sunday life: mindful eating
This week I eat mindfully
Now here’s a thought: what if all those folk who take photos of their every meal and post them on their blog/Twitter/Facebook were actually onto something? I’m sure you’ve seen them about. I was at lunch recently and watched a table of six whip out their iphones as their food arrived, repositioning the Maldon salt pot artfully and angling the lighting all Petrina Tinsley-like. In a flurry of thumbs they then tweeted the images on to their cyber followers replete, no doubt, with foodie-ese captions (“River Café-inspired mascarpone-stuffed chook with intriguing heirloom tomato smear”; “Well, if those toffee shards don’t take me straight back to 1992!”).
I’ve previously found such faddish behaviour bewildering. But this week I discerned a point to it all. Fastidiously honouring your food in this way is mindfulness in action. Pausing to reflect on what’s about to go down your gullet, appreciating the brininess of the bisque or the appropriateness of the enoki garnish, can create a respectful awareness. And is evidence of a new way of eating that’s – hallelujah! – blowing diets off the menu.
After all the misery of portion control, and the grim failure of calorie counting, there’s mindfulness. Mindfulness is the Buddhist practice of being aware, moment-to-moment. It’s sitting with yourself, instead of reaching for an external stimulus or fix. Mindful eating, then, is eating this Tupperware container of leftover beetroot risotto and being wholly conscious of doing so. It’s being aware of every texture (“I am now biting into a slippery beet chunk”) and every flavour burst (“Hello, salty goats cheese topping!”), while not typing this column at the same time. When you’re mindful, you don’t overeat, you take care to eat good food prepared with care and you’re satiated – emotionally and otherwise. You don’t have to try, you just be mindful.
Bizarrely, a recovering anorexic got me onto mindful eating. Back when I hosted a small show called MasterChef, one of the Top 50 contestants, Sarah, told me about a Eating Disorders Victoria program that taught her to eat with 100 per cent awareness. Over time it helped her appreciate food again. The reason most of the Western world has disordered eating and more than one billion people are obese is we’ve lost the ability to listen to our bodies. From a young age we defer to external cues – eating at set hours, eating set amounts. Then we’re bombarded with competing messages for several decades. Before finally trying to remedy things handing our appetites over to the Jenny’s and the Aitkins to control.
Mindful eating does the opposite. It brings control home to us.
Me, I can be a shockingly mindless eater. Mostly I eat well. But I’m also an emotional over-eater. When I get anxious I shove food down my gob as a way of squashing and silencing the fluttery self-doubt in my gut. I also love food. I cry, sometimes, when I eat something really good. That’s how much I love food. So I get rather threatened by the idea of having to change my ways.
But on Thursday I got bold and tried out EDV’s program. This involved a number of gentle rituals that bring me into my body. Before eating, I take five deep breaths and acknowledge what I’m about to eat. I say it out loud, like old-school grace. I then look at the food. Name it. Note the colour, the texture. In my mouth, I note whether it’s salty or sweet. I chew slowly. I put down my fork between mouthfuls.
Mindful eating is on the up and up. Experts are emerging with fresh tricks and techniques. One advises learning from young kids, who are naturally mindful: when you think you’ve had enough, push your plate away (that is, take it to the sink; this creates “closure”). Another suggests lighting a candle and using lovely crockery as a way to access awareness. My favourite Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh publishes his book Savor early next year. He advises eating in silence for the first half of the meal, then talking only about food after that.
To be frank, this week I found this mindful eating caper bloody annoying. Mostly because I’m not good at it. But the EDV counselor I spoke to put it nicely: “You can’t do mindfulness well or not well.”
Indeed, that’s the beauty of mindfulness. Once you’re aware of it, it kind of infiltrates. And soon enough you’re saying grace and sending photos of your oxtail risotto to your fans.