi-tasking in front of the computer, making to-do lists, or even perusing health-blogs while eating! Clear the clutter around your eating area; you do not want to be surrounded by work or digital distractions.
At family sit-down meals at home, gathering around the table to share a meal with your loved-ones should be the only focus; no TV, no smartphones. Peaceful, feel-good music that you all enjoy can certainly add to the experience, however. If your little ones are not used to the family table, accept that the change in routine will take some time and effort, but that good manners and a peaceful mealtime are well worth it in the long run.
Pause before you dig in
Before your first bite, take a moment to feel your breath, like you would in a yoga class. Do some deep belly breathing, start in through your nose, and out through your nose, five times deeply. This re-wires your nervous system. When in stress mode, we take many rapid and shallow breaths to get more oxygen to our lungs to run from a life-threatening situation. Slow, deep breathing lets your body know that it is not in stress mode.
As if putting down a book, gently put aside all thoughts that don’t relate to the aromatic bowl or colourful plate in front of you. Enjoying this food is your primary occupation; the other tasks on your to-do lists are secondary and will be better addressed once you are well-fueled and re-energized.
Look at and smell your food
The physical senses, olfactory and visual, give your body the cue to re-orient, and get those digestive juices secreted. The sight and smell of food generates the release of salivary amylase. This is when (if you are so inclined) you may say a prayer of gratitude and thanks to the creator/spirit/universe that brought you the bounty before you, to the farmers who grew the food, or, as a dedication to the person who created the meal. If you made the meal, thank yourself for taking the time or, if it was a partner, parent, or someone who loves you that packed you a lunch or cooked you a dinner, thank your lucky stars!
Chew your food well
How much should you chew in order to fully masticate that mouthful? Sometimes numbers are assigned to this task, like chewing 20 times before you swallow. You can use a number if you find it helpful—but the point is really just that inhaling your food is really counter-productive!
When you actually chew your food, you start to secrete that salivary amylase (which breaks down starches) and lingual lipase (which breaks down fats) in your mouth. The brain then sends a message to the parietal cells in the stomach to release HCl (hydrochloric acid) which starts to break food down into smaller particles so that other digestive enzymes (like those from the pancreas: lactase to digest lactose from dairy, lipase to digest fats, and amylase to digest starches, etc.) will have a chance to go to work.
Do not drink water at your meal
Contrary to many ill-advised diet gurus’ recommendations to fill up on water (or other beverages) at meal time, drowning your stomach in the water that should be re-hydrating you through the day goes against your body’s physiology! Too much fluid dilutes your hydrochloric acid; a necessary initial trigger for setting off the messages that must go down the line to the gallbladder and pancreas to let them know they need to start helping with digestion. If we interfere with our HCl, particularly by washing it away in cold water, the body completely misses the critical signal to start secreting those necessary digestive enzymes (fat-dissolving, starch bond breaking) and bile from the gallbladder.
But what if you’re thirsty? Well, you can have a little bit of water to cleanse your palate, but don’t mix up rehydrating with eating; you should do these separately. Carry a stainless steel water bottle with you and rehydrate throughout the day - but avoid it when you are in “rest and digest” mode, and your digestion will thank you!
Eating mindfully means aligning your body and mind to deliberately and consciously slow down and spend time in “rest and digest” mode. You’ll allow yourself time to appreciate the taste of your meal, feel healthier, and will be much less likely to over eat. It goes without saying that this is a very beneficial habit to provide for your children, too. By helping our minds to help our bodies, we can truly feed ourselves well.