The Mindful Eating Trick That Saves Me

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Have you ever looked down at an empty plate and wondered where the pile of pasta went and why you suddenly need a nap? Or sat down to dinner with a friend and found yourself matching them bite for bite? Have you ever popped a hard candy into your mouth so fast you didn't realize it was a chewable children's vitamin? Yeah, no, me neither. Definitely not.
This week, in lieu of rambling over my rediscovery of carbs, or controversial love affair with the StairMaster, I'd like to share one of the more practical habits that changed everything about the way I eat. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, legendary leader in the field of mindfulness and meditation is largely credited with bringing the concept of "mindful eating" into popular consciousness in the West. Along with many other practical applications of mindfulness, this idea had a huge impact in the world of nutrition and even popular mainstream diets. Whether you're an advocate of strict dieting or a hardcore devotee of Intuitive Eating, everyone agrees that mindful eating leads to better eating.
So, why aren't we all doing it? Why are we all so addicted to our laptop lunches and dinners in front of Mad Men? Because we're busy and because we want to. It's either a get-in-my-face-so-I-can-get-back-to-work situation, or we're just enjoying the double distraction of food and entertainment to escape the waking nightmare of a mundane Tuesday night.
I'm as guilty as the rest of the world — maybe more so. Once upon a time (last weekend), I found myself eating lunch while monitoring comments on the column, all the while talking to a close friend on the phone about a serious problem she was having. What kind of monster does that?! A super-busy monster? Guess what: I'm not that busy and neither are you.
Okay, I don't know you, and maybe you're a parent or the leader of the free world. Well, I'm not a mom or the President, but I do have a lot on my plate these days. And, at the end of the day, I kind of just want to eat a sandwich while Don Draper gets down with some lady he's not married to. Sue me.
But, the moment I started learning to eat intuitively, it became clear that this had to stop. While, I couldn't remove all the distractions in my life, I could table them at least once a day. It was the first change that really challenged me, but I was committed: I would eat one meal every day without distraction if it killed me. It probably would.
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During the work week, my distraction-free meal is lunch. The first few days, prying myself away from my desk took actual conscious effort. I didn't want to go eat my soup and salad by myself in our lovely office communal space. I wanted to eat it with Gmail. For a moment, I considered putting off lunch — so I could spend more time with Gmail? No, I wasn't ready to admit I had a problem. I could do this. I could eat lunch. I sat down, just me and my salad, and ate. It was quiet. No screens. No chatter. Two staffers walked by discussing a meeting, and I caught myself desperately eavesdropping just so I had something else to think about. This was the worst.
But, it got better. Lunch doesn't last forever, as it turns out. And, when you're eating without distraction, you know much sooner when you're full. I got used to the screen-free lunches in a matter of days, even coming to enjoy it — a phenomenon that took a few weeks for me to trust, monster that I am.
Still, my solo lunches didn't solve everything. I had plenty of other food hang-ups inside my own head that still distracted me from really connecting to my body and my food. For instance, did I really want those last two pieces of sushi, or did I just want to clear my plate? Why was I avoiding mashed potatoes when that's exactly what I wanted? Did I really want the cookie I craved, or did I just want something to make my looming deadline taste better? And, why was I still eating at jack-rabbit speed?
When I asked Theresa what I could do to fix this particular crazy ASAP, I expected the same answer: There is no ASAP. You didn't sign up for ASAP. Now, get back to slow and steady. But, in this case, there was a shortcut. True, it was one of the slowest shortcuts I'd ever heard of, but when I found myself spiraling out in a food frenzy, it brought me back to my plate and to calm in an instant. It still does, every time.
Jon Kabat-Zinn created his Mindful Eating Exercise (or Raisin Meditation) to use with his clients, not only to practice mindful eating, but as a stress-reduction technique. It's an eminently grounding process that brings the participant fully into their body and into the present. In his workshops, students first employed it with one single raisin eaten in the following phases:
Holding, Seeing, and Touching: Examine it as if you were an alien and had never seen such a thing before. What do its features look like? How does it fit in your hand? How do the ridges feel on the pads of your fingers?
Smelling: Hold the raisin to your nose and smell its aroma. Really get a sense of it. Does the smell arouse your senses? Does your mouth or stomach react?
Placing: Place the raisin on your tongue. Just hold it there. Examine the raisin with your mouth, without chewing. How are you reacting? How does this raisin feel?
Tasting: Place the raisin between your teeth and bite. Notice the adjustments and placements your mouth and tongue take in order to bite this raisin. When you bite, notice the texture. Note the flavors as they release. Pause after a few bites and experience the flavor and texture in your mouth. Continue chewing and noticing. Does the taste change?
Swallowing: Note the intention to ingest and the position your mouth takes. Finally, swallow the raisin.
I did it for the first time with a potato chip — and two additions. First, before beginning the meditation, I asked myself to gauge how hungry I was on a scale of 1 to 10 and how much I desired the potato chip on the same scale. Secondly, during each phase, I verbally took note of any judgements I had about the food.
"It looks greasy. I know it's fried. I feel like eating it might make me break out. It reminds me of bingeing." Uttering these words out loud over and over again, I began to hear the false beliefs in my own thinking. I did two more rounds with the chips, and by the end, I held one in my palm and said with completely understanding, "So, it's just a potato chip."
I know. Since when is a chip just a chip?! How could it suddenly not be the symbol of my body-loathing adolescence or that time I stayed in because none of my clothes looked good on me or that boy who called me Mack Truck in fourth grade?!
The experience of eating the potato chip like this over the course of nearly five full minutes instantly changed my relationship to the food. Liberated from all those irrational beliefs, I had set both myself and the potato chips free. It was like breaking up with someone and actually staying friends (a process that's much easier when one of you is a potato chip).
vXuj6BUGEU0K_0seWloeVms2s1TKeogEj39QskEXTRsPhotographed by Jessica Nash.
Of course, the epiphany didn't last forever. But, a real tangible change had been made in my thought process. I knew I would need to keep practicing, but thankfully, I had an opportunity to do so, every day at lunch.
Now, when I find myself questioning my own hunger, fullness, or food desires in general, I just throw a little Raisin Meditation at the problem. On a tough day when the food triggers are flying, I might sit myself down and run through the whole meditation. But, more often than not, I'll just pause halfway through my lunch, look at the sushi or sandwich or salad before me and ask myself: Am I still hungry? Am I getting full? Does that next bite look good to me, or am I sated with this flavor? What do I need to be satisfied with this meal?
Just that brief pause, a deep breath, and those few questions always bring me out of my head and back to the table. When I'm really there, I can truly enjoy and savor a meal. I feel both the pleasure and the necessity of food. There's no internal argument over whether or not I should be eating it, only the fact that I am eating it, and I can stop or keep going at any point. This meditation has taught me that I already know exactly how much I need and want. More importantly, it's turned lunch into a meal again. It's not the Battle of Waterloo or a psychological test or the boy who called me Mack Truck. It's just lunch.
The Anti-Diet Project runs every other Monday — the next update will be 2/17. Until then, you can follow my progress at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject on Instagram and Twitter — and feel free to jump in and hashtag your own anti-diet challenges and inspiration! I can't be the only one out there breaking up with potato chips!

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