I Tried Mindful Eating For A Week To See If It Could Fix Our Messed-Up Relationship With Food

Photo: Alexandra Gavillet
In a world rife with faux-Insta-nutritionists and fad dieting, food has never been so stigmatised. Women's relationships with eating are complicated to say the least, and unhealthy food marketing makes it harder than ever to resist habits harmful not only for our bodies but for our mental health, too. How has something that is necessary for survival become a source of stress, unhappiness and guilt?
The practice of mindful eating – which Buddhist teachings define as a form of meditation through food – has entered our secular obsession with wellness and has even been recommended by mental health charity Mind as a self-help tool for disordered eating. I set out to eat mindfully for a week, not really knowing what that entailed but in the hope that it would help me cut through all the red tape surrounding food.
“We are in a culture where dramatic headlines and quick fixes tend to gain the most attention,” nutritional therapist Antonia Magor tells Refinery29. “Our relationship with food can often become complicated unconsciously. As women, there has historically been a lot of pressure to look a certain way, and now it seems there is a lot of pressure to eat a certain way.” Almost the antithesis of conventional dieting, mindful eating is about regaining control of what you want to eat, not what you’ve been told to eat by glossy mags and self-proclaimed food gurus.
The term 'mindfulness' has been thrown around to the point of mind-numbing litany but, contrary to what meditation apps and adult colouring books may have led you to believe, it’s not a new-age wellness fad. That said, you don’t have to join a monastery and sit cross-legged and chanting, surrounded by healing crystals, to practise mindful eating. While there are different ways to approach it, simply put it means changing your eating habits to learn to pay attention to your levels of hunger and fullness, and to how food tastes, feels and looks. It’s nothing more than tuning into your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.
“I like to define it as the art of eating while staying present in the moment, with the actual intention of eating as opposed to amusing ourselves while doing something else,” says Stephanie Peritore, founder of Mindful Bites.

As women there has historically been a lot of pressure to look a certain way, and now it seems there is a lot of pressure to eat a certain way.

Although there are no real rules, I set myself some goals to break my personal cycle of mindless munching: 1) Eat when I’m hungry, not when I’m 'supposed' to, and stop when I’m full; 2) Eat what I want, with no restrictions; 3) Turn off my laptop and my phone during my meal; and 4) Take at least 20 minutes to really savour my food. Sounds easy enough, no? That’s what I thought…
Too often we eat when our mind tells us to, rather than our body, so paying attention to physical cues and hunger signals prevents us from falling into unhealthy patterns such as emotional overeating. As humans we are evolutionarily programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain, so when we feel upset we immediately feel the urge to push away those negative feelings, and food becomes a way to self-medicate.
“We’re bombarded with information that creates a barrier between us and our intuition, but no one is really talking about listening to our bodies without guilt and deprivation, rather than following someone else’s rules,” says Pandora Symes, holistic nutritionist and founder of Rooted.
Food is a natural reward, and in moments of discomfort it can momentarily take our mind off of an uncomfortable state, but rather than just eating when we’re sad, bored or anxious, mindful eating tells us to listen to our bodies and give them what they really need, and the answer isn’t always food. The practice isn’t about what to eat so much as why you eat it. “It’s about bringing yourself back into your body rather than letting that emotion take over,” Symes says, “and reminding yourself that you are in control.”
Food has always been the only way I've known how to cope with emotions – at my lowest point I would binge on a 5,000-calorie meal at 11pm after an anxiety attack, then spend the next two hours feeling sorry for myself, sick to my stomach and riddled with guilt. Over the course of this experiment I had bouts of sadness and frustration, where I would have loved to tuck into a bag of popcorn. Sometimes I did, other times I took Symes’ advice and found something else to do. I called a friend when I felt frustrated, I went to bed to sleep off anger, or I allowed myself to feel sad and cried.
Photo: Alexandra Gavillet
It was definitely triggering, but change often is. At the opposite end of the spectrum, one night I felt like having dessert but, with no sugary foods in the house, I turned to a delivery of Domino’s cookies. I didn’t crave them because I was trying to eat my emotions, I simply wanted chocolate chip cookies. Was I hungry? No, but my body craved them and I didn’t see the benefit of denying myself a pleasure that would do me no harm. Being able to enjoy them with no shame was oddly unsettling, yet absolute bliss.
In such a fast-paced world it’s not uncommon to multitask during meals, but work emails make for dull dining companions and eating as an afterthought takes away all the enjoyment. “Try not to watch TV, scroll through your phone or work during your meal,” recommends Magor, “take a little time out so that you can be in the moment.”
As I ate at my dinner table (a novel experience in itself), I tried to think of the last time I sat on my own, in silence, enjoying the taste and textures of my meal instead of inhaling my food over my laptop. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done it. I counted my chews – just for the LOLs – and noticed I chewed my food at least 60 times before it was ready to be swallowed, which was truly revolutionary, considering I've lost count of how many times I’ve almost choked on a bite. “Our digestion begins before the food has reached the stomach and chewing is a big part of that,” says Magor. “Chewing stimulates the release of enzymes that help break down and digest our food, meaning you are less likely to suffer from bloating or digestive discomfort,” so it’s no surprise that during my week of mindful eating, not once did I reach for my post-meal Gaviscon.

