Adding mindfulness to our food system

I have a confession: I was going to write a Sunday Roast weekly news piece over the weekend but for the first time in many many months, I actually had a ridiculously busy social life.
One highlight of the weekend was attending a Mindfulness talk by Professor Mark Williams at the Oxford Union. Paraphrasing the Mindfulness website: Mindfulness is a simple form of meditation focusing on the breath and the notion that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts – whether positive or negative – come and go and you can choose whether to act on them or not. In other words, rather than automatically reacting to our thoughts, it encourages reflection and attention.
While a practice predominantly used for those suffering from depression or anxiety – or simply those who want peace of mind – mindfulness is also important when it comes to our relationship with food. When it comes to our food system, the dominant way people source and consume food is geared around a fast, convenient and automatic way of life.


Caught up in the fast food whirlwind

Take supermarkets as an example: you have strategically laid out aisles and colourful labels conveniently directing you towards certain food products; you have quantifiable indicators (e.g. calorie labels and nutrition colour wheels) deciding for you which foods are good and bad; you have slogans such as ‘Eat Beautiful’ and ‘Lighter than Light’  which suggest your consumption of that product will automatically transform you into a beautiful, lighter individual. Guthman and DuPuis (2006) touch on this, calling it the ‘politics of fat’. They state: 
 
Those who can achieve thinness amidst this plenty [i.e. abundant food availability, overeating] are imbued with the rationality and self-discipline of perfect subjects’. 
While labels and nutritional indicators are useful in many ways, our reliance on them encourages us to buy an array of foods without having to independently reflect on what is in them, how they were produced and where they are from: it is an automatic commodity purchase.
 
Over time, this external information is internalised: thoughts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’, ‘fast’ and ‘cheap’ are plugged into our mindsets and arguably determine how we eat and how we feel.
Source: someecards.com
For example, commenting on a Western ‘age of nutritionism’: Michael Pollan writes of how consumers increasingly rely on health food labels as a means to achieve wellbeing and nutrition rather than draw on experience and knowledge from our home kitchens, cooking pots and family recipe books.
Furthermore, by internalising an automatic binary between what we should and should not eat, we will have an automatic emotive reaction to that food group too. Examples of this are ‘lipophobia’ and ‘carbophobia’: in other words, the fear of fat and carbohydrates. Often, ‘bad’ foods are synonymous with comfort, but also feelings of guilt, anxiety, sadness. As Kate Moss famously said: ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’. 
 
It isn’t just about what we eat but also how we eat. One in five Americans now eat their meals in the car rather than at the dinner table, really driving home that the way we eat is increasingly for fast food and fast thoughts rather than mindful, reflective eating. These thoughts have pushed aside the intimate conversations you could have with local producers about their food, the laughter you share with friends as you cook, and the aromas and texture you experience when eating.
So, how can we be more mindful about our food and take back control of our gut feelings?

Questioning ‘truths’ in the food system

Increasingly so, we are starting to question whether these labels truly reflect good, whole food. 
 
One key example is health food products, obviously residing on the ‘good’ side of the ‘good’ ‘bad’ dichotomy. Food investigative journalist Joanna Blythman wrote an excellent article on the hidden costs of our demand for health food products, ranging from ‘natural’ cheese to fruit salads, To give the example of ‘washed and ready to eat salads’:
“‘Cleaned’ by sloshing around in tap water dosed with chlorine, often with powdered or liquid fruit acids to inhibit bacterial growth. The same tank of treated water is often used for 8 hours at a time”. 
That Sugar Film’ is another great case in point: it’s a documentary following a guy who, after three years of not eating sugar, took it up again and documented the impact on his body and mental state. He found out that people inadvertently eat 40 teaspoons of sugar a day, with much of it being hidden sugars in ‘healthy’ low fat foods. Compare this to the World Health Organisation guidelines of restricting intake to 6 teaspoons or less a day to help reduce the growing obesity and diabetes epidemic…
Health food products don’t seem so ‘good’ now do they?
The above examples help provide food for thought, but how can we as individual eaters act more mindfully about food?
 
