White flour used to scare me. Like strike fear into my heart. The idea of blissfully ripping into a white flour tortilla-wrapped burrito with all the fixings would have given me hives.
Because white flour was on my “bad food” list. Even whole wheat flour was on the list.
I used to be so against starchy carbs (all the carbs that fall outside of fruits and vegetables) that I made it the focus of a debate class presentation of mine in college. My contention was that starchy carbs have no place in a healthy diet and that they drive the world’s obesity problem. I got a bad grade because there is literally not enough evidence to support my claim.
I think I was so convinced of their inherent evil because I struggled so much with them.
They tempted me all the time, in the form of pasta, crackers, bread, rice, cookies, cake, oatmeal, etc. The devil knew many forms with which he could easily get to my waistline.
But none of this is shocking information to anyone. Carbs are incredible. They’re so delicious that they actually cause a notable amount of serotonin to fire in the brain when consumed.
The issue was not the delicious carbs, because plenty of people both enjoy them, and in moderation too. The issue was my demonization of the carbs and consequential extremism with them.
I struggled with this love/hate relationships for years -- most of high school and all of college -- before realizing that my willpower was simply not working. As much as I thought starches would kill me by slow death of chub, I still wanted them every single day. The solution finally materialized when I began eating mindfully.
What Is Mindful Eating?
I’ve already written at length about “what is mindful eating” and how various folks define it, myself included. But it’s an idea worth iterating again and again, because it’s one that’s so easy to forget.
Mindful eating is specifically putting away your phone so that you can focus on what’s in front of you. It’s taking 10 minutes to eat the lunch you just picked up at a table, not your desk. It’s admiring the colors of your meal, the smells and textures and various nutrients contained within the various parts and pieces. It’s savoring each bite by indulging your senses in the experience.
Unfortunately, I see so little of this in the modern work world. I have the pleasure of eating both breakfast & lunch at my office, so I see a lot of folks taking part in something that is definitively not mindful eating: grabbing whatever looks tasty for your meal, rushing back to your desk to eat in between emails or while reading an article, barely noticing what you’re eating and kind of forgetting it even happened once its done.
In a culture so obsessed with food, it’s kind of strange how we barely pay attention to what we put in our mouths sometimes.
Practical Strategies For Eating Mindfully
I actively seek to rebel against desk lunch culture. To me, nothing is less mindful or experiential than shoveling food into your mouth while shoveling digital content into your brain. Remember, you cant be mindful of anything if your mind is occupied by something else (ie. Instagram, NY Times, Outlook, etc.).
Here are some of the steps you can take to help make sure your consumption habits are as mindful as possible:
- Eat with the right mentality. Ask yourself -- Am I feeling physical cues of hunger, or is it possible that I’m either bored or upset or even just thirsty? Sometimes, you’re not actually hungry and you’re in a social situation where you feel pressure to indulge in the eating around you. Simply taking note of that pressure can be powerful enough to curb your desire to indulge outside of actual hunger. But sometimes, you’ll use that awareness to make a conscious decision to indulge anyway, and feel fine about that.
- Ask what your body needs to feel nourished in this moment. Sometimes the body will be craving veggies, other times protein, and sometimes it will even crave a sweet something or other. All of these cravings tell a story, and since you’re body’s inner voice doesn't get its own mouthpiece, it’s important to pay close attention to these signals. It's important to note that cravings can be triggered by things like insufficient sleep, poor hydration, not enough fiber or protein, or contextual associations. If you feel yourself hankering for chocolate chip cookies or greasy potato chips, try to assess whether it might be a response to something else going on with your body, rather than a true desire for comfort food.
- Fill your plate with food from all around the pyramid. If that overcomplicates things, just try to fill your plate with different colors and all three macronutrients (carbs, fats, protein). This is a surefire way to make sure your meal is delivering a balanced set of essential nutrients.
- Notice the flavors and textures of the food. This is worth reiterating, because in my mind, it’s akin to how one focuses on the breath in mediation. The mind needs an anchor point to stay present in the current moment, and I think flavors and textures serve as fantastic ones while eating.
- Give thanks. Experience a moment of gratitude for the ability to nourish your body in this way, whichever way you’ve chosen to feed it. Gratitude for the simple ability to sustain yourself can help add perspective to the moments when you feel like it’s all too easy to over-sustain yourself with the abundance of yummy snacks and treats around you. Remember, there are so many people in the world who would delight in your overabundance.
- Check in with yourself throughout the meal. Once you’ve determined that you are in fact hungry and need to feed your body, the dialogue continues. Make sure to ask yourself throughout the meal -- perhaps after every few well-savored bites -- am I appropriately nourished yet? Would it feel best for my body to stop now?
- Stop when you’re satisfied. Know that the most self-loving thing you can do is stop eating once you start to feel full. We all know that awful, overstuffed feeling after you’ve eaten more than your poor stomach can handle. There is no food so delicious that it is worth such pain and bloatedness.
- Treat yo’ self. At the end of your mindful meal, consider finishing the experience off with a few bites of something sweet, if that feels self-loving and indulgent to you (dark chocolate covered almonds is a personal favorite). My only advice is to try not to let yourself get into a habit of this. If you really need something sweet and want to wean yourself off of chocolate, try fruit or even half of an RX Bar. They have some super decadent flavors that function perfectly well as a dessert!
Eating Mindfully: Super Burrito Edition
So the big question remains: How do I mindfully enjoy food that I know is not exactly value-add to my physical health? Things like burritos, pizza, burgers, pasta. The good stuff.
Think of it this way: Food is nourishing in more than one way. That’s why you have terms like “comfort food” and “happy hour.” It’s a social thing, a cultural thing, something steeped in tradition and meaning for most people. In big cities, it’s often a form of identity. Which is why I found myself face to face with a Super Burrito this week. SF is known for their Mission-style burritos, and some work friends and I decided to try one of the most legendary: La Taqueria.
There is legitimate danger in thinking about food as solely a vehicle for calories and nutrition, because that’s when you get into the toxic headspace of labeling foods “nutritious” and “non-nutritious,” which generally spirals into “good” and “bad” foods, which attaches emotion and judgement to what is otherwise a very neutral thing: sustenance.
My Taqueria experience did not come out of a search for nutrition (though that is generally how I try to approach food). It came out of a deeper need to experience the identity of my city, try something new and outside of my comfort zone, and spend quality time with my coworkers on a little adventure through the city.
So I came into the experience with a lot of joy. I wasn't here to stuff my face with a naughty burrito, I was here on an adventure with friends. When I got to the front, I confidently ordered a half carne asada, half carnitas with beans, avocado, sour cream, & cheese (the super version). I thought I might eat half and save the rest for dinner, but really, I just wanted the full experience, no skimping.
I savored every bite of that burrito. It was so. Freaking. Good. And I ate the whole thing. But not until after checking with myself at a quarter, half, and three quarters done. This is an especially important guideline when you’re eating something on the less healthy side.
So here I sit, full and happy, writing to you with the hopes that you too can have these sorts of food experiences in a completely guilt-free headspace. I hope to one day live in a world where no one experiences food anxiety when faced with social situations that include “bad” foods and one in which we’re able to savor the occasional less healthy option, because we spend so much of our time listening to and lovingly nourishing our bodies with mindful eating practices.
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