mindful eating

Who needs willpower anyway?

I confess that I have a bit of an addictive personality — not in the sense of being an alcoholic or a drug addict, but more in terms of getting hooked on stimulation. A minor example is that I had a tin of mints in the car recently, and I would often find that as soon as one mint was gone, I’d reach for another. The mints are sugar-free and this form of addiction isn’t a big deal, but boy can I get through a tin of mints quickly!

Similarly I can overeat, particularly on unhealthy foods like potato chips or popcorn. Again, as soon as (or even before) one morsel has been swallowed my hand is delivering another to my waiting lips. This is a bit more serious because I’m maybe 12 to 15 pounds (roughly 5 to 7 Kg) overweight, and although I run and generally try to eat healthily my occasional binges make it hard for me to lose that excess.

You might say that I lack willpower. A lot of us would say that about ourselves. But what I’m finding successful in reducing these little addictions has nothing to do with willpower. Instead, I’ve been practicing being mindful of cessation — specifically of the way that flavors fade away in my mouth.

The flavor beginning to fade away is the trigger for my habit. My normal, unmindful, habit is to reflexly seek a new “hit” of flavor as soon as the previous one has started to fade. So the phenomenon of a flavor fading away is what I’m choosing to observe.

This is a really interesting practice! Watching a flavor decay, curving slowly down to non-existence, gives me an opportunity to practice equanimity and non-reactivity. As the flavor fades, I feel no desire to reach for another hit. Watching the old flavor disappear is actually way more satisfying, just as watching the fading away of a sunset is satisfying. And I’ve discovered that I can observe the fading away of a flavor for a long time. I’ve found that the flavor of a mint is still detectable in my mouth an hour and a half after eating it.

So far this is working very well.

Now, I can also get addicted to mental stimulation as well, and this often manifests as a restless desire to consume social media. If I get a bit bored I reach for my phone or open up a new tab in my browser so that I can check twitter.

I’ve been writing this article as I wait to renew my driver’s license at the local Department of Motor Vehicles. Having written the previous paragraph I picked up my phone and my finger moved toward the Twitter icon. But before it got there I checked in with the feeling tone of my restlessness. And I just watched it as it faded away. The feeling itself is hard to describe. Fortunately I don’t need to describe it, but just observe it passing. Again I found that it was enjoyable to observe it passing away, and when it was gone I had no desire to read Twitter. Instead I just let myself connect compassionately with the other people waiting with me. That was enjoyable too.

I’ve found that the concept of willpower is overrated. We either strongly desire to do the “right” thing or we don’t, and the difference is often to do with strategies. If not eating a mint or not opening Twitter can be made enjoyable (making it enjoyable is a strategy), then that’s what we’ll do.

I’ve been finding that observing the process of cessation of an experience is fun. Maybe that’ll be true for you as well. Maybe not. I’m just suggesting this as an experiment that you might want to try.

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Mindful eating: ‘Suddenly, you have power over food’

Jacqueline Howard, CNN: Mindful eating is rooted in the idea of mindfulness, an ancient practice that promotes being aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and environment instead of living your life on autopilot.

When applied to diet, mindful eating involves focusing on chewing your food, taking your time, being in tune with when your body signals that you are hungry or full, and being aware of how your food appears, smells and tastes.
“Over time, eating can become habitual. … We don’t even check in to see if we’re hungry. It’s, ‘Oh, …

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Mindful eating with the “Sati Tala” — so sane it seems crazy

sati tala

The other day I got an email from a couple in Israel who are launching a new mindfulness product. It’s one of those things that is possibly just crazy enough (or sane enough — I can’t tell) to really take off.

Basically, it’s a tool for mindful eating. What’s the tool? Well, you are, along with one other person, the Sati Tala eating surface, and two simple seats. What this means is that you and your eating partner become part of the table as you sit on the seats and rest the surface of the Sati Tala on the laps. (Sati Tala is Pali for “mindfulness surface.”)

What this means is that you’re physically connected as you eat, which seems rather lovely and even romantic. It’s also more difficult to jump up and start doing something else, since doing so requires the cooperation of both people. And so you’re more likely to stay put and just focus on your meal.

