Friday, 25 July 2014

What is "Mindful Eating" (guest blogger)

You might have heard the term 'mindfulness' banded about in the past year? Mindfulness it seems is having its own moment with everyone speaking about its merits from Oprah to Arianna Huffington in her latest book, Thrive.
In fact you'll be hard pushed to not see daily articles that discuss mindfulness as an antidote to burnout. Practicing mindfulness regularly has been shown to reduce stress, treat depression as well as help workers to become more efficient and focused.
But what is it?
A quick google will tell you that "Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique."

Emma has been embarking on mindfulness 

Too much of our time is focused on what happened in the past or what we hope - or dread - will happen in the future.
After reading the numerous articles on the subject I decided I needed to try my hand with an introductory session somewhere. A quick look on Twitter and Google told me The Mindfulness Project based on Fitzrovia Square in central London would be a good place to start.
The Mindfulness Project has been set up by founders Autumn Totten and Alexandra Frey (below) with the mission to create a platform for teaching mindfulness as a life skill to as many Londoners as possible. The two lovely ladies have cherry-picked London's best mindfulness teachers and invited lecturers from around the globe to help people hone their mindfulness skills with the hope of improving their every-day lives.
Totten and Frey 

After popping along to one of their introductory sessions I was completely taken in.
Following some interesting discussions with friends and further reading on the subject I started to think that this should be more than a new idea I flirted with and something that needed some further consideration and practice.
Seeing I was keen, Alexa kindly invited me along to try out their one-day intensive Mindful Eating course. As someone who was taught to finish their plate before leaving the dinner table - like the rest of the UK - I can often over-eat and feel uncomfortably full. And don't either get me started on my unhealthy, uncontrollable obsession with Nutella.

Starting off the day I arrived at their lovely Fiztrovia-based HQ and received a warm welcome from our mindfulness teacher, Dr. Cinzia Pezzolesi. After receiving an introduction to the principles of mindfulness and what was on the agenda we began our first meditation experience lasting a whole 22 minutes. The longest I've ever managed in one session.
Of course my mind did drift and I nearly dozed off at one point, but Cinzia guided us through and I attempted to bring my attention back to the sounds of my breath or the rain outside.
Feeling in a lovely relaxed state afterwards, Cinzia started to walk us through the principles of Inner and Outer Wisdom.
Inner Wisdom involves tuning in to your body's needs, understanding how much you food you need to feed your hunger. For example, each time you reach for food question where you are on the hunger scale with 1 being faint with starvation to 10 being completely stuffed. Too often we override the signs that we're full, ultimately ignoring what our inner wisdom is trying to tell us.

where are you on the chart when you eat? Are you even hungry? 

Outer Wisdom involves how do we use the information we have about food to make our choices. Are we looking at calories, fat content, the amount of chemicals included?
Combining both our Inner and Outer Wisdom with every food choice should empower us and ensure we're not making passive choices.
After taking these key learnings we embarked upon our first food exercise with strawberries. Cinzia asked us to pick up three tiny slivers of strawberry from the plate, hold each sliver in our hands, examine it, smell it, place it on our lips and then chew it ever so slowly.
As you can imagine the first taste was delightfully sweet, but to my surprise the second and third slivers significantly poorer in comparison. It just goes to show that a little goes a long way...
A questionnaire which promised to identify the weak points in our eating habits followed. It certainly did and I knew immediately what three areas I'd need to work on:
1) Stop eating when I begin to feel full at least several times a week
2) If I eat something 'bad' don't think 'I've already blown it' and continue down this path, simply make better choices for the rest of the day
3) Eat mindfully, enjoying the taste of each bite at least several times a week

It sounds simple enough, but how many of us actually manage it? Too often - especially when I'm eating lunch at my desk - I eat while multi-tasking, swallowing eat bite rather than truly savouring the taste.
To test us we were asked to stay in silence during our lunch break to take on board the principles from the morning's session. In came our lunches from The Detox Kitchen and off I went to Regent's Park to enjoy some time in the sun.
In eating mindfully I only managed to finish just under half of my quinoa salad and a third of my packet of fruit and nuts. Not quite what I expected being someone who can polish off a huge roast dinner in 15 minutes flat...
After sharing our lunchtime experiences with the group, Cinzia took us into Fitrozia Square Park to master the art of 'walking mindfully'.
I can't lie, at the beginning I felt completely self-conscious wondering what people around the park would be thinking about this bunch of crazies aimlessly wandering around. It took me a good while to shake this feeling off while it didn't seem to bother other members of the group in the slightest. I felt incredibly jealous. However, once I relaxed it was lovely to be out of the room and in the sunshine.
One take-away I took from this exercise was to take on the 'Beginners mindset', look through at your surroundings as if you're looking at things for the very first time, like a child.
Once back inside out came the afternoon tea. Herbal teas with grapes and biscuits were on offer. We were told that we could choose only one type of food - the grapes or a biscuit. I immediately jumped for the biscuit. But when it came to it, my first bite was so salty and sugary I decided to leave it alone. I simply didn't want anymore.
And then as if I hadn't been tested enough for one day, Cinzia presented us with chocolate truffles, my Achilles heel.
In a similar way to the strawberry exercise we needed to look at each of our three truffles, smell it, place it on our tongue and slowly let it melt and chew. My first truffle was delicious, the texture incredible, however my tastebuds dulled after the second piece and I turned down the third. For anyone who knows me this in itself was a small miracle.
During the day we also touched on the effects of stress. When we're stressed we often reach for sugary, fatty foods or alcohol. However, they do little to help us. In fact, sugary foods stress the body out further pushing it into adrenaline mode rather than doing the opposite to calm you down. Fatty foods when released into the blood stream actually tire our bodies out, while alcohol provides us with a quick fix but also sends us into a slumber.
I've since come across this emotional eating chart which I thought would be helpful to include.

there are two types of hunger

So how am I coping since then?
Well, on the whole I've been sticking to a fair few of my targets at least a few times a week. However, give me alcohol and those principles go straight out of the window. I can return to my instant eating-machine state in minutes. But hey, there are always going to be occurrences during the week where I don't eat mindfully, I'm only human and a natural born consumer. The point to be made here is that as long as I'm able to rein in those bad habits most of the week I'll be doing just swell.
And the best thing about the Mindful Eating programme? It's essentially the anti-diet. Just by listening to your body and using your outer wisdom to make smarter choices 70-80% of the time you can have the bad stuff - just make sure you savour each bite. Like with me you'll probably surprise yourself when your body says it's had enough after a few tiny morsels.
If you'd like to re-programme your eating habits, or even just understand a little more about why you eat like the way that you do, I recommend you check out the Mindful Eating course. The next one is due to take place on July 27th.
Just a couple of questions to leave you with for consideration:
  • What does physical hunger mean to you?
  • Can you identify a difference between psychological and physical hunger? Do you feel those in different places?
  • What do you do when you're hungry?
  • Identify a number between 1 - 10  on where you sit on the hunger scale
  • Emotional eating - what does it mean to you? How does it manifest itself? What foods do you reach for?
Good luck and enjoy

Emma blogs at Beauty and the Big Smoke. Tweet her at @emmadennis or follow her on Instagram @emdenni 

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