A couple of weeks ago, I was feeling a bit tired and glum. Over decades, when I’ve been in this mood, I’ve trained my brain to tell my mouth that it needed food – sweet food – for comfort. How did that work out for me over many years? Not so good. Besides creating bad habits, the empty sugary calories definitely bore out the saying, “one minute on the lips and a lifetime on the hips.”
And so, two weeks ago, I reached for the container of grated dark chocolate (I like to sprinkle on my cappuccino as a treat.) Granted, it was a tiny storage container, but it was watching TV and mindlessly dipping my saliva-wet finger into the grated yumminess and licking the container clean that brought me to my senses. Not a sensible choice, I chastised myself.
As I’ve incorporated the practice of mindfulness in other areas of my life, I Googled “mindful eating” and came across Dr. Jan Chozen Bay’s book, Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food from which I will heavily draw.
Poring through this fantastic resource, I became aware of these bad habits I needed to work on:
1. Eating my meals while watching TV.
2. Slowing down my speed of eating
3. Engaging all the senses involved in the act of eating.
Dr. Chozen Bay’s book educated me about the seven kinds of hunger:
Eye hunger, nose hunger, mouth hunger, stomach hunger, cellular hunger, mind hunger and heart hunger.
I’m dining at the restaurant with a group of friends. The food is scrumptious and I’m happy with my choice. My stomach is pretty full and my cells are satisfied. My stomach and cells tell me they really can’t eat another bite what with being full from the drinks on top of the food. The waiter does the rounds with the dessert tray. My eyes roam over the tempting treats and my mind tells me, “It doesn’t hurt to look.” Hmm, Belgian Chocolate Mousse, French Creme Brulee, Southern Pecan Pie, Apple & Mixed Berry Crumble served piping hot with vanilla bean ice cream… My mind reasons, “Go with fruit, it’s healthier than the others.” I cave in. Eye hunger has won.
I remember when I was younger and I went to the mall, I literally followed my nose to Annie’s Cinnamon Buns. Today, although I enjoy that cinnamon waft, my stomach in no uncertain terms tells me, “Eat that and watch me bloat!” Yesterday, at the movies, the popcorn aroma was overwhelming. My nose hunger was trying to influence the other senses. They weren’t hungry, my mind held fast and the nose lost out.
Bite into a sensational hand-crafted, liqueur-filled chocolate and an orgy breaks out in your mouth. Being the most sensual part of the body, think of all the sensations the mouth, tongue and taste buds can be engaged in: sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness, crunchiness, creaminess, amino acids (protein-like taste) textures, movements, food sounds, drinking and swallowing. Dr. Chozen Bay says, if you want to feel satisfied when you eat, the mind has to be aware of what is going on in the mouth. In other words, if you want to have a party in the mouth, the mind has to be invited.
From an evolutionary aspect, the stomach’s hunger pangs is a good thing because if we didn’t perceive them as unpleasant, we might starve to death. These uncomfortable sensations will cause an urgency about doing something to relieve them. Dr. Chozen Bay uses the metaphor of hunger “gnawing as if an animal were eating at our insides. It growls and complains until we throw food down the tunnel to placate it.”
Nursing infants are tuned in to signals from their bodies telling them when to eat and when to stop. We have an instinctive awareness of what foods, and how much our bodies need. As we grow older, this inner wisdom becomes lost in a stupefying host of other internal and external voices that influence our eating habits. The body has an amazing capacity to know what’s good to heal itself. When a tummy bug hits, the body expels foreign interlopers, and afterward the stomach and cells instinctively know that chicken broth is the best remedy. Cellular hunger also self-regulates as the seasons get warmer or colder in terms of what foods and how much the body needs.
Mind hunger is based on thoughts. It is influenced by what we take in through what we read and what we hear through the media. There is no shortage of diet books that provide food for the mind. Dr. Chozen Bay writes, “Mind hunger is often based on absolutes and opposites: good food versus bad food, should eat versus should not eat.” I remember my friend and I driving ourselves crazy with different diets. The cabbage soup diet, that didn’t even make it to supper time, just about did us in! I like the good doctor’s aphorism, “Food is food. The rest is mind games.”
Many years ago, I came across a very helpful book, titled Love Hunger by Frank Minirth, et.al. This is where I learned about the reason people typically binge on food is because of trying to meet their emotional needs. I could mindlessly eat something sweet that I didn’t even particularly enjoy, like cheap, chocolate-flavoured decoration sprinkles, but with heart hunger it’s not the particular foods, per se, that was important to me; rather than the mood or emotions involved that drove me to medicate myself on them.
As I learned how to tune into these different kinds of hunger, using mindful strategies, I could now sit down and to do a quick assessment before eating. Because I’m a visual learner, I write my assessments and observations in a notebook between forkfuls. Cultivating the habit of putting one’s cutlery down between bites, helps slow down the speed of eating.
Before I eat, I ask myself, on a scale of 1-10, (1 being the least hungry and 10 the most) what is my level of eye hunger? Of mouth hunger? Of nose hunger? Of stomach hunger? Of cellular hunger? Of mind hunger? Of heart hunger? Once I know that, I can eat appropriately and satisfy all the parts of me that are hungry. I’ve been aware that there’s another hunger that is actually just thirst. So, particularly in the afternoon, when I think I’m feeling peckish, I ask myself, “Are you hungry or thirsty?”
The most important change in my eating habits I’ve had to make was to eat meals at my grossly underused dining room table. In so doing, I’ve come to appreciate so many different components to my dining experience at the table. Now, my senses engage in my place setting, shapes and arrangements on my plate, smells, colours, textures, as well as the view from the window. There’s something new to observe everyday in nature. I invite you to follow my journey in the practice of mindful eating.