When you eat with your whole mind and body, you are especially aware of the tastes, textures, colors, smells, and even the sounds of the food. On the other hand, when you eat mindlessly, you may forget to pay attention to these things. As we grow out of childhood, we tend to lose touch with the wonders of perception, including how we perceive eating. However, if we focus on specific techniques to restore our appreciation of our existence, including food, we can invite mindfulness and mindful eating back into our lives. Ultimately, this will help us enjoy healthier bodies and more fulfilling experiences.
What is mindful eating?
Though it has become a trendy topic, mindful eating harkens back to ancient Buddhist and Ayurvedic principles. Both systems regard the body and the mind as interdependent and inseparably linked. Mindfulness, these traditions instruct us, promotes balance and healing. There is a powerful mantra of gratitude in the Vedic tradition which acknowledges a consciousness in the food, in the preparation of it, and in the ‘digestive fire” or Agni in Sanskrit.
The ancient teachings of the Buddha originally introduced the practice of mindfulness. In Buddhism, meditation cultivates mindfulness. Mindfulness can lead to a greater awareness of why and how you are eating. Subsequently, your health, weight, and wellbeing will likely improve.
Six mindful eating exercises
1) Engage your senses
When you engage your body, heart, and mind while you choose, prepare, and eat food, you will rediscover the joys of eating. It’s essential to slow down and give your food the courtesy of your full attention. On the other hand, if you’re distracted by things on your to-do list, you’ll miss so much of the experience.
With mindful eating, we can finally pay attention to our food with all of our senses. “It is important to recognize that Ayurveda teaches us that digestion is not just about the food we eat or the nutrients we consume,” says wellness luminary Amber Shadwick about her understanding of mindful eating, “but also about our sensory experiences as well as intake, influence, and digestion of the food.” She continues, “Sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell: we use these sensory perceptions on a daily, even hourly basis, that influence our overall wellbeing. Our ability to properly digest emotions, feelings, and sensations can be cultivated through a practice of mindfulness.”
2) Ditch self-judgment
When you are anxious about the future, it’s hard to see the choices that are in front of you. This lack of clarity sometimes leads to an inability to make mindful choices about your food if you are eating in a stressful state-of-mind. In contrast, when you eat mindfully, you replace self-criticism with self-nurturing. Likewise, you replace shame with respect for your inner wisdom. This way, you can be sure that your choices about how and what you eat comes from a place of thoughtful consideration instead of fear.
Shadwick says of this principle, “Ayurvedic food (sadhana) encourages one to postpone eating when upset, as these emotions may hinder the proper course of digestion. Learning the art of checking in with one’s self before eating can help inspire a greater sense of calm, ease, and proper nourishment.”
3) Prepare a peaceful environment for nourishment
It can seem nearly impossible at times to eat mindfully. The hustle and bustle of modern life keeps us moving so quickly from one task to the next, we often forget even to sit down. “Want to grab a bite?” many of us ask when we invite someone to eat with us. As simple as it is, this phrase sums up a lot about the way the vast majority of Americans experience food.
We “grab;” we rush to get our meal over with so that we can get on with productivity. To eat mindfully, you need to slow down, breathe, and take inventory of your senses. This conscious act of mindfulness usually means turning off your TV or phone, sitting down at a table, and quieting your mind. In fact, some mindful eating guides suggest spending an entire meal in silence to see how different the experience can be. Try it. You might be surprised by your discoveries about yourself and your relationship with your food.
4) Say a prayer before, during, or after eating
As in the Ayurvedic tradition, many religious faiths offer prayers around mealtime. Whatever you wish to call it, the act of connecting your eating experience with the sacred realm has the power to bring deeper meaning to nourishment. In Ayurveda, the state of a person’s digestion indicates one’s overall health. Thus, one’s state of Agni is revered as central to physical, mental, and spiritual balance.
5) Eat the right amount of food
Since people’s bodies, metabolism, and genetic makeup are different, there isn’t a set quantity of food or water that’s right for everyone. That said, Ayurveda encourages us to fill our belly half full. This practice translates to paying close attention to how hungry or full you feel while you are eating. Ideally, you want to fill yourself to a place of contentment but not feel uncomfortably full. Ayurvedic philosophy reserves the third quarter of your belly for liquids and the last quarter and the last quarter for digestive activity.
6) Include all six tastes in each meal
According to the principles of Ayurvedic tradition, there are six tastes embodied within the food that each represent aspects of complete nutrition. These tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent) can be interpreted as a “guide map” to a balanced diet. In other words, when you include each of these tastes in your meal, you better nourish your body. These tastes then feed the three doshas: Vata (space and air), Pitta (fire and water), and Kapha (earth and water). Ayurveda teaches us that these energies are found throughout the mind and body and govern both physical and mental processes while determining our health.
Shadwick explains, “When we include all six tastes at each meal, we encourage proper and balanced digestion. We invite in more mindfulness and nutritional understanding, as well as an overall compassionate commitment for whole-person wellness.”
How to eat mindfully
You do not need to practice all of these six mindful eating tips all at once or all the time. To start, just take on one or two of these mindful eating exercises. Once you are familiar and comfortable with these, slowly add other exercises to deepen your practice. You may find it helpful to create a mindful eating journal to document your journey. Let yourself be creative with how you approach experimenting with these tips. Most importantly, be gentle and compassionate with yourself with your mindful eating.