food

Five tips for National Relaxation Day

In our fast-paced world it seems everyone’s stressed, hassled, and exhausted, so it’s a good thing that August 15, 2012 has been declared National Relaxation Day.

When they think about relaxing, most people would tend to hit upon rather conventional things, like soaking in the bath, having a glass of wine at the end of the evening, or watching a movie. But those things are temporary fixes that don’t lead to long-term change. Instead, I’d like to suggest five habits that can be cultivated and practiced every day. These are skills that can become a permanent part of the way you function in your daily life, and bring you long term benefits. And you can do them whether or not you have time for a long relaxing soak in the tub.

1. Take your time eating
We all have to eat, and we don’t generally do it very mindfully. We watch TV while we eat, or we read, or we’re caught up in a conversation, or we just space out. Sometimes, heaven help us, we even eat while we drive.

It’s very enriching, and deeply relaxing, to eat mindfully. It might not be feasible to eat every mouthful of food with complete attention, but what if we were to eat the first and last mouthful of a meal or snack mindfully? Whether you’re eating a gourmet meal or a candy bar, really notice the movements of your body as you transfer the food toward your mouth. Notice yourself receiving the food — how it feels, tastes. Eat slowly. Chew methodically. Savor the experience. If you find you’ve plowed into your food and are mindlessly scarfing it down, pause, and take the next bite with full awareness.

2. Give yourself short breathing breaks during the day
You may have heard of the three-minute breathing space, in which you spend a minute just tuning in to an awareness of your experience, a minute focusing on the sensations of the breathing in order to gather your attention, and a minute expanding your awareness so that you’re no longer noticing just the breathing, but also other sensations from the body, your mind and emotions, the sounds, light, and space around you. Even on the busiest of days it’s a good idea to take a few of these three minute breaks.

If that seems impossible, then just pause what you’re doing, take a few mindful breaths, and then bring your attention back to the task at hand.

3. Notice what your thinking is doing to you
A Harvard study of 250,000 people found that they spent almost 50% of their waking time thinking about something other than they were doing. What’s more, they found that the people who were most distracted were more likely to report feelings of unhappiness. Much of our thinking promotes unhappiness.

So develop the skill of checking in from time to time to see what your thoughts are doing to you. Notice whether you’re relaxed or tense, whether your overall experience is pleasant or unpleasant, whether you’re happy or distressed. Notice this without making any judgements about yourself. It doesn’t mean you’re “bad” or a “failure” for harboring thoughts that make you feel bad. But see if you can just notice those thoughts, and let them pass away. Actually, just to notice how you’re feeling you have to let go of some of the compulsion around these inner dramas.

4. Reduce input channels
One thing that really stresses us is being interrupted. So give yourself a chance to focus. If you’re writing a report, shut off your email program, turn your phone off (don’t just switch it to vibrate). Close any programs you don’t need to have open. It’s just you, and the task. You’ll find that when your concentration isn’t interrupted, you’re not only more relaxed and happy, but you get more done.

5. Give yourself a break from the news
We get really hooked on the news, and we stress about it. That politician and his lies! Those criminals! That tragic accident two cities away! It seems like it’s vital to keep in touch with what’s happening. What if a war were to break out and nobody told you? Well, I remember times I went abroad on vacation and didn’t have access to English-language news media. And you know what? When I got back, I felt like I hadn’t missed anything. Most of the news is the same old yadda-yadda, and the TV companies are trying to built it up so that you’ll get mad, be scared, and pay attention (and by the way, here’s an ad for a new wonder-drug).

Try unplugging from the news entirely for just a day. Or maybe for a week, go on a news fast and do nothing more than glance at the headlines in the newspapers. The world will go on, and you’ll be happier.

I’m not suggesting that you abstain from news for life, but at least for a while give yourself a break so that reading or watching the news is a choice and not a compulsion. And you’ll realize how much your own habits stop you from being relaxed.

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Better eating through mindfulness

Jill Suttie, Yes Magazine: How can increasing your awareness of tasting, craving, and satisfaction be a tool for healthier eating? Here’s what psychologists have to say.

Deborah Hill used to think she was skinny. Her 5 foot 9 inch frame could take on a lot of weight without making her look out of shape. But last year she was shocked to discover that she weighed over 210 pounds, which classified her as medically obese.

