As a nation, we love food. So just why don’t we dedicate enough time to eating it?
For our ancestors, mealtimes were a ceremonious occasion – a chance to celebrate the splendour of the day’s hunt or harvest with friends and family, basking in the fragrant aromas and savouring the delicious flavours of every last bite we took. Having worked so hard all day to literally put the food on the table, the very least they could do was take time to enjoy it. After all, who knew when the next meal would arrive?
Perhaps because food is so plentiful these days is the reason we have collectively become so disengaged with eating it. Now, instead of taking the time to relax and savour our food, we are finding ways to distract ourselves whilst eating it; reading the morning newspaper, watching a film, texting friends, or, worst of all, finishing that last bit of work. We’re eating our food faster than ever, with the average adult spending just 23 minutes in total each day on breakfast, lunch and dinner. With three generous sized meals each day (and often snacks as well!) being the norm, far too many of us see food as an afterthought; something to fit in around whatever else we are doing that day.
But what impact is this having? By not eating mindfully and properly connecting with our food, we are throwing off our satiety signals, often causing us to over or under eat. It often means that we don’t chew our food properly too, putting extra stress on our digestive system – after all, our stomach doesn’t have teeth. It’s also interfering with our enjoyment of food; have you ever been eating a meal without really knowing it, and then before you know it, it’s all gone? Did you appreciate the delicate balance of flavours and textures on your plate? Probably not, and there you have a fine example of what we will now call ‘mindless’ eating.
Mindful vs Mindless eating
‘Mindful eating’ means to eat with care and intention; to focus on the flavours, textures and aromas of your meal, to fill yourself with positive thoughts about how your food will benefit you, and to understand when you are satiated and should stop. Mindful eating is to thoroughly chew your food and to eliminate distraction – you came to the table to eat, not to text or complete level 42 of ‘Candy Crush.’
Mindless eating, on the other hand, is the norm for far too many of us. Whether you’re chomping on a banana whilst walking between meetings, chatting on the phone whilst eating lunch or taking dinner to your desk to catch up on overdue work, distraction at meal times can significantly impair the digestion of your food.
Mindless eating – why you should relax at mealtimes
When our mind is racing and thinking about our ‘to-do’ list for the day, or we’re shovelling food down in a rush to make our 1 o’clock meeting, we create a stressful environment in the body. And when we eat under stress, our ability to properly digest our food becomes compromised. This is an evolutionary response which dictates that, in times of stress, our body’s ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in, literally diverting energy away from the digestive system and prioritising it for other functions. If, for example, we were being chased by a predator, we wouldn’t exactly need to stop and eat along the way. Our immediate priority is escaping unharmed; so adrenaline is released, our breathing rate increases, and circulation is shunted away from the digestive tract and into the muscles and limbs to provide extra energy to get away.
The same response happens when everyday stresses occur, no matter how small or trivial they may seem. Unfortunately, our body cannot distinguish a life threatening situation where we might actually need the ‘fight or flight’ response and our boss harassing us to hand in our essay on time.
Because, in this state, our digestive systems are partially shut down, we secrete fewer digestive enzymes and less stomach acid; leading to an impaired ability to break down our food. Not only does this mean that we are missing out on valuable nutrients, it can cause some profound digestive discomfort. Ever eaten a meal in a rush and then felt like you had a rock sitting in your stomach for hours afterwards? Then you will know just how delicate our digestive systems are; and how it’s not just what you eat that affects your digestion, but how you eat it too.
And whilst stress and distraction are seemingly two different entities, your body perceives them in largely the same way. In a 1987 study, participants were asked to drink two identical mineral drinks. The first one was consumed in a parasympaphetic (relaxed) state, whilst the other was consumed whilst the participants were involved in a conversation about space travel or financial planning. The research showed that more of the nutrients were absorbed in the parasympaphetic state, whilst the ‘distracted’ state showed a significant reduction in assimilation. A distracted environment, it seems, has the same impact on our digestion as a stressful one.
So what to do?
Mindful eating is a real challenge, and we’re not going to pretend otherwise. With so many things to squeeze into our days, it’s natural that we try and rush things and are already focusing on the next task before completing the current one. That said, taking small steps towards eating mindfully will see it gradually become second nature – and soon, mealtimes will feel like mealtimes again.
If you’re worrying about the 6pm deadline you have to hit, instead of inhaling a sandwich at your desk at 5.30pm, focus on completing the task in hand before worrying about getting something to eat. The hunger you feel now most certainly isn’t life threatening, and your body will thank you for waiting just a little longer to be able to eat without stress and anxiety. When the work is done, relax – it’s now time to eat.
See mealtimes as time that you dedicate to yourself and others at the table; time to replenish your energy levels and enjoy the wonderful flavours and textures present on your plate. Even if it is just temporarily, try to forget about everything else you have to do that day, and take time to be in the moment with your food. Eliminate distraction; keep your phone in your pocket, and turn the TV off in the background. Focus intensely on each bite – how does it taste? How does it make you feel? Chew thoroughly, and, in between mouthfuls, enjoy light conversation with your dining partners. If you’re at the table for an hour, even two, who cares? Right now, you’re here to eat, and there’s nothing to rush for.
Taking time to eat mindfully can have a profound impact on your waistline, your digestive system, and your all round enjoyment of food. Yes, life gets in the way sometimes. Not every meal will be eaten in perfect serenity. But, challenge yourself to eat mindfully as much as possible, and see for yourself just how differently you feel.