Savouring the moment when it comes to healthy eating
We are all guilty of eating mindlessly from time to time, but it is possible to re-establish a healthy, more balanced relationship with food
Running late to work so you grab a piece of toast and eat it on the way.
Stop off at a petrol station to refuel your car and find yourself coming away with a massive chocolate brownie and a cup of coffee - despite the fact you're not hungry. Feeling lonely at home alone on a Saturday night and you treat yourself to a bottle of wine and a whole packet of Doritos. Or maybe you skipped lunch and you're so hungry by dinnertime, that you don't heat your dinner to the right temperature, but eat it anyway.
These are situations of mindless eating - times when we don't engage with food in the correct manner and eat it simply because we're hungry, or stressed, or taken in by advertising, or maybe because we want to ease negative emotions.
We're all guilty of mindless eating to some extent. Such is the pace and organisation of modern life that we typically eat the wrong food, for the wrong reasons, in the wrong ways, and at the wrong times.
It's a fact to be addressed in a six-week mindful eating course beginning on September 11 at The Sanctuary Meditation and Mindfulness Centre in Dublin.
The Food for Thought course, which draws on the teachings of mindful experts Thich Nhat Hanh and Jan Jan Chozen Bays, will examine our relationship with food, looking at why and when we eat it. It will also explain the impact of food on the body from a physiological point of view, and address why we have cravings. Our feelings in relation to food are also dealt with and those taking part are encouraged to enjoy their food once more.
Participants will be given exercises that they can do at home and the course will culminate with a meal at which they eat together.
Open to people from all walks of life, all age groups and all sizes, the course is not a weight-loss initiative, but rather aims to re-establish a balanced relationship with food - through the medium of mindfulness.
It's the brainchild of ITEC accredited nutritionist Shirley Roe, who qualified at Institute of Health Sciences, Dublin, and mindfulness teacher Orla Burchael, who trained at the German Institute for Mindfulness Based Approaches, and is a former clinical psychologist.
They found themselves interested in how mindfulness could be applied to everyday eating.
"Mindfulness is a way of bringing our attention and awareness to the present moment - and doing so without judgment, but with curiosity and kindness," says Orla. "It's actually an ancient concept and one which can be applied to every aspect of daily life - including eating."
By approaching eating with the concept of mindfulness, she says, we can re-establish a healthy relationship with food and with our bodies. "When mindfulness is applied to anything, healing can follow," she says. "Mindfulness encourages us to listen deeply to our bodies and our needs and to examine cravings and triggers. We need to ask ourselves why we are hungry?"
There are, she adds, seven different types of hunger in the mindfulness philosophy. These are triggered by sight, smell, the stomach, the body's cells, the heart (emotional eating), the mind (when we eat due to information about food), or by taste.
In addressing which type of hunger we're experiencing, we're able to avoid eating mindlessly.
"The majority of people are so used to eating mindlessly that they're not even aware of it," says nutritionist Shirley Roe. "We typically don't give food our full attention when we eat - we eat it in a hurry, we eat the wrong foods, we eat food at the wrong temperature and we don't taste our food or appreciate its texture."
It's a problem confined to the modern world - and is very much a First World issue. "It's only really become a problem in the last 100 years," she adds. "Before that, food was no as abundant as it is today. These days, our kitchen presses and fridges are full."
The problem, she says, is that our bodies have not evolved at the same pace as the food industry. "Our bodies are designed to deal with food scarcity. We, therefore, have a delay system with regard to digestion. When we eat food and we're full, it takes 20 minutes for the brain to get the message.
"For example, Stone Age man often wouldn't find food for days. He would therefore gorge himself. Now, however, the opposite is in effect. We don't have a cut-off point. We eat too much on a regular basis, and as a result, we're dealing with obesity epidemics."
She emphasises that mindful eating is not just about slowing down. It's about recognising cravings and triggers - that are often physiological as well as psychological.
"For example, when our blood sugar dips too low, we crave high-carb or high-sugar food to give us a quick release of sugar and produce energy," says Shirley. "This can lead to a sugar slump and may lead us to reach for a chocolate bar - and then we're into a vicious cycle."
Skipping meals also plays havoc with our blood sugar, she adds. Drinking too much coffee too is another no-no. "It releases adrenalin and cortisol into our blood stream and while this makes us more alert, it releases sugars from our store which gives us a spike in our sugar levels, but it can afterwards drop quite quickly, meaning that you require more coffee."
In general, she says we're not looking at food in the right way. "We eat to be full. We don't see food as something which can stimulate us - which can improve our mood, which can satisfy us, and which is an enjoyable guilt-free experience.
"Eating is also sensual," she adds. "You taste it, you smell it, you hear it, you see it and you feel it." And by engaging all five senses, she says, we evoke memories, we feel satisfied after eating and avoid negative feelings. More than anything, we enjoy the experience of eating again.
Eating habits are also addressed. "We eat for all kinds of emotional reasons in modern life," says Shirley. "But we also eat when we are stressed, or when according to the clock, or because we're socialising. We need to be aware of behavioural patterns in relation to food and realise that we can change them."
Both women emphasise that we should not judge ourselves too harshly - even when we do eat badly. "We're all human and we fall down on occasion," says Shirley. "But rather than beat ourselves up for eating something bad, we need to accept it and simply determine to try harder next time."
"We need to learn to be compassionate in relation to ourselves," adds Orla. "That integral to the concept of mindfulness. Through compassion, we learn to have a better relationship with both our bodies and with food in general."
Food for Thought - a Mindful Approach to Eating at the Sanctuary Mindfulness Centre, Dublin 7, runs for six weeks from September 11, 2pm-4pm, plus a day on October 23, 10am-4pm. It costs €195. Visit www.sanctuary.ie
FIVE TIPS MINDFUL EATING:
1. Recognise how hungry you are. Perhaps you are eating by the clock, or eating out of boredom? Or maybe you’re just thirsty?
2. Take at least 20 minutes to eat a meal.
3. Chew food thoroughly to break it down into small pieces. This helps you to digest your food more easily and it can be broken down by digestive enzymes in the gut.
4. Try to engage all five senses — taste, sight, touch, smell and hearing — when eating.
5. Don’t leave long gaps between meals. You are more likely to make poor choices when you are overly hungry. Eat every three to four hours.