On the other hand, if you do have to get up (to answer the door or a call of nature) dinner’s pretty much over until you return, and I can imagine that if you have a fidgety partner things could get ugly.

Still, this is the kind of thing I can imagine becoming a crazy amongst Hollywood celebrities!

Tany and Sagie, who came up with the idea, are launching a Kickstarter fundraiser, which you can read about on their website.

There’s also a video where you can see the Sati Tala in action:

P.S. I haven’t tried this product, have no connection with the company, and don’t benefit in any way by bringing it to your attention!

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How mindfulness can help get your picky eater to try more foods

wildmind meditation newsCherese Jackson, Guardian Liberty Voice: Practicing mindfulness is quickly gaining popularity in America. Based on Buddhist principles, being mindful is living in the moment and fully experiencing external sensations as well as your emotions and internal thoughts. While practicing mindfulness can be challenging for a child, an aspect of it, opening up your senses, is a tool that parents can use to introduce their child to new things.

Kids can be very picky eaters. Every parent knows the difficulty of trying to get their child to try new foods. A lot of children won’t stray too far from chicken tenders and french fries …

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Health and fitness: Mindfulness matters for health

wildmind meditation newsBrian Parr, Ph.D., Aiken Standard: Mindfulness can be described as an awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. This is most commonly explored through mindful meditation, a practice that is credited with improving physical and mental health.

Beyond meditation, being mindful can help to improve attention and focus in nearly every aspect of life.

Thinking about your actions and the effect they have on your health and the health of others can be good for you and those around you.

It turns out that we engage in many health behaviors that are driven more by habit than conscious decision-making. This …

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Eat less, enjoy more with mindful eating

wildmind meditation newsHeather Fuselier, Tallahassee Democrat: My husband and I stood at the meat counter at The Fresh Market recently, trying to decide what to grill for dinner.

Chief among the determining factors was the environment in which we would be eating our meal: with our children or without. I didn’t want to spend the money and time on preparing filet mignon and then try to eat it in three bites while also negotiating the taste buds of my third-grader and feeding the bottomless pit my toddler has become. In other words, I wanted to eat more mindfully and enjoy my meal, rather than just …

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“No Ordinary Apple,” by Sara Marlowe and Philip Pascuzzo

no ordinary apple

Title: No Ordinary Apple: A Story About Eating Mindfully
Author: Sara Marlowe, Philip Pascuzzo (illus.)
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 1-61429-076-8
Available from: Wisdom Publications, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

No Ordinary Apple is a variation on the famous “raisin exercise” that’s so popular in meditation classes. (If you’re not familiar with the raisin exercise it’s where we mindfully eat a single raisin, thoroughly exploring it with our senses.) But No Ordinary Apple is, of course, a children’s book — and a very welcome addition to the growing body of meditation resources for children.

The fruit is question is an apple rather than a raisin and the mindful eater of this apple is a young boy called Elliot, who is waiting at his adult neighbor Carmen’s house between school and his parents getting home.

Elliot is hungry and asks for a snack. Carmen counters with an offer of an apple: a suggestion that is none too popular with Elliot, who wants candy.

Carmen is a good saleswoman, though. Or perhaps she teaches meditation. At any rate, she persuades Elliot that this is no ordinary apple, but tells him that he’ll have to find out for himself why this is the case.

Carmen guides an excited Elliot through an exploration of the apple using all of his senses. He moves from having a stereotypical view of an apple as “red” to recognizing the many colors that it contains. He touches the apple and explores its textures. He smells it. He even listens to the “thwap” it makes as he tosses it from hand to hand. And of course he eventually bites into it, chews it, and swallows it — all the time exploring the apple mindfully.

Of course Elliot realizes that this is indeed no ordinary apple, but it has to be pointed out to him that it’s not the apple that’s special — it’s the attention that he gave to it that created a special experience. And Carmen helps him to see that anything he eats — even candy! and perhaps even food he doesn’t like — will be extra-special when eaten with mindfulness.

No Ordinary Apple is a lovely book. The illustrations are larger-thank life and they do in fact make the experience of eating an apple look special. The story is fun, and children will feel like they’re learning something rather than being preached at.

