Mindfulness is a Zen Buddhist concept which values paying close attention to the present moment. This term has become embedded in our everyday language as our multi-tasking, social media -obsessed, screen-gazing culture moves further into distraction and away from the present. Mindfulness has become a prescription for slowing down and practicing self-care when the diagnosis was an overly stressed, anxiety prone, lifestyle with a lack of grounding and connection. Eating mindfully encourages us to gain present centered awareness around how we eat, our relationship to food, and how we consume it.
The term “mindfulness” was more precisely defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non- judgmentally.” This way of eating invites us to bring discernment to food choice and the experience of eating. Mindful eating helps us become aware of our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations related to eating, reconnecting us with our innate inner wisdom about hunger and satiety.
Tamal Dodge, author of The Yoga Plate (2019) offered this piece of advice, “How we eat is a key component in all of this [mindful-living] because it represents how we treat and nourish ourselves and how we view the world and resources around us.” Indeed, mindful eating asks us to not only pay attention to the way in which we consume our food but where the food comes from, how it was prepared, how it was harvested, and how can it can support us mind, body, and soul.
Mindful Eating vs Dieting
Mindful Eating is completely different than dieting. Diets tend to focus on rules and restrictions, such as measurements of what to eat, how much to eat, and what not to eat. These restrictions and changes in behavior are subject and vulnerable to individual choices and outside pressures. These pressures manifest as social engagements (restaurants, parties, etc.) which make lasting change in what and how we eat, difficult to sustain. People become dismayed and disappointed in themselves when a diet does not yield the results they are after (Nelson, 2017.)
Instead of solely result based, mindfulness is process oriented. It is based on an individual’s experience in the moment. The individual focuses on appreciating the consumption of food and is not concerned with restricting intake. The person eating chooses what and how much to consume. Its no surprise that eating with attention to this practice participants often eat less, choose what they are eating with more discretion, and report a deeper connection to the moment they are in.
Mindful Eating & Ahimsa
Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term that means non-violence, both to yourself and the world around you. This refers not only to actions, but also to thoughts, words, and intentions. This is the first tenet in Patanjali’s yoga sutras and is well-known worldwide by yogis and non-yogis alike. Ahimsa is interpreted in many ways, but perhaps the most controversial or widely disputed is when it applies to one’s diet. Many consider ahimsa to mean a ‘vegetarian only diet,’ espousing a shift away from eating animals and animal products.
However, one might also look at ahimsa and mindfulness as honoring and not denying what your body is asking for. With our appearance obsessed, compare and contrast culture, it can be difficult to trust or know what our body is saying when it comes to food intake. People often link food deprivation with moral integrity or spiritual strength. However, depriving yourself of food by skipping meals or ignoring hunger is a form of harm to yourself. This violates ahimsa.
Honoring Ahimsa in Mindful Eating
Ahimsa asks us to honor our own body’s cues for hunger and satiety and respect those signals. One can tune into these cravings by eating a small amount of what the body is asking for such as, chocolate. Furthermore, if one has chocolate on the mind, she might look more deeply at the craving and notice that the body actually needs energy, or a sweet appreciation. Perhaps, what the body needs in this instance is time to slow down, a short nap, a warm drink, or time in silence.
When we lean into what we need rather than ignore it, we begin to attune to our internal cues for maintaining a balanced life. This attitude of non-harming towards others and ourselves goes hand in hand with paying attention to what and how we eat. This might indeed inspire some to consider switching to a plant-based diet as further practice of ahimsa or non-harming and mindful consumption (Barten, 2017.)
Mindful Eating and Environmental Impact
Moreover, eating large amounts of meat is not healthy for the human body (Wright, 2018.) Overall, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables helps prevent chronic diseases. Additionally, over-consumption in animal protein and a lack of vegetables in one’s diet can cause a depletion of the antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber that plants have to offer. Beyond your health, the environmental impact of eating meat is real. If you eat a plant, you are consuming the energy that plant obtained from the sun. However, when you eat animals you consume more resources, which results in a higher toll to the environment (Baerten,2019.)
As a deeper consideration one might also reflect on food production and transport. Who was involved in the growing process and production? Were fossil fuels used to transport the food from its source to your table? Consider the sun and soil it took to grow the ingredients and ask yourself where in the world it came from. The practice of eating with attention asks us to appreciate the totality of our experience. The more we take time to be still and appreciate all that goes into one meal energetically and environmentally, the more our diet choices become part of a mindful eating practice (Harvard, 2011.)
A Cup Full of Yin
Eating with attention to detail is much like a yin yoga practice. Yin yoga is considered energetically passive, hidden, quiet, a more internal and introspective practice of yoga. Mindful eating is a quiet, focused, and concentrated eating practice. Eating in this way encourages us to appreciate food rather than restrict it or consume it mindlessly. By having a ‘beginner’s mind’ and patiently appreciating each moment and every flavor with full awareness, we can keep or interest in this slower more present-centered pace of existence. Mindfulness encourages practitioners to live fully in each moment and appreciate their life as it is, bite by bite.
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Baerten,C. (September, 2019.)Food, Sustainability and the Role of Mindfulness. Retrieved from: https://www.thecenterformindfuleating.org/TCME-Blog
Dodge, T.V. (2019) The Yoga Plate. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Harvard Health Letter. (February, 2011). Mindful Eating. Retrieved from : https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/mindful-eating
Kabat-Zinn J. Full Catastrophe Living. New York, N.Y, Dell Publishing, 1991 [Google Scholar]
Nelson, J. (2017). Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes Spectrum. Pgs 171-174. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5556586/
Salidino, C. (2017.) What is Yin Yoga. Retrieved from: https://www.doyouyoga.com/what-is-yin-yoga/
Wright,B. (2018). 3 Ways to Practice Ahimsa in Your Diet. The Choara Center. Retrieved from: https://chopra.com/articles/3-ways-to-practice-ahimsa-in-your-diet