Monday, January 4, 2010

Mindful Eating: Exploring food

Several years ago, one of my clients, a teacher, reported having an A-ha! moment about her eating experiences. She'd observed one of her young students gnawing on a candy necklace that was draped around her neck. She wondered how the girl could be enjoying it. It looked so "disgusting" as she put it.  At that moment, she turned her probing inward and realized how often she'd mindlessly eaten food that she didn't even enjoy.  I think many of us can relate. Haven't you ever eaten something that you later realized you didn't really taste or didn't notice you ate?  A few years ago, Brian Wansink and his team gave movie attendees free medium or large-sized buckets of fresh or 14-day old stale popcorn.  Even those offered large buckets of stale popcorn ate 33.6% more than those given medium buckets of stale popcorn. Stale popcorn! I imagine these subjects were not eating mindfully since they were watching a movie while consuming the popcorn, but had they paid more attention to their food, I wonder if the results would be different.  

One survey suggests that fewer Americans report having pleasurable experiences with eating. I'm not surprised as I believe that many of us have lost touch with the enjoyment of the eating experience for various reasons.

Some of our eating experiences have been lost to a life of busyness. Americans spend almost 70 minutes a day eating and drinking as a primary activity. However, the French spend about 2 hours a day eating and drinking.  It's not unusual for the French to spend an average of 40 minutes eating dinner. I think some of us would consider that outrageous.  Interestingly, the French also have lower rates of obesity than the U.S. While the link is not causal, it is intriguing.

More of us are also eating food that's been prepared outside of the home.  The typical American consumes an average of 4 commercially-prepared meals/week and spends 42% of the food budget on dining out.  That is up from about 3% in the early 1900's! I'm not saying that if we eat food that's prepared outside of the home that we cannot enjoy it or the eating experience, but I do believe this allows for the opportunity to become disengaged with food when we're not purchasing or preparing it ourselves.

We're distracted while we're eating. Yes, I've discussed this before with my mindless eating series, and it comes back to haunt us.  Are we surprised? Come on, admit it. You've done it.  We spend an average of 16 minutes each day eating while doing something else like working or watching t.v.  In fact, 66% of Americans routinely watch t.v. while eating dinner!

Lastly, some of us feel bad about eating and enjoying it.  For some reason, some of us have been trained to see the enjoyment of eating as a character flaw.  The foods that people enjoy the most tend to be the ones that may also be higher in...gasp...fat, sugar, and calories!  Some presume that if we eat such "sinful" foods we have no willpower, self-control, or discipline.  We are weak and just plain bad.  We broke the rules. We must pay, and we do.  When we put a moral spin on eating, we sometimes beat ourselves up over it. We feel guilty or ashamed, and we have successfully robbed ourselves of the enjoyment it offers.  We've given a lot of power to food in our reductionist thinking.  Yes, science has uncovered a lot of interesting and groundbreaking information about food and nutrients.  At the same time, we may have taken it too far in some cases, and we've allowed our zeal about food, nutrition, and health to steal the joy out of eating.

We have to eat. There's no way around it. It is critical to our health and well-being that we eat. I say that it's time to break away from the monotony and relish in the satisfaction that can be gained by allowing ourselves the kindness of exploring our food.  Here are some possible ways in which you may choose to discover your food.
  • Tasting stages. Taste has been identified as the most influential determinant of our food choices. However, are we really tasting our food?  Having been tasting at a few wineries, I have discovered a greater appreciation for wine. Wine tasting may sound simple, but there's really more to it than meets the eye.  It actually occurs in stages, also known as the five S's:  see, swirl, sniff, sip, and savor.  Don't understand? Watch the movie, Sideways.  To explore food mindfully, allow your senses to be aroused by the food before you. Observe the food's appearance: the size, color, or texture. Take in the aroma.  Note the flavor, texture, consistency, and mouthfeel as you take a bite.  Bring awareness to the flavors as they come and go. Don't think about the next bite. Simply be open to what each bite has to offer.
  • Close your eyes.  In a study conducted on a small group obese individuals, researchers found that participants ate 24% less food when they were blindfolded vs. when they were not blindfolded.  Interestingly, Opaque, a restaurant in LA, offers a "dining in the dark" experience where patrons consume their meals in a pitch-black room for an enhanced sensory experience.  Imagine how mindful you'd have to be to do that!  We may not need to eat entire meals in the dark, but closing our eyes periodically throughout the meal could very well provide the mindfulness needed for us to check in with our body and our senses.
  • Bring curiosity to the table.   Ask yourself questions as you take a bite.  What herbs or spices are present?  How does this bite compare to the last one?  Where were the ingredients produced? Who prepared them?  There are no right or wrong answers. We just answer and are focused on the moment.   
  • Cleanse the palate.  Having served as a taste tester for a food science course and a couple of food studies while in college, I learned the value of cleansing the palate in between tastings.  (This is also consistent with wine or beer tasting and fine dining.)  When I was a taste tester, I was advised to sip on water between foods.  The goal was to clear the taste of one food from the mouth before trying the next so that I could fully appreciate and evaluate the flavor of the food. 
  • Click! Take a pic. My family and close friends know what an avid photographer I am.  I love taking pictures, and I love to photograph food.  In fact, the picture I chose for this post is of a Thai dish (steak salad) that I prepared for a get-together.  I've noticed that photographing food, whether prepared by me or someone else, enhances my appreciation of it.  Not only do I enjoy taking the pictures, but I also enjoy sharing them and the stories behind them with others.  Even if you don't take a physical picture with a camera, consider taking a mental one.  Just carve out a moment of time to really take in the visual aspects of your food.
  • Get to know the cook.  Some of my favorite courses in college were Food Preparation and Food Science.  I enjoyed these classes because I learned so much about the fundamentals of food prep and how to experiment with food.  These courses served as the springboard toward discovering my "inner cook".  You don't need to take an official class though.  In fact, I've personally enjoyed learning about food and cooking from my mother.  She's from Thailand and knows how to make some of the best Thai food around!  Through her teaching, I have developed a deeper respect not only for the cuisine itself but also for the culture and heritage that go along with it. With whom could you explore food?   
These ideas may seem overwhelming. They need not be.  I'm not suggesting you try all of them at once or on every single food you consume.  However, I would suggest you give at least one of them a shot.  It could be as simple as more throughly {tasting} just one food and maybe even just a few pieces or bites of the food at one meal or snack this week.  What sounds interesting to you?


      Anonymous said...[Reply to comment]

      Michelle, I was sufing the net, looking for the perfect job and come across your website and blog and am inspired. Thank you for representing the RD with pride and confidence. Great luck in your career and thanks, Karen from Louisiana

      Michelle Loy, MPH, MS, RD said...[Reply to comment]

      Thank you so much, Karen! I wish you the best in your search, and I hope you'll be back:)

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