My daughter, who’s six, was very excited about the prospect of us doing this exercise together, and she even set aside some apples on top of the refrigerator, awaiting the perfect moment (the kids had to be in need of a snack, and we needed some uninterrupted time). When the right time arrived, both my kids (I also have a five-year-old son) enjoyed the exercise, although the youngest had some trouble restraining himself from eating the apple during the looking-feeling-smelling-listening stage, and once we were tasting our apples he couldn’t stop himself from swallowing it. But he had fun. My daughter, who’s almost two years older, really enjoyed the exercise and was old enough to restrain herself. Actually, when I’ve done the raisin exercise with adults there have been a few who’ve had no more discipline than my son!

The principles outlined in the story can very easily be translated into practice, both for encouraging children to eat mindfully, and for encouraging parents to do likewise! Trying to teach a child to eat mindfully is going to be more successful if the parents exemplify mindful eating.

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“Eating Mindfully” by Susan Albers

eating mindfullyThis book landed on my doormat from Bodhipaksa at an extremely opportune moment: the holiday period between Christmas and the New Year. The clean fresh cover was enticing enough to encourage me to start reading straight away. I’m sure if I hadn’t started reading “Eating Mindfully” there and then a fair few more chocolate truffles would have found their way mindlessly into my tummy. With this book in hand when I did eat the odd chocolate truffle I found myself savouring its taste and texture. So nice timing — thanks Bodhipaksa and Susan Albers!

Susan Albers is a US-based psychologist specialising in mindful eating. This book explores ways to “end emotional eating and savor every bite” in cultivating mindful eating. It encourages us to put an end to mindless eating and to enjoy a balanced relationship with food. It is clearly and simply structured around the Buddha’s traditional formulation of the ‘four foundations of mindfulness’. Albers outlines these in non-traditional order as the mindfulness of the mind, body, feelings and thoughts. In the fifth and final section she explores mindful eating motivations. The book is easy to navigate and structured in ‘bite sized’ subsections. It ends with a comprehensive listing of useful organisations and websites.

Title: Eating Mindfully:How to End Mindless Eating and Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with Food
Author: Susan Albers
Publisher: New Harbinger Publications
ISBN: 978-1608823307
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

This is a beautifully produced little book, hence my interest in reading it as soon as it had arrived. It has a clean, simple, attractive cover and immediately put me in mind of Susie Orbach’s “On Eating” — another book well worth reading on this theme. The book was a pleasure to read and to hold. Now I don’t normally make such a big deal about book covers — particularly bearing in mind the old adage that you can’t tell a book by its cover — but in the area of eating I think it’s very important that books are produced in a way which is both inviting, beautiful and practical, encouraging the reader to open and make use of the book again and again.

In my experience, and from my professional experience as a therapist working with people who have difficult associations with eating, the area of eating and nourishment can be highly charged. Very often food and diet books seem to fuel that charge with catchy titles, loud covers and/or promising subheadings. The simple, attractive cover reflects the contents of this book — you can tell this book from its cover. It is refreshing in offering a grounded approach to eating based upon wisdom which has spanned more than two millennia, avoiding the sometimes gimmicky feeling of the self-help book.

Albers’ tone is warm, clear, direct, and intelligent. She invites readers to learn the art of mindful eating. She points out how ‘mindful eating is radically different’ and how the book’s emphasis is about being healthy rather than being thin or losing weight — a refreshing departure from many books about food and diet. She points out how diets tend to cut us off from our experience, whereas mindful eating tunes us inwards in using our intuitive wisdom in re-learning a healthy relationship with food.

I celebrate this emphasis upon turning inwards and listening to and learning from our embodied experience in understanding our relationship with food and eating. The book goes on to explore this turning inwards in order to understanding how and why we eat what we do, based upon the four foundations of mindfulness. As a practising Buddhist, it’s great to see the four foundations applied to the everyday activity of eating.

What most struck me in reading this book is that Albers really ‘gets’ mindfulness, recounting the first time she encountered it in Japan. She gives the impression of living mindfully herself and of wishing to share that experience, rather than applying mindfulness purely as a technique. She makes the point that it can sound very easy to just “be more aware” of what you eat, when, in fact, mindfulness is complex and sophisticated.