“It was just crazy,” says Hill. “I’d never had a problem with weight.”

Hill is one of a growing number of Americans—over 35 percent, according to the Center for Disease Control—who are considered …

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If you meet the Buddha in the produce aisle, eat him

A funny thing: If you go to Google Images and search for “bad Buddhist art” (don’t ask) you’ll find that the first result is of a pear shaped like a Buddha. No, it’s not like one of those potatoes that looks like Mickey Mouse — a freak of nature. It’s a cultivated pear.

And there’s not just one of them. According to Toxel.com, a Chinese farmer called Hao Xianzhang has been growing pears inside Buddha shaped plastic molds. And he sells them. For 50 Yuan, which is, at today’s rate of exchange, just over $7.85.

It’s cute, but I’m not sure many Buddhists would want to bite into the juicy flesh of the Fully and Perfectly Awakened One, or how many non-Buddhists would be willing to shell out almost $8 for the same privilege.

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Lose weight by making every bite count

Alisa Bowman, The Morning Call: Do you wish you could love every luscious bite of food and still lose weight — without dieting? Who doesn’t? While loving what you eat and losing pounds while you do it might sound mutually exclusive, it’s not.

The solution, say researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, is a simple one: Taste what you eat.

When researchers there taught women mindful eating and stress reduction techniques, the women were able to hold the line on weight gain or even to drop a few pounds, even though none of the women were dieting.

“You’re training the …

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Mindful eating: a teacher responds to readers

Readers have posted comments on Jeff Gordinier’s article on mindful eating, along with questions for Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and meditation teacher in Oregon. Dr. Bays, the author of ”Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food,” responded to a first batch of comments.

News Flash — Mindful eating has been practiced for thousands of years by Jews. Prayer of thanks depends on the contents of the food, with multiple requirements on preparation, etc. Not sure why it’s described here as Buddhist, per se — philiphdc, Washington, D.C.

Yes, you are right. Mindful eating doesn’t belong …

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Seven ways to eat more mindfully

1. WHEN YOU EAT, JUST EAT. Unplug the electronica. For now, at least, focus on the food.

2. CONSIDER SILENCE. Avoiding chatter for 30 minutes might be impossible in some families, especially with young children, but specialists suggest that greenhorns start with short periods of quiet.

3. TRY IT WEEKLY. Sometimes there’s no way to avoid wolfing down onion rings in your cubicle. But if you set aside one sit-down meal a week as an experiment in mindfulness, the insights may influence everything else you do.

4. PLANT A GARDEN, AND COOK. Anything that reconnects you with the process of creating food will magnify your mindfulness.

5. CHEW PATIENTLY. It’s not easy, but try to slow down, aiming for 25 to 30 chews for each mouthful.

6. USE FLOWERS AND CANDLES. Put them on the table before dinner. Rituals that create a serene environment help foster what one advocate calls “that moment of gratitude.”

7. FIND A BUDDHIST CONGREGATION where the members invite people in for a day of mindfulness.

From the New York Times article, Mindful Eating as Food for Thought, Feb 7, 2012.

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Mindful eating as food for thought

Jeff Godinier, NY Times: Try this: place a forkful of food in your mouth. It doesn’t matter what the food is, but make it something you love — let’s say it’s that first nibble from three hot, fragrant, perfectly cooked ravioli.

Now comes the hard part. Put the fork down. This could be a lot more challenging than you imagine, because that first bite was very good and another immediately beckons. You’re hungry.

Today’s experiment in eating, however, involves becoming aware of that reflexive urge to plow through your meal like Cookie Monster on a shortbread bender. Resist it. Leave the fork on …

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“Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life,” by Thich Nhat Hanh

On New Year’s Day, many of us will resolve to lose weight. But before we finalise our weight loss plans, writer Mandy Sutter recommends taking a look at Thich Nhat Hanh’s interesting new book, Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.

For millions of us, overweight is a seemingly intractable problem. We start diets and exercise programmes with good intentions, and may succeed in losing weight. But our new, low weight is hard to sustain and the pounds creep back on, sometimes gradually, sometimes indecently quickly.

