5.30.2014

Mindful Eating Challenge - improving where, when, and how we eat


Update: You can read the halfway through update on our Mindful Eating Challenge here and the summary of the completed challenge here.

My wife and I thinking a lot about mindful eating. I imagine "mindful eating" can mean a lot of things (being connected to and respectful of the animals that we eat, for example--something we also do, but for us right now the concept means taking the time to pay attention to and appreciate our food while we eat, rather than putting nutrition in our mouths while distracted or doing something else. It can be so easy to bring a small breakfast in the car on the go, get home from being out hungry and look for snacks before/while cooking a real meal, or emphasize nutrition above enjoyment of food (we have been doing a lot more weight lifting the past few weeks, and when you lift heavy every other day your appetite dramatically increases and we want to eat enough food to fuel our bodies and build muscle--so protein shakes and post-workout bananas in a hurry have looked a lot more appealing recently).

And all of those ways of eating have their place, and certainly getting the high quality, real food micro- and macro nutrients that we need is very important. But if we have the choice and time to focus on eating the best food and the best way possible, we can maximize the nutrition that we are consuming, remove stress, and improve our health in other ways.

Like many things in our modern world, we've gotten away from a restful, biologically appropriate way of eating in favor of convenient, efficient, cheap, or hyper-palatable food.


Eating while working/rest & digest


It makes sense intuitively that eating while relaxed would result in better digestion and nutrient absorption than eating while running, working, being yelled at, or other stressful activity. But it's easy to understand the science behind it as well. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for "rest and digest" or "eat and breed" activities - eating, salivating, arousal, digestion, etc. We are in a "rest and digest" parasympathetic state when we are calm and rested, and when adrenaline and cortisol are lowered. Digestion is improved in a parasympathetic state due to the secretion of gastric juice and increase in motility of the gut. No surprise, this is the best time to eat!

Another element of the autonomic nervous system is the sympathetic nervous system, or the "fight or flight" processes. It governs the body in a stress state, and improves our functions for action/performance such as pupil dilation, heart rate increase, more efficient conversion of glycogen to glucose for muscle function, adrenaline release (secretion of norepinephrine and epinephrine), and decreased peristalsis and kidney/bladder function/release. These are the functions needed when we are under stress, running from a predator, working hard on a math problem, running errands in a hurry, etc. If we eat food in this state, our bodies will not be prepared to digest it properly. It's incredible that our responses are measurable by chemical/neurotransmitter release and physical changes, identifiable by body part (love the Autonomic Nervous System table in this post on Neuroscience for Kids!).

And yet, so often in our lives in the developed world in 2014, we don't take time to sit down, breathe, relax, and eat. Even on a Paleo diet, we're often eating high quality food but may end up having to quickly get it in our mouths in the car or standing up while cooking or packing lunches (breakfast, eaten at the time of day when cortisol is supposed to be highest anyway, is particularly hard for many people). Also tough is dinner; after you come home from a day of thinking or working hard at work, if the first thing you do is unload your bags and start cooking the next meal but are hungry from not enough satiety from lunch (not enough fat or protein, anyone?) it's easy to snack on whatever you can find in the fridge while cooking dinner. (In this case, not only is the food you're grabbing probably not as nutrient-dense as a meal (e.g. almonds vs. meat/veggies), your body is probably not in an optimal state to digest it. This can lead to digestive problems as well as weight gain.) So, it's important to think about WHEN, WHERE, and HOW we eat, as well as WHAT we eat.

(This makes sense based on commonsense and anecdotal evidence I’ve heard. We know that thinking about food is first step in digestion--we often become more aware of the saliva in our mouths, and prime our digestive system to produce the enzymes we need to process the food we’re anticipating. Also, we’ve found that often we don't feel like eating immediately after working out (i.e. body in sympathetic nervous system dominance), so we often wait half an hour or so or (at least until we get home) before fueling post-workout with some healthy carbs and quality protein.)

(Great article about the rest and digest vs. fight or flight, plus how to get into a parasympathetic state, here.)