Connecting to your food doesn’t mean asking your bagel how its day was, it simply means having a greater appreciation for it.

Committing to undisturbed, unrushed noshing was probably the biggest challenge. Counteracting that urge to plough through my meal like the Cookie Monster on a bender requires a lot of effort, and I didn’t always have the mental strength for that level of awareness. Sometimes it was just easier to switch off completely – but that’s alright. As Peritore says, “You’re entitled to your emotions.”
We place a lot of importance on food but most of it revolves around how it will make us look. Easy access to food is a luxury many don’t have, so taking a moment to connect to your food and think about where it came from, the manpower behind it – from the farmers who harvested it to the supermarket employees who stocked it – and how it affects the health of our planet, not just ourselves, really puts things into perspective. When you place food under that lens, your priorities shift, and thinking of it as nothing more than a means to a six-pack seems slightly inane, doesn’t it? Connecting to your food doesn’t mean asking your bagel how its day was, it simply means having a greater appreciation for it.
I eat a punnet of blueberries every morning and yet before this week I’d never fully appreciated that they’re flown in every day so as to be readily available, which makes for a hefty carbon footprint. The food we eat is part of a larger ecosystem that goes far beyond a 'bikini bod', and in a country where food is so plentiful that we can afford to waste it, we should count our blessings. Considering the resources it takes, food is too valuable to be consumed casually, let alone warily.

The bottom line is: food is food. It should be about nourishment and enjoyment, everything else is just noise.

I didn’t practise Marie Kondo levels of gratitude or start thanking my coffee for the energy it provided, but I’d be remiss to say this level of awareness didn’t shift my perception of nutrition.
Mindful eating is not an all-or-nothing affair, nor is it an exercise in super-human concentration; rather, it’s practising commitment to appreciating and above all, enjoying, food – regardless of what you’re eating.
My week of mindful eating wasn’t easy and I strayed many times. Enjoying my meal, whether it was healthy or not, and ignoring the neuroses around food was a Herculean task, but it was a liberating exercise in self-acceptance. The practice goes against everything we’ve been taught about eating: where diets are an unsustainable quick fix, mindful eating is a constant exercise; where diets are based on punishment and reward, mindful eating revolves around compassion. Where diets are a set of prescribed rules, mindful eating is about intuition and trusting your body’s judgement.
Women’s bodies are constantly being policed, so reclaiming agency over them means undoing years of damage inflicted by our weight-loss-obsessed culture. Breaking a bad habit is always challenging, and reshaping the way we approach food means breaking all conventions: it takes work, but it’s absolutely doable. The bottom line is: food is food. It should be about nourishment and enjoyment, everything else is just noise.

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