According to Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr Lilian Cheung, authors of Savor, our difficulties aren’t entirely of our own making. The ‘obesigenic society’ we live in makes it tricky to live in a healthy, balanced way. There’s a proven link, for example, between the rise in obesity and the rise in TV watching. And food manufacturers are generally more concerned with turning in a good profit than with safeguarding people’s health.

A significant part of Savor is devoted to observations like these, backed up by intelligent discussion and reference to up-to-date scientific studies. The emphasis on interconnectedness is no accident (we Buddhists tend to bang on about such things) and marks the book out as more than just another book on weight loss. It takes the sting out of one’s own struggle too, and relieves the self-blame that strikes as one reaches for another chocolate in front of the afternoon film.

But having put our problems into context, the authors don’t let us rest on our laurels. The book is stuffed – perhaps a little surprisingly – with practical advice on eating and exercise.

A seasoned dieter will have seen much of this before, but what’s different about Savor is that the benefit of following the advice is described not just in terms of the self but also the wider community. Interconnectedness again. For example, it’s pointed out that riding a bike to work will not only help you lose weight but safeguard the clean air in your town, as will your next step: trying to persuade local government to build cycle paths.

Another thing that marks Savor out is the meditation exercises peppered throughout, the reference to Buddhist sutras, and gems like ‘the 7 practices of a mindful eater’. The exercises and references to Buddhist texts are well explained and justified within the weight-loss context, and therefore accessible to non-Buddhists.

I do wonder, however, if exhorting us to recite Thich Nhat Hanh’s Five Mindfulness Trainings once a week (pg 209) isn’t a bridge too far for the non-Buddhist reader (at whom the book seems to be aimed).

And although the book’s approach will fall like manna from Nirvana to some, it will alienate others (including Buddhists fat and thin alike) who don’t buy the idea that our society is in a bad way or even that our planet is in need of saving. Very occasionally the text degenerates into hectoring, as if one is attending a very right-on party and has been trapped (on the other side of the room from the food and drinks table) by an earnest bore.

But these slips are minor ones in a book that’s thoughtful, concerned, well researched and pleasingly wide-ranging.

Ignore the blurb on the cover, which makes mindfulness sound like the new ‘fix’ to help people lose weight. In fact, the book gets it the other (right) way round: our problems with weight offer us a golden opportunity to learn to live more mindfully.

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Newest weight loss strategy: Meditate before eating your meal

Jimmy Downs, Food Consumer: Weight loss needs a reduction in caloric intake, which can be realized by simply practicing some meditation before eating meals, a new study suggests.

The study led by Dr. Carey Morewedge from Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University shows people tended to eat less of a food if they imagined the eating process repeatedly before they actually ate the food. And the study found the more food a person “ate” in his imagination, the less food subsequently he would eat.

In the study, according to what Dr. Morewedge told NPR Science Friday radio program, study participants were told to imagine the process of eating M&Ms, including moving the candies into a bowl, and then asked to eat the real food. Those who imagined eating 30 M&Ms ate much less real M&Ms than those who imagined eating only 3 M&Ms.

Dr. Morewedge said simply imagining moving the food did not help.

He said you also need to imagine eating what you are going to eat to reduce the consumption of the food. The study showed when participants imagined they were eating M&Ms, and then when they were assigned to eat cheese cubes, no matter how many M&Ms they ate in their imagination, they ate the same amount of cheese.

What works behind this trick is a process called habituation, according to Dr. Morewedge. According to this theory, people are less responsive to what they got habituated to. In the study case, after the participants imagined they ate lots of cheese cubes, they felt less urged to eat the food and they ate less of the food as a result.

But Dr. Morewedge told NPR that this imagination method does not work for other habits like smoking, which involves a more complex mechanism and imagining smoking could actually boost a smoker’s craving for smokes and the smoker could actually smoke more.

Dr. Morewedge used cheese and M&Ms for the study. It is unknown whether this method would help people cut their consumption of a real meal which consists of multiple foods. Should the diners, like people going to have some Chinese buffet, imagine all the foods they are going to eat to reduce the consumption of the variety of real foods? Or would this method work at all in this case?

The study was published in a recent issue of Science, a prestigious scientific journal.

