Ancient Yogis from many traditions considered eating to be a sacred act, where one living part of nature integrates into another living being. In stark contrast, eating seems to be anything but sacred in our fast-food age. For many, eating today has devolved into a purely physical act to provide sustenance for the body – but definitely not for the soul.
2020: The Year of Health
We are well into the year but given the ongoing pandemic events that have taken over the world, and put a spotlight on health, nutrition and wellbeing, many – like you – are contemplating overhauling their daily routines by incorporating healthy diets. You may be facing a health crisis or some sort of spiritual awakening; maybe you are in a new relationship and just want to feel and look better for your partner.
Whatever your motivation, you’ve decided to eat in a healthier or more ethical way. Sooner or later, you are bound to discover that “improving” your diet is not as straightforward as you imagined. Buy any book on healthy eating or diet or nutrition and you will find plenty of persuasive advice on what you “should” and “should not” eat. Pick another book and you’ll find equally convincing advice contradicting the first.
Many mainstream books on nutrition advise us to limit our intake of fat, yet an increasingly prominent minority contends that traditional animal fats are good for us. One diet may push honey as a superfood; another says it’s just as harmful as any other sugar. Some experts say supplements are absolutely essential for good health, while others contend they just give you “expensive pee.” You’ll discover that there are diets based on religion, ethics, nutritional philosophy, anthropology, cleansing, the seasons and even blood types!
You are faced with a bewildering range of contradictory advice all coming from “authoritative” sources. Choose rightly: you will be saved! Choose wrongly: you will land in “health hell.” How do you navigate correctly through these choices? You can choose a nutritional trend or a healthy diet and follow it – with all that such a choice involves. Or, instead of trusting any outside authority, you can go down the path of self-directed dietary exploration and experimentation with your food choices. This way, you learn to trust your body and senses while choosing how to eat wisely. If you are seeking to go it on your own, it is worth taking a peek at one of these books – favourites of The Gaggler editorial team – that can provide guiding principles as you make your way to taking that first step to healthy eating.
That Will Power Thing
But how can you trust your body when it often seems to lead you astray with unwise food choices because of an apparent “lack of willpower”? As a society, we seem to suffer from the misleading notion of not having enough willpower when it comes to eating. How else can we explain destructive dietary patterns, when we fully know the consequences of poor eating choices? How else can we justify bingeing after a week of regimented eating? We incorrectly blame poor dietary choices on “weak willpower” — which then leads to an internal conflict over what we “should” and “should not” eat.
When it comes to food, we seem to think that what we want must be “bad” or “indulgent.” Therefore, we feel that we must exercise willpower to enforce “better” behavior. This constant reliance on willpower reveals a profound distrust of our natural ability to make good food choices intuitively. Craving certain foods can be seen as our body’s way of signaling nutritional imbalances. It is also well documented that in times of high stress we use food to fill in voids or to mask deeper issues. In these cases, our body is communicating to us in a language we might not understand — or even recognize as a language.
Are You Listening?
We need to stop seeing the body as “the enemy” but rather listen to the messages encoded in the language of cravings, appetites, and food preferences. Instead of second-guessing what our bodies need, why not tune into the language our body is speaking? Through these messages, our body communicates its physical and emotional needs. One of the ways we can understand the body’s needs is to create a quiet internal space in which we can “tune in” to the cues given in our cravings and appetites. By using a Zen approach to eating, we can create that quiet space within. You might wonder “What is Zen eating?”
Zen eating is a practice of eating thoughtfully, mindfully and in a state of gratitude.
As Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, explains, “In a nutshell, mindful eating is not a diet. There are no menus or recipes. It’s a brand new way of eating. Mindful eating is defined as eating with a non-judgmental awareness”.
9 Tips to Zen
The 9 tips below are designed to help you create this mindful space within yourself each time you sit down to eat.
Tip 1: Breathe
Before you tuck into your meal, take 3 deep breaths to clear your energy and come into the present moment with gratitude.
Tip 2: Contemplate
Observe a moment of silence. A good exercise is to reflect on how your food got to your plate. Think about the people involved in the production, processing, transportation and preparation of your meal.
Tip 3: Chew and Taste
Devote your attention to the physical act of biting, chewing and swallowing your food. Fully experience and enjoy each bite. Notice the aromas, textures, tastes and temperature of each dish. Through this practice, you may discover new flavors or evoke memories connected to the taste and smells of your food. Paying attention gives you the opportunity to fully know what you’re eating and opens up a direct channel of communication with your body.
Tip 4: Eat meals in a peaceful setting
Be it your table at home or a quiet spot in the office cafeteria, choose a peaceful space. You may feel you rarely have the “luxury” to devote your attention to fully enjoying your food or finding peaceful spaces to eat. In reality, this should not be a luxury, but a necessary part of your meal. As you start a practice of Zen eating, take small steps to integrate this practice into your routine. Have just one meal a day in a peaceful setting, if it is too difficult to do this practice for each and every meal.
Tip 5: Go device free at mealtimes
Ditch the multitasking while you eat! Stay away from the phone, television and the computer at mealtime. Focus on what’s on your plate and engage in conversations with your dining companions. Or just be with yourself and your food.
Tip 6: Be patient
You cannot expect to gain instant understanding of your body’s messages. Be patient while you learn the language your body speaks.
Tip 7: Distinguish appetites from cravings
Pause and ask yourself: “Am I really hungry?” Is your body calling for sustenance? Or do you simply crave a specific taste?” As you become more fluent in your body’s language, you will become more able to distinguish between appetite and craving.
Tip 8: Eat food close to its natural state
In our fast-paced society, we depend a lot on processed and ready-to-eat foods, which are loaded with additives. By choosing foods which are as close to their natural state as possible, we can keep our choices simple and more healthful. As food writer Michael Pollan advises “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
Tip 9: Don’t be dogmatic!
People often feel wonderful on a special diet for a short time, but that great feeling of wellbeing doesn’t always last. Cleansing diets such as veganism, raw foods or juicing bring great short-term results but cannot sustain the body’s long term and changing nutritional requirements. Be flexible in your food philosophies rather than feeling that you must become a hard-core adherent of any one “diet.”
You may feel this approach is demanding, but with practice, Zen eating becomes natural and pleasurable. While there is a lot of conflicting information out there, listening to your body will guide you towards a way of eating that’s right for you. This practice allows you to come into alignment with what you need, what you crave, and what you actually eat. The Zen of eating enables you to joyfully honor your body’s authentic needs and lovingly nurture your soul through mindful eating. We hope you try the practice of mindful eating and give into Zen.