Mindfulness is an ancient art that has been around as long as humanity itself. When you see a still, self-contained person, they are likely to have achieved the ability to regularly practice mindfulness. The definition is the art of being present in the mind. Does that sound simple to you?
Mindfulness refers to a concept where you fully concentrate on one task at a time; without multi-tasking. Some call it living in the moment; learning to avoid distractions. Mindfulness applies in many different areas of life, and eating is no exception. Mindful eating simply involves eating while actually concentrating on the food. Doesn’t sound like a big deal; right?
The Benefits of a Mindful Life
Mindful living helps you to become the very best person that you can be. There are many benefits to nurturing a new habit of mindfulness. Not least a complete change in the approach to food and eating habits. The art of being mindful is embraced by many professional organizations as the first step to regaining control over the mind and damaging negative thoughts. Professor emeritus Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder and former director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre, helped to bring the practice of mindfulness meditation into mainstream medicine and demonstrated that practicing mindfulness can bring improvements in both physical and psychological symptoms as well as positive changes in health attitudes and behaviors. Mindfulness can:
- improve physical health
- help relieve stress
- treat heart disease
- lower blood pressure
- reduce chronic pain
- improve sleep
- alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties
- improve mental health
In recent years, psychotherapists have turned to mindfulness meditation as an important element in the treatment of a number of problems, including:
- eating disorders
- couples’ conflicts
- anxiety disorders
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
Some experts believe that mindfulness works, in part, by helping people to accept their experiences—including painful emotions—rather than trying to avoid these feelings. Mindfulness meditation can be combined with psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy as both share the common goal of helping people gain perspective on irrational, self-defeating thoughts. Other studies of mindfulness show that:
- Mindfulness improves mood and quality of life in chronic pain conditions such as lower-back pain and in chronic functional disorders such as IBS.
- Mindfulness improves working memory, creativity, attention span and reaction speeds. It also helps with resilience.
- Mindfulness is at least as good as drugs or counselling for the treatment of clinical-level depression. One structured program known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is now one of the preferred treatments recommended by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.
- Mindfulness reduces addictive and self-destructive behavior. These include the abuse of illegal and prescription drugs and excessive alcohol intake.
- Mindfulness may reduce ageing at the cellular level by promoting chromosomal health and resilience.
- Meditation and mindfulness improve control of blood sugar in type II diabetes.
- Meditation improves heart and circulatory health by reducing blood pressure and lowering the risk of hypertension. Mindfulness reduces the risks of developing and dying from cardiovascular disease and lowers its severity should it arise.
The idea of using mindfulness in everyday life is to become the master of your own mind as opposed to it being the master of you. Thoughts can easily take over your mind and affect your life to great detriment as shown in the classic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy model.
Symptoms of Mindless Living
On the other hand, mindless living has negative effects. Take a look at the following list and ask yourself honestly how many of these symptoms you see in your own life on a daily basis:
- Losing control of your eating habits
- A feeling of lack of control
- Feeling isolated
- Relying on drugs or prescription medication to get through the day
- An inability to relax and enjoy the moment
- Irritation with yourself and others
- Feeling rushed and unable to concentrate
If you believe that your daily habits and conduct are closer to mindlessness than mindfulness, then do not despair. Most people are running through life, not paying much attention to anything other than the next thing they need to do. Mindlessness has become normal in our society. We have learned that there always must be something more, something else or something better from the day that we were born. It’s not simply a case that we are either mindful or mindless though. People, in general, are usually on a scale. Some areas of their lives are entered with mindful awareness and others with a complete lack of thought control. For instance, a loving parent may raise their child with affection and mindful guidance, without even being aware that they are actually practicing almost perfect mindfulness in this area of their life, yet have no control over their own self-image, diet or other relationships. The good news is that mindfulness can be learned. Like anything truly valuable, it takes time and effort to become truly skilled at being mindful, simply because we have spent our lives learning not to be. It’s worth the effort though because being mindful will change every area of your life for the better.
Food and Feelings – The Unavoidable Link
We have worked on why you eat and what you eat, and now it’s time that you start to recognize how the food in your body makes you feel afterwards. This can be an extremely difficult task as we lose touch with our digestive systems very easily when we partake in mindless eating.
The truth is that everything you eat becomes you. Every cell within your body strives to take nutrients from your food, and if the nutrients are not there, the cells will be unhealthy or even die.
Similarly, if the food you eat is not only nutrient depleted but also bad for your body, then the cells and organs within are not only missing out on good fuel, but they are having to fight bad fuel, just to survive.
The human digestive system is a resilient and perfectly functioning machine when treated properly. It deals with everything we push into it and works hard to take out any useful nutrients in order to pass them to the waiting cells and organs.
Your digestive system is your friend – it has always been there, coping with anything you throw at it and working hard to keep you healthy.
Yet it can only cope with so much before it’s too weak to keep functioning properly. Eventually, a digestive system under strain will start to fail. It loses its power and is unable to grasp the nutrients from the food it’s given.