In China, two idioms describe two pitiful situations in which people don’t have water to drink to quench their thirst and don’t have food to eat to satisfy their hunger. In these situation as the idioms suggest, people may “look at prune to quench your thirst” and “draw a cake to satisfy your hunger”.

Original article no longer available…

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Three books on mindful eating: a review

The Zen of Eating, by Ronna KabatznickWith so many of us being overweight or having “issues” with food, there’s been a welcome interest in — and a slew of books about — learning to eat more mindfully. Freelance writer Mandy Sutter gives us a “taste” of what three of these books has to offer.

As a former yo-yo dieter, ‘mindful eating’ was an idea I skirted around when first encountering Buddhist practice. It sounded too much like a diet. But the phrase still lurked in a corner, like a giant spider you can’t help looking at. Eventually I had to coax the spider onto a piece of cardboard, cover it with a beer glass and take it outside — in other words, buy three books on mindful eating: The Zen of Eating, by Ronna Kabatznick, Ph.D, Eating the Moment by Pavel G Somov, PhD, and Meal by Meal by Donald Altman.

Kabatznick presents herself as a specialist in weight management first and a long-time mindfulness practitioner second. But The Zen of Eating is a book about spiritual practice: she sets out to show how accepting the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths can stop you overeating. She goes on to analyse the Eightfold Path in terms of its relevance to food choices. It’s a worry that the Middle Way might end up being pressed into the service of fatties everywhere, and sometimes the text creaks as detailed aspects of Buddhist practice are forced into relevance with eating, but most of the book works very well. In her section on ‘Right Aspiration’ for example, Kabatznick talks about how mindful eating can be undermined when motivated by vanity. If a choice to restrict certain foods is made to benefit others though, there can be meaning behind the action. She suggests dedication of merit: offering any benefit that comes from your commitment to healthy eating to specific people or groups of people (for example cutting back on red meat could be dedicated to heart disease patients).

Verdict: although contrived in places, The Zen of Eating is a thoughtful, intelligent read.

Eating the Moment, by Pavel G. Somov

Pavel G. Somov’s Eating the Moment offers a completely different take on the subject. It’s practical and it’s funny. Somov has the florid, enjoyable writing style of a raconteur, addressing us as ‘dear reader’ and advising us to phone in sick to make time to experiment with all the different ways of cooking eggs.

His book is a collection of varied suggestions to overcome overeating: 141 in all. Some relate to spiritual practice as much as to eating: for example, he suggests watching a lava lamp as a visual metaphor for the morphing nature of thought. Another suggestion ‘The Admittedly Annoying Thorough Chewing Exercise’ is geared at self-awareness, and another ‘The Carrot Cake Fight’ has us throwing ‘snowballs’ of carrot cake at a tree in order to stop carrot cake saying simply ‘eat me.’

Verdict: delightful to read, but will you practice the techniques? I tried three then got overwhelmed by the number of suggestions.

Meal by Meal by Donald Altman

Meal by Meal by Donald Altman offers a third approach: a year of daily meditations. I’m a sucker for being told what to do on certain days, even though in voracious frames of mind I’m capable of reading and even doing a whole week’s worth of suggestions. In dilatory states I fail to pick up the book at all, of course, and am tempted to time travel if I don’t like one particular day’s suggestion. So, right from page one, the book’s format brings you into contact with yourself.

The meditations themselves are quite lengthy, exposing you to a quotation, asking you at least one probing question, then suggesting an action. Some are beautiful, if pious. On March 15th, you quiet a diet-crazed mind by repeating a meaningful word, like Om, to yourself at the table. Some verge on the polemical, and are therefore complicated. On July 21st you’re asked, ‘do your current food choices leave you wanting fewer side effects and discomforts? Is temporary food pleasure worth discomfort or even long-term health problems?’

Others are imaginative: on October 21st you reflect on how cookbooks and diet books are often placed opposite each other in bookshops. It’s a metaphor for your conflicting desires: can you walk through the aisle without grabbing either?

Verdict: overcomplicated, but containing real gems.

All three books are worth a look. The Zen of Eating came top for me, because I loved its rigour and commitment; the way it reached into all the little corners of its subject. I trusted its author the most. But if you want something practical I’d recommend Eating the Moment and if you value answering questions about yourself as a way to awareness, I’d recommend Meal by Meal.

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