I particularly valued this aspect of “Eating Mindfully”: the recognition that mindfulness is a lifelong practice which can be applied to any and every activity in parallel with her very helpful suggestions, examples, anecdotes and “skill builder” exercises. I found her tone enabling and helpful rather than using the blaming and shaming language which is often found in books on eating; sending readers deeper into a counter-productive cycle of shame and mindless eating.

I also respected Albers’ suggestion early on and throughout this book to find support in learning to eat mindfully — from a friend, co-worker or therapist.

I have to admit that if anything, there is just too much content in this book and it would be quite a long-haul to work though every chapter un-aided. But approached with patience, care and mutual support, this book has the potential for lasting transformation.

I have some minor criticisms of “Eating Mindfully”. I appreciate in her Foreword that Lilian Cheung acknowledges that many of us in post-industrial societies are living in a toxic food environment and a toxic media environment. Personally I would have liked to have seen Albers take that theme a little further in including in the Introduction or early in the book the societal, systemic dimension of mindless eating and, in fact, mindlessness in many things which characterise the status quo.

Of course we individually choose what we put in our mouths hour by hour, day by day, but this choosing and individual responsibility is shaped by the complex conditions in which we have been born and raised. Cheung is absolutely spot on in identifying our toxic media and food environments, so I would have appreciated from Albers a greater acknowledgment of the counterbalance between individual responsibility and healthy communities in understanding our relationship with food, living as we do with the hungry gravitational pull of our consumerist society.

Another criticism is the problem I encounter frequently. In presenting Buddhist teachings in a secular (“self-help”) context, the whole notion of Buddhism being a tool for enlightenment gets lost or at least severely obscured. The Dharma — the teachings of the Buddha — simply becomes a tool to help one become a bit happier, more contented, and in this case, healthier in eating more mindfully.

Personally, I would have appreciated Albers making clear the far-reaching nature of contemplating the four foundations. It’s also unclear as to why she decided to present the four foundations in a non-traditional order. This points to my periodic un-ease with the wave of popularity around mindfulness. Of course it’s great that mindfulness practice helps to ease depression, anxiety, pain and mindless eating. It’s also important that mindfulness is practised in its wholeness and that its context is not overlooked, with the danger of mindfulness becoming diluted or divorced from its origins, running the risk of taking the shape of another quick fix technique.

However, Albers is writing a book about mindful eating for popular appeal, not a book on Buddhist teachings, so I wouldn’t want this criticism to put off those who are interested in mindful eating. The great attraction of this book is that I have not doubt it will help many people eat more mindfully. I wouldn’t be surprised, given the skill and care with which Albers presents this material, if readers might become interested in other aspects of Buddhism which help us to live life fully and creatively.

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Coming back to “the big, loud, present, bright world”

100 Day Meditation Challenge

It’s Day 45 of our 100 Day Meditation Challenge.

After I’d asked one of my meditation students to try a mindful eating exercise, she wrote about how during the exercise the food became “her everything” and said that this reminded her “of how life looks when I am able to shut out the whirring thoughts and just pay attention to the now — the big, loud, present, bright world comes forth when before it was in the background.”

Her mentioning how “the big, loud, present, bright world comes forth when before it was in the background” reminds me of times that I’ve been reading outdoors, and after a period of complete immersion in the world of words I’ll come back to sensory reality and find myself astonished by how bright, and vivid, and rich, and fascinating everything is.

Now I love reading, and I consider myself to have a rich inner world, but there’s just a huge difference in sensory bandwidth between the world of thought and the world of sensory experience.

I notice this as well when I’m moving from distracted thought to being present. I’ll be driving, say, and realize that I’ve drifted into rumination, and when I come back the real world just seems so vivid. I also have a strong sense of the thought-world involving qualities of heaviness and tightness, compared to a relative lightness and open relaxation in the sensory realm.

I notice the same thing when I’m walking, and I switch from thinking to being aware of my body and the world through which it’s moving.

I think it’s worth noticing these contrasts and allowing ourselves to be fascinated by them. It’s also worth valuing and rejoicing in the richness and fullness of the sensory world, and developing the intention to keep revisiting it as often as possible. Often we get so caught up in thinking for so long that we almost forget how to be aware of our sensory experience.

