Harness the powerful mind-body connection for healthier eating.
As an anonymous 19th-century European traveler once observed, “Americans don’t dine, they gobble, gulp, and go.” In the 21st century, health experts say that eating on the run is not just uncultivated; it’s downright unhealthy.
After you start eating, it takes 20 minutes before your brain begins to turn off your appetite. It’s easy to take in many more calories than you need in 20 minutes. So wolfing down meals can lead to weight gain. Large meals may also be bad for your heart. For instance, research shows that blasting large amounts of saturated fat into your system makes your arteries less able to respond to momentary changes in demand for blood flow.
But even as many of us emerge—bloated and unbuckled—from the annual season of holiday overeating, there is a way to moderate your meals without severe dieting. According to Peg Baim, clinical director of the Center for Training at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, the first step to being a recovering meal-wolfer is to slow down and become more tuned into the experience of your meals. This approach can help you become a happier, healthier, and more relaxed “mindful eater.”
Mind your mouth
The Benson-Henry Institute helps people harness the mind-body connection for better health. Mindful eating is just one form of training at the Institute. Baim teaches this skill.
Mindful eating is an application of a broader approach to living called mindfulness. Most people think of it as “living in the moment.” It is being alive and aware of your momentary experience. “A mindful experience brings connection to our sentient self,” Baim says, “that wonderful natural state of being alive.” You can practice mindfulness during any daily activity—including eating.
Slow down and chew
Start by allotting more time. Baim suggests 15 to 20 minutes, minimum, for any meal. “Nowadays we are conditioned by our culture to just eat too quickly,” Baim says. “But it takes time to experience this natural state of simple being. That’s the thing that’s hard for people—you have to surrender and give it time.”
Also, create a mindfulness-friendly environment for the meal. Because people are so sensitive to environments, it’s best to dine in one that is relatively quiet and distraction-free. Soothing music may add a calming influence, whereas a loud, chattering television is likely to derail attempts at mindful eating.
Now comes the part your mother already told you: take time to chew. “If you are eating quickly,” Baim explains, “your brain doesn’t receive the signal that the nourishment is adequate, so you are going to end up eating more. If you eat more mindfully, your body will absorb the nutrients and will send a signal to the brain.” As a result you will feel comfortably full instead of stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey, which puts stress on your cardiovascular system.
Mindfulness can help you eat a moderate portion of food, yet fully enjoy the meal and the experience of eating. Most important of all, by developing the skill of mindfulness, you’ll build a natural stress buffer into your life and lose the temptation to gobble, gulp, and go.
“Chewing takes time, digestion takes time, the awareness of simply being takes time,” Baim says. “It’s time that’s well spent, given its pleasure and stress-relieving benefits.”
Once you begin this new behavior, you’ll return to your natural state of calm and well-being—at least for a while.