We must reinstate a healthy relationship with both ourselves – body and mind – and our food. Am I Hungry is a website devoted to mindful eating, which they describe as ‘eating with intention and attention’. The importance of mindful eating is summed up in this fantastic quote:

Eating is a natural, healthy and pleasurable activity for satisfying hunger. However, in our food-abundant, diet-obsessed culture, eating is often mindless, consuming and guilt-inducing instead. Mindful eating is an ancient mindful practice with profound modern implications and applications for resolving this troubled love-hate relationship with food”. (Source: amihungry.com)

Here are a few techniques you could adopt:

Start with the ‘raisin experiment’

My food blogger psychology friend Annie recently wrote about the links between mindful eating and your metabolic rate, encouraging the ‘raisin experiment’ as a key mindful activity. I suggest you all watch the following video and also read her blog.

Slow down and use your senses

No food is ‘bad’ or ‘good’: it is not just what we eat but how we eat that causes it to be either nourishing or destructive on our bodies, mindsets and wider environments. Literally gulfing down a plate of food on your lunch break without giving it a second thought (other than perhaps glancing at the calorie count) is neither caring for your body or for your food. We need to adopt slow eating, giving us a chance to appreciate our surroundings, the food on our plates and give our digestive system the treatment it deserves. 
Morwenna Ferrier, a Guardian journalist, did just this:

“It’s Wednesday evening and for the last four minutes, I’ve been holding an avocado. In fact, less holding, more caressing. I run my finger over its leathery skin, concentrate on where it’s from (Costa Rica), how it got to me (Lidl, possibly via boat) and what I’ll do with it (inhale it if I have to stare at it much longer, I’m famished). For the last week, this routine has been the preamble to each meal” (Guardian, 2014)

That’s four minutes. You can spare that amount of time to truly reflect and pay attention to your food. Hey, you’d probably be spending four minutes calorie counting after your meal anyway…
Other techniques for slower, mindful eating include:
  • Chewing at least 25 times
  • Using your non-dominant hand. 
  • Putting your fork down after each bite
  • Take the time to identify every single item of your meal
  • Eat at a dinner table
  • Eat in silence (you can talk afterwards!)
Look how happy I am after putting my knife and fork down!

Get back in your kitchens

The power of food has a primal place in our homes that binds us to the best bits of life”.  (Jamie Oliver, TED talk)
I cannot emphasise this point enough. When I am anxious or stressed, I stop cooking: the implications this has on my psychological and physiological relationship to food is phenomenal. Not only do I miss out on social cooking but, by not having any role in the food’s creation, I simply see it as fuel for my negative mental state. The fact that we have platforms – namely supermarkets and takeaway stores- that sustain this detachment from cooking and home is frankly fuelling a national eating disorder.
My friend (wielding a carrot) and I (plus bowl) cooking at home
Dr Allison Field, an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, proposed that home-cooked meals are a vital way to return people to eating simpler, wholesome foods and connect them to the food they eat. If you do not have space or utilities to cook at home, why not go on a cookery course, visit a friend’s house or simply share a family meal every evening. 
 
This is particularly important for young people, especially when 95% of individuals with eating disorders fall in this demographic group. Within Western food culture, we are caught within an ‘obesity-eating disorder’ paradox, and home cooked meals are part of the solution for both sides of this coin: 
 
“Dr. Field proposed the idea of promoting home-cooked meals as a means of returning people to eating simpler foods and enhancing their feeling of connection with what they consume. Other positive approaches include education in schools, training kids to listen to their bodies’ internal cues, encouraging people to eat more slowly, refraining from classification of foods as good or bad, and promoting a general mindfulness about the kinds of foods people are eating.” (Source: Harvardpolitics.com)
So, there you have it: I have not proposed a short-term diet fad fix, nor is mindfulness a universal panacea to fixing the challenges in our Western food culture. I have simply told you to sit down, reflect and pay attention to your food, body and mind. It will do a world of good.
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