Provide your meal a piece of mind

by Eric Twardzik / Beacon Staff • September 20, 2012

Ryan opinion9.20
Mindful eating draws on Buddhism to make peace with diet and anxiety.
Mindful eating draws on Buddhism to make peace with diet and anxiety.

The start of a new semester is heralded by more than syllabi, distressing bookstore receipts, and existential career fears.

The return to an Emerson student’s hectic lifestyle can also be marked by peanut butter sandwiches scarfed on the T, slices of New York Pizza eviscerated during a five minute class break, and bagels finished while taking the Walker building’s steps two at a time. For others, an overloaded schedule removes food from the agenda entirely, condensing lunch and dinner to a handful of Raisinets in the library. What is apparent in both scenarios is that eating has become rushed or forgotten, out of mind. 

When we do not focus on eating, we overeat or undernourish ourselves—we do not satisfy our bodies and we develop anxieties or negative associations with eating. It’s a hard truth to swallow, but statistics reveal that America’s relationship with food is out of whack on a national scale. The Center for Disease Control reported in 2010 that more than a third of Americans are obese, and in 2001 the American Psychological Association estimated that more than 8 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder. While Americans look for a cure in fad diets, suspect health products, and other quick-fix cures that saturate the health market, the remedy may lie with the most natural and simple of solutions: mindful eating. 

Mindful eating is a Buddhist practice, a sort of meditation on food. But anyone looking for esoteric knowledge or mystical initiation will be disappointed. The philosophy behind mindful eating is little different from what your mother meant when she told you to slow down and chew your food. It is about taking the time to be conscious of the food you are consuming, how your body responds to it, and what it really needs. It is a sort of anti-diet. No foods are banned or shunned, only the act of eating without taking into account what you are consuming. You can mindfully eat a foot - long meatball sub, with a good chance that you will feel satisfied and content with a few inches to go. 

Mindful eating sounds like common sense, which it is. But the obviousness of its practice doesn’t mean that it always happens in our eating lives.

When eating without mindfulness, it becomes difficult to focus on the meal and give the body time to signal to the brain that it is full. Whether gobbling a panini while power-walking to an internship or sitting down to a bowl of piping pho with the mind occupied by a looming deadline, the result is the same. In both scenarios one fails to be physically or mentally present for the meal, and without that presence the body will not be satisfied. One may overeat past the point that satiates the appetite or grow hungry an hour after a big meal that was paid too little attention. 

I was attracted to mindful eating by the prospect of fixing my own fractured relationship with food. I had been overweight in high school, and while diet and exercise shed the extra pounds, I couldn’t lose the negative associations I had developed with food. I was eating healthy foods, but found that I was still consuming too much. Indulgences like macaroni and cheese or ice cream became forbidden, as even a tasting would fill me with feelings of anxiety and negativity worse than any indigestion.

My thoughts at the table weren’t about the experience of eating, but my own labels of “good” and “bad” that I had applied to food and, consequently, myself. That buffalo chicken burrito from Boloco wasn’t dinner, but a moral referendum on what kind of person I wanted to be. I wasn’t at the counter enjoying it, but somewhere in the clouds defending or prosecuting the decision in a court of my own making. The effect of this anxiety was either a burrito abandoned after one shameful bite or swallowed in a burst of panic.

Only after checking those anxieties at the door and giving myself the time, focus, and peace to enjoy a meal could my relations with food be reset. I fell back in love with food, with the knowledge that food itself is neither negative nor harmful. What can be harmful is our attitude towards eating, when eating becomes an act that is mindless or saturated with anxiety.

We all owe our bodies a mindful meal. There will be days when five minutes cannot be scrounged up for lunch, a missed alarm clock cancels breakfast, or the T must serve as a dining car. But do your best in any instance to focus your mind on food, and the body will thank you.