How To Eat Right: Part I: Mindful Eating

Every festivity in the history of mankind is celebrated over food. From Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s to birthdays, baby and bridal showers, college graduations and just about any milestone in our lives - we gather our favorite people together and lay out a lavish spread; typically food heavily laden with salt, sugar, fat and sauces. How can we celebrate joyfully without the guilt centering around food?

Along with the holiday season comes lots of traveling - self driving road trips, for instance, where you drive anywhere from several tens to hundreds of miles over the course of the day, during which time you make pit stops and slip in ad-hoc meals at gas stations and grocery stores stocked with highly processed food. Or you zip through fast food joints and roadside diners offering greasy, non-nutritious and carb-dense food. If you fly, you’re transiting between airports and settling for overpriced but mediocre food. Onboard a flight, you’re consuming prepackaged food heavily loaded with sodium. Oh the pangs of first world problems - how can we eat well on the go?

The key I realized, to healthy eating in this modern age where food is reduced to an obsession and a bombardment of the senses (rather than for nutritional purposes) is to practice mindfulness. Before I go into details, here are three simple ways to practice mindfulness when it comes to food:

  1. Decide to eat well - choose only whole food or nutritiously-dense food

  2. Walk away from temptation - junk food or calorie-rich but nutrition-poor food

  3. Eat less than the usual portion.

Did you say, easier said than done? Yes, I hear you. Which is why, in order to successfully practice mindfulness, you have to first detach yourself from the addictive bondage of food through some form of fasting. I’ll talk about fasting in another post, but for now, let’s understand the addiction of food.  

Yes, food is addictive. Otherwise how do you explain where the entire bag of chip went to the minute you pop open the package? Or how the entire tub of ice cream is wiped clean the minute you peel back the seal?

Why we eat what we eat

Before you start lamenting, Woe is me, I love junk food!, fret not. It’s not your fault that you’re eating more junk food than you’d like. The truth is, processed food of our generation today has been specially engineered to produce hunger-inducing reactions in our digestive system (It’s not enough, eat some more!) and our brain (Mmm... this tastes so good, eat some more!).

It is no secret that dominant food manufacturers including Pepsico and Nestle pour millions of dollars into research that goes into producing the right look, shape, size and taste of food to generate billions of dollars in sales.

A potato chip isn’t just a thin and crispy crunch. It has been engineered to produce just the right sound when we bite into it; a sound so pleasing it sends a signal to our brain telling us, This is awesome, I like this, let’s have more of this.

Also, given the modern day’s busy lifestyle, many people choose processed food over whole food because it is much more convenient to grab processed and packaged food from the shelf rather than to wait in line for natural whole food to be prepared.

Knowledge is powerful because it empowers you to make the right decision. But knowledge alone isn’t enough. Because knowing is one thing, desiring is another thing and actually doing is something else altogether.

How then can we marry knowledge with action?

1. Decide to eat well

First decide, and actions will follow.

Now that you know what processed food really is (it is NOT real food - it is engineered to satisfy the modern need for convenience, to allow for longer shelf life and to make you feel good so that you spend and consume more to the ill effect of your wallet and health), you can choose better.

Between whole and processed food, choose whole foods. This means instead of a breakfast bar made from oats, peanut butter and dark chocolate, have a bowl of plain oats with roasted peanuts and dark cacao. Instead of beef jerky (processed), have grilled beef. Instead of potato chips, have a baked potato. Instead of a banana nut muffin, have a banana and a handful of walnuts. Instead of rice crisps, have real rice. 

This is a standard Vietnamese rice plate made up of grilled meat, veggies, egg and shrimp cake. Disclaimer: I'm no saint and while I practice eating whole foods as much as possible, I have the occasional piece or two of processed food like the fried and processed shrimp cake here. 

This is a standard Vietnamese rice plate made up of grilled meat, veggies, egg and shrimp cake. Disclaimer: I'm no saint and while I practice eating whole foods as much as possible, I have the occasional piece or two of processed food like the fried and processed shrimp cake here. 

2. Walk away from temptation

When you notice that you have cravings for processed food which you would normally abstain from, it signals a lack or deficiency which you have suppressed for a while.

I like most anything crunchy. Chips, fries, biscuits, toasts, pastries. These food are high on the list of not-to-eat because of the high levels of saturated fat, salt, sugar and processed ingredients.

Chips are high in saturated fat and addictive - you rarely stop at one. Because it is mostly air, your brain is tricked into thinking it contains little calories and doesn’t do much damage to your body, so you keep eating. Also, as discussed earlier, potato chips are engineered to accomplish just the right crunch to have you coming back for more.

Fries are high in saturated fat and also addictive - again, you rarely stop at one. The combination of starch, salt and fat makes it a heavenly delight so you keep popping one after another into your mouth. Plus, fries are cheap. They cost under $2 in most fast food joints.

The best way to overcome temptation is not to fight it but to walk away from it. I speak from experience: when I resolve to eat whole foods and I am flanked by processed or salt, sugar and fat-laden food in the grocery store or gas station, it’s useless to try to use willpower to resist picking it up and heading for the cashier; it’s much easier to walk out of the store.

3. Eat less than the usual portion

You don’t have to finish everything on your plate. Neither do you have to finish the entire box or package. Yes the food might go to waste, but which is better - save a few dollars and hurt your health or save your health and hurt a few dollars?

You can always earn money back but you can’t easily earn good health back.  

But the food tastes too good to stop at just a few mouthfuls, you say. Yes, the struggle is real. The good news is, as with developing any habit, it takes practice. Practice eating less than your usual portion. Over time, you will naturally eat less. A good rule of thumb is to eat till you’re 70% satisfied. Some would recommend eating till you’re satiated, not till you’re full. If you gobble down your food, you won’t feel the satiety or fullness until an hour later. The key is to slow down, chew, and savor your food. You will feel satiated more quickly when you slow down rather than wolf down your meal. I know this because I’m guilty of eating too quickly. I have however, over time, gotten accustomed to eating less than my usual portion. I typically eat two thirds of my usual portion (during a regular meal). If I snack, I typically eat just a handful or a small bite size. For instance, I don’t eat a full bar of chocolate. I typically allow myself just 2 to 3 squares.  

Do you struggle with food? How do you practice healthy eating habits? Feel free to share your experience in the comment box below so we can learn from each other!

Coming Soon: Next post:  How To Eat Right: Part II: Mindful Fasting

Angeline Tanfood, eatingComment