I slowly bring my metal fork to my mouth, gently sinking my teeth into my first bite of the gorgeous chocolate cake sitting on the table in front of me. Closing my eyes, I allow an explosion of buttery fudge frosting and spongy, moist cake to fill my mouth. I am tempted to eat quicker as I have so many times before, but instead I pause, reminding myself that the point of this exercise is to savor the eating process.
“Let your food sit on your tongue for a moment,” my mindful eating facilitator, Dr. Michelle May, explains to a conference room full of hungry women who seem to be anxious to continue eating their meals. She asks us, “How does the food feel in your mouth? What sensations are emerging as you chew?”
Photo Credit: Michelle May
Now the room has gone completely silent as we close our eyes and eat slowly. After a couple more bites of the delicious cake, I realize I no longer have the urge to eat any more. I set my fork down and allow the sweet chocolaty aftertaste to settle in my mouth. While I am aware that I have eaten chocolate cake many times before, there is something very different about this experience. For the first time, I am eating mindfully.
The experience I’ve described chronicles just one of the mindful eating exercises I participated in at an Am I Hungry? Retreat led by Michelle May, M.D. during the summer of 2013. After experiencing the impact of mindful eating during the five day retreat, I wanted to learn more about what it meant for individuals to eat mindfully.
My desire to learn more about the concept of mindful eating ultimately led me to explore this topic for my senior undergraduate thesis. I began my research project by asking about the ideologies that underlie mindful eating approaches. I attempted to answer this question by examining the key attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors presented in Dr. May’s Am I Hungry? blog.
After months of thoroughly examining her blog posts, I found that on a deeper level, the concept of mindful eating presents an ideology of empowerment and liberation of the female body and self. [Editor’s note: Am I Hungry? is not intended for just a female audience.] The blogs reinforced this ideology by encouraging people to practice the following three attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors:
Trust the body in choosing flexibility, balance, and moderation when making food choices.
Practice awareness and acceptance of emotional and physical eating triggers. Embrace imperfections, vulnerability, and mistakes throughout the eating process.
In contrast, the posts framed dieting as an oppressive and controlling system wherein the body is frequently rendered powerless as external dieting rules often take priority over internal knowledge and bodily needs. Dr. May’s blog explored how diets keep women in a state of helplessness by instilling a sense of guilt, uncertainty, and self-criticism making it difficult to break away from the restrictive system. Overall, the posts emphasize that eating mindfully serves as a positive and holistic health alternative to dieting.
What I learned about mindful eating
Throughout the process of writing this thesis I had a number of “ah-ha” moments. The following are some takeaways I gained from my research:
The importance of flexibility. Even the practice of mindful eating requires balance and moderation. For example, when taken to the extremes, guidelines such as “eat according to your hunger cues” or “be present while eating” can become restrictive. Flexibility is one of the keys to living mindfully!
One size does not fit all. What works for one person may not work for every person. At the end of the day, it’s important not to judge others’ health choices. Embrace your own practices!
Mindful eating is not a fad. Because mindful eating is becoming a popular concept in our society, some argue that it’s just another diet wrapped up in a fancy package. My research has taught me that unlike fad diets which promise quick results, with daily practice and patience, mindful eating becomes part of your life.
Similar to my experience writing my thesis, my journey toward living more mindfully has not always been an easy path. I still have moments when I eat too much cake without fully enjoying the taste. When I do take the time to appreciate the eating experience as I did at the Am I Hungry? retreat, I realize that the true flavor of life is always with me. I just need to take the time to enjoy it mindfully!