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Mindful eating helps with lowering weight and reducing blood sugar

Eating mindfully is just as effective as adhering to nutrition-based guidelines in reducing weight and blood sugar levels in adults with Type 2 diabetes, a new study at Ohio State University suggests.

In a comparison study of the effectiveness of the two types of behavioral interventions, participants lost about the same amount of weight – an average of between 3 1/2 and 6 pounds – and lowered their long-term blood sugar levels significantly after three months.

One treatment group followed an established diabetes self-management education program, with a strong emphasis on nutrition information. The other group was trained in mindful meditation and a mindful approach to food selection and eating. Both interventions, involving weekly group meetings, also recommended physical activity.

“The more traditional education program includes general information about diabetes, but with more emphasis on nutrition and food choice: What are different types of carbohydrates and fats and how many am I supposed to have? What should I look for when I read a food label? What are healthy options when dining out? That was the traditional diabetes education program,” said Carla Miller, associate professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University and lead author of the study.

“We compared it to an intervention where mindful meditation was applied specifically to eating and food choices. This intervention group did not receive specific nutrition goals. We said we want you to really tune into your body before you eat. Take a few minutes to assess how hungry you are and make conscious choices about how much you’re eating. Stop eating when you’re full.

“We studied two very different approaches, and we found they both worked. This means people with diabetes have choices when it comes to eating a healthy diet,” Miller said.

The research is published in the November issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Participants were adults between age 35 and 65 years and had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes for at least one year. To be eligible, they had to have a body mass index, a measure of weight relative to height, of 27 or more, indicating they were overweight, and a hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) reading of at least 7 percent. HbA1c measures blood glucose levels in the previous two to three months; normal HbA1c is 5.6 percent or lower.

Study participants were randomly assigned to a treatment group. Twenty-seven completed the mindful eating program, and 25 completed the traditional diabetes self-management program called “Smart Choices.” Each intervention involved eight weekly and two biweekly 2 ½-hour sessions with trained facilitators.

Trainers of the mindfulness program encouraged participants to cultivate “inner wisdom,” or mindful awareness related to eating, and “outer wisdom,” which referred to personal knowledge of optimal nutrition choices for people with diabetes. Each session included guided meditation oriented toward participants’ experiences and emotions associated with food. Participants received CDs for help with home meditation practice.

“We have so many environmental cues to eat in America that we’ve tuned out our normal physiological signals to eat. Being mindful means stopping long enough to become aware of these physiological cues,” Miller said. “We also tried to generate awareness, staying in the moment, and living and eating in response to hunger instead of habits and unconscious eating.”

The mindful intervention also included basic information about what is known as medical nutrition therapy: the relationships among calories consumed, carbohydrate and fat intake, weight regulation and high blood sugar.

In contrast, the Smart Choices program focused specifically on the condition of diabetes itself, including factors that can lead to the diagnosis, common complications (which include heart disease, kidney and nerve damage, eye problems and stroke), the importance of blood sugar control, and appropriate food choices when blood sugar levels spike. Every session included a medical nutrition therapy discussion such as calorie-intake goals, percentages of carbohydrates and fats in an ideal diet, and portion control. Many sessions included a 15- to 20-minute walk to further emphasize the recommendation for regular physical activity. Problem-solving regarding choosing healthy foods in high-risk situations, such as the holidays, were a focus of the program.

The interventions took place over three months. Researchers assessed participants’ health measures and dietary habits immediately after the programs concluded and then again three months later at the study’s end.

Miller said that because nutrition education is particularly important to people with a new diabetes diagnosis, she sees the mindful meditation and eating option as a potential supplement to basic diabetes education that patients need.

She also said that participants adapted well to the concept of mindfulness even though it is generally considered an alternative health practice.

“One of the things we were evaluating was how well this was accepted by people who had no experience with it. It was very well accepted by participants in that group,” she said. “And this tells us that people with diabetes have choices.

“The fact that both interventions were equally effective suggests that we should let people choose. If mindful meditation is appealing and people think that approach is effective, then it very well could be the best choice for them.”

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