A tired digestive system can’t stop stomach ulcers and reflux from occurring. The major organs and immune system stop working properly and disease sets in.
This reaction within the body can be escalated by allergies and chemicals within food. By the time we feel discomfort from what we have eaten, or long-term discomfort from a long-term poor diet our bodies are already under a lot of strain.
It is at this point many of us go to the doctor and are prescribed medication to take away the pain. What we don’t realize is that the pain is also our friend. It’s telling us that something is wrong and needs to change, or we will become very sick indeed.
Masking the pain is not the answer. We need to become mindful of our diet and learn to understand our bodies.
The Good News
The good news is that much damage can be undone by taking action on the body no matter how problematic our health is. Everything within the human body renews itself on a regular basis. All of the cells regenerate and renew, so if you begin to use mindful nutrition from this point on then you are certainly able to slow and even reverse the effects of a bad diet on your body.
How do you see your own general health?
Are there any niggling problems within your body or general well-being?
Do you believe that any health problems you may be having could be due to your diet?
Cultivating Mindful Nutrition
Unwelcome, Intrusive Thoughts
There is a behavior which we can easily fall victim to because we try so hard to control our thoughts rather than allowing them to control us. The same thoughts then become intrusive and are constantly playing in the background simply because we do not deal with them. These thoughts can be with us for the rest of our lives, purely because we are trying not to think them.
As you develop your own mindful awareness, you may find yourself in the position of trying to push thoughts away, trying to tell yourself not to think them because then you have control. It’s time to let that go. Mindfulness happens when we allow and deal with the intrusive thoughts. If we are constantly fighting our thoughts we will never be at peace with ourselves.
From this point on I would like you to start using the RAIN or the STOP technique when you are experiencing unwelcome thoughts associated with food, body image, eating or self-esteem.
Here is a reminder:
- Recognize what is going on.
- Allow the experience to be there, just as it is.
- Investigate with kindness.
- Natural awareness, which comes from not identifying with the experience.
- Stop – Simply pause.
- Take a few deep breaths.
- Observe your thoughts and any emotional response that you may be feeling.
- Proceed in a different direction.
What you use and how is dependent on the situation that you are experiencing at the time. The STOP technique will come in handy if you eat when you are bored or eat as an emotional reaction. RAIN will help you to recognize, observe and take an objective view of the thoughts which you are experiencing.
Humans and other animals eat for a variety of reasons. A lot of the time, in our rich society, we eat for reasons other than hunger. When you recognize the reasons that you eat, or are craving food, then you are going to find it easier to nurture a new mindfulness around food and eating.
Why do we eat?
To stay alive, to fuel our bodies and to be healthy and live long fulfilling lives?
The former explanations all sound like the reasons anyone would eat. But we have a slightly warped relationship with food and there are many other reasons that we eat.
We eat because we are hungry. Sometimes though, our bodies and minds are so out of tune that we feel hungry when we don’t really need food. We actually eat for a variety of reasons:
- Boredom – when food is something to do.
- Anxiety – as we worry, we naturally turn to food, to do so is fulfilling an innate desire for survival.
- Depression – for the same reasons as worry, with a full stomach we feel safer on a very basic level.
- Availability – Food is everywhere and highly processed foods offer us a quick mood and energy lift.
- Addiction – dairy produce, chocolate and sugar are highly addictive substances. If you eat any of these one day you will be keen to eat them the next.
- Emotional Triggers – when we feel stressed and run to the biscuits rather than face the emotion. This is quite a common reason for eating.
- Environmental triggers – when eating in front of the TV or at the cinema is “normal” despite a lack of hunger.
Take a really good look at the reasons for eating listed above and consider which ones may apply to you. This may take some time and we will explore it later in more detail.
When you have recognized some of the reasons you eat, consider events in your everyday life when you have eaten but you were not necessarily hungry.
Why We Diet
We have developed a culture where it is perceived that people that are overweight have now ill power. Fat “shaming” is almost an urban dictionary term and causes a lot of needless distress in our lives.
The same culture sees weight loss as a positive thing. When we diet and the weight starts to come off, our thoughts become our friends for a while. We join the successful ones, the ones that have self-control and we feel great. Yet this part of the cycle is not going to last and when we go back to binge eating, our thoughts become our enemies again.
A cycle of dieting can cause the metabolism to become problematic; it can cause it to slow right down and take the body into a state of storing the fat reserves. This is common with yo-yo dieting and causes the body to put on weight very quickly after a period of restriction. This is a horrible place to be and a completely needless one.
Mindful nutrition is completely the opposite of dieting and bingeing in this way. It is reassigning a functional relationship with food, one that will last for the rest of your life, a side effect of which will be a return to your perfect weight and health.
Living mindfully will change all areas of your life for the better but, being mindful is not always easy. Yet learning to control the thought patterns that lead to problems in your life is possible. Then, when you can do it for yourself, you are far better placed to help others.
Dr. Suzanna Braeger
Holistic Health Coach and Nutritionist
Lecturer (B’n’S Holistic Health Coach, Nutritionist and Wellness Consultant, Yoga Teacher)