Eating mediation


The Raisin Meditation (info here/here/here/here) is a mindfulness-based stress reduction technique that is a specific meditation, like any guided meditation practice, but is particularly relevant to our mindful eating goals because it is practiced with food (raisin or other food you have around). The Raisin Meditation (while it was created not only to practice mindful eating, but as a stress-reduction technique) allows us to focus on real qualities of the food while readying the mind to eat and focus only on eating.

Doing a similar eating meditation practice before every meal probably isn't practical for most people, though. But during this mindful eating challenge we're finding other ways to focus on food before/while eating.

This concept is not new. The prayer before a meal is a great way to rest and focus on food and company. You don't have to pray to any power other than yourself and whoever prepared the food, but we've found it is valuable to take a moment, close our eyes, take a breath, and express gratitude to each other for the food we're about to eat.

The Mindful Eating Challenge


It's tough, but the next step for us was a 14-day Mindful Eating Challenge. We've done 21 Day Sugar Detoxes before, which were very similar to a Whole30 program for us because we did the dairy-free level... and while these resets can be helpful for to get out of a bad pattern, they are primarily about the content and quality of diet. So, why not challenge ourselves to reset HOW we eat? We've gotten into patterns of rushing and often eating food not because we want to taste the specific flavors and savor it, but because we're very hungry after a tough workout or we know we'll be away from the house and need quality food before we go.

Over the next two weeks, we're reconsidering the way we eat in order to set healthful habits for the future. Here are a few ways to get started.

  1. Prepare food ahead of time. We like to cook several things on Sunday evenings so we have some leftovers started for the week's lunches. Using the slow cooker during the week is also a great way to ensure you'll have food ready when you need it.
  2. Set some strict rules for where and when you eat. You can't always force yourself into a parasympathetic state consciously, but you can decide not to eat standing up or while multi-tasking for the next two weeks. After trying it for a few days, it won't feel forced anymore. This simple change of not eating while standing in the kitchen, writing emails, scrolling through Twitter on the phone, or driving to work will make a huge difference.
  3. Take a deep breath before each meal. This can be a shortened version of the Raisin Meditation; a prayer to yourself, your food, your cook, or a higher power; or a yogic breathing exercise--whatever works for you.
  4. Try a Raisin Meditation to practice new sensory experiences and become more comfortable with these elements of eating.

Four steps, four simple things to try during a 14-day Mindful Eating Challenge. They don't sound that hard, do they? (Imagine if we showed this list to our grandparents when they were young, or people
hundreds of years ago. They'd probably look at us like we were crazy. "Of course I prepare my food. Duh. Of course I don't eat standing up. I sit at the table with nice utensils and cloth napkins. What's your problem?"

So let's try to rewind a little and practice simple changes for mindful eating, improved digestion and absorption of nutrients, and health.

Most challenge programs focus on eliminating problem foods and improving diet/food quality. Those changes are essential for many people, but for those of us who have already found a diet that works well for us, we can improve our habits and lifestyle, and experience health changes, through other factors about the way we eat:

Want to join us? Here are some FAQs for our 14-day Mindful Eating Challenge!
  • You can eat at a restaurant/out or at home, as long as you’re in a relaxed state and location (WHERE)
  • You can eat whatever number of meals per day works for you, and at any time of day; just not while driving, working, or doing other sympathetic nervous system-dominant activities (WHEN)
  • You can eat whatever you want--You don’t have to eat "Paleo" or entirely homemade foods (although as noted above, if you do the first steps of the challenge, it is likely that you’ll be eating higher quality food than a quick snack grabbed from a box or jar, or fast food window). So don’t worry about the content (the WHAT) during this 14-day period, and don’t worry about perfection – improvements just from changing the WHERE/WHEN/HOW of eating 

Try it yourself!


If you think you could use a little more mindfulness in your relationship with food, join us! Hashtag #mindfuleatingchallenge on Twitter and Instagram - we look forward to seeing where, when, and how you eat more mindfully!

Update: You can read the halfway through update on our Mindful Eating Challenge here and the summary of the completed challenge here.

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