Mindfulness and Mindful Eating

Sometimes we are so out of touch with what we are eating that we are able just to stuff handfuls of food in our mouth without even savouring or tasting any of the flavours, which is definitely not mindful eating. Digestions starts with chewing, and sometimes if food is not chewed or digested well (due to low stomach acid and/or digestive enzymes) it is possible to see the food as recognisable food passing straight through the digestive system and into the stool. Obviously, this is food that had not been optionally digested or all the goodness used by the body. When will you start thinking about mindful eating?

mindful eating

Jon Kabat-Zinn who is recognised as bringing Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction to the West, defines Mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment”. One of the first exercises he encourages us to do is to pay attention to the humble raisin (noticing its smell, sound, look and eventually placing it in the mouth to observe the taste). How many times have we just put a handful in our mouths without realising it?

Observing our food makes us taste it, savour it, appreciate it, but above all digest it!

Louise Chester, the Founder of our partners, Mindfulness at Work, writes:

‘Being present and able to notice our habitual tendencies, so that we can choose to behave differently in that moment, is one of the biggest benefits of being more mindful. Taking the time to check in with ourselves, choosing food that nourishes us, taking the time to savour it and reducing our stress levels so we digest it more effectively has huge implications for our health.

And noticing the ruminative thinking and the catastrophizing that often permeates our day, realising that these mental events often have no basis in reality, can bring us out of the grip of stress and activate the relaxation our body needs for optimum balance and health.

The best way to learn mindfulness is with a highly experienced trainer with a long-standing personal practice. However, there are lots of things we can do in our day to bring ourselves off auto-pilot and become more aware in the present moment:

  • Choose 3 things you do every day – from your morning shower or walk to the station – and actively choose to be very aware of the sensations that arise as you perform this activity. Notice the sounds and smells, the sense of warm water or air on your skin. Notice every time you go off into imagining, planning, remembering – and gently bring yourself back to attending to the felt sense of this moment.
  • At moments of waiting – for the bus, the lift, your computer to boot up – turn them in to opportunities to tune into the sensation of breathing. Feel the expanding and relaxing of the ribcage and perhaps the abdomen as you breathe, noticing all sensations of air in your body – perhaps cooler on the in-breath and warmer on the out-breath.
  • At times of stress, notice the pressure of your feet on the floor and then check in with the thoughts, emotions and feelings in your body in this moment. Try to observe them dispassionately yet open-heartedly, recognising that often ‘thoughts aren’t facts’ and check in to see if the story you are telling yourself is either true or helpful. See if you can gently expand your view to see the situation from a wider perspective before responding from a place of wisdom.
  • Download our free 3-minute mindfulness practice to get you started: http://focusedwellness.co.uk/download/

Evidence-based mindfulness training programmes have been shown, time and time again, to help optimise mental and physical wellness – and this wisdom is behind the our joint Focussed Wellness programme, which combines the best of mindfulness training with the Nutrition Coach’s first-class teaching on get smart about nutrition and wellness. Below is a compilation of a range of scientific studies that we have found particularly compelling:

Benefits of Mindfulness in Health

With thanks to The American Psychological Association – http://www.apa.org

Reduced rumination. Several studies have shown that mindfulness reduces rumination. In one study, for example, Chambers et al. (2008) asked 20 novice meditators to participate in a 10-day intensive mindfulness meditation retreat. After the retreat, the meditation group had significantly higher self-reported mindfulness and a decreased negative affect compared with a control group. They also experienced fewer depressive symptoms and less rumination. In addition, the meditators had significantly better working memory capacity and were better able to sustain attention during a performance task compared with the control group.

Stress reduction. Many studies show that practicing mindfulness reduces stress. In 2010, Hoffman et al. conducted a meta-analysis of 39 studies that explored the use of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. The researchers concluded that mindfulness-based therapy may be useful in altering affective and cognitive processes that underlie multiple clinical issues.

Those findings are consistent with evidence that mindfulness meditation increases positive affect and decreases anxiety and negative effect. In one study, participants randomly assigned to an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction group were compared with controls on self-reported measures of depression, anxiety and psychopathology, and on neural reactivity as measured by fMRI after watching sad films (Farb et al., 2010). The researchers found that the participants who experienced mindfulness-based stress reduction had significantly less anxiety, depression and somatic distress compared with the control group. In addition, the fMRI data indicated that the mindfulness group had less neural reactivity when they were exposed to the films than the control group, and they displayed distinctly different neural responses while watching the films than they did before their mindfulness training. These findings suggest that mindfulness meditation shifts people’s ability to use emotion regulation strategies in a way that enables them to experience emotion selectively, and that the emotions they experience may be processed differently in the brain (Farb et al., 2010; Williams, 2010).

Boosts to working memory. Improvements to working memory appear to be another benefit of mindfulness, research finds. A 2010 study by Jha et al., for example, documented the benefits of mindfulness meditation among a military group who participated in an eight-week mindfulness training, a nonmeditating military group and a group of nonmeditating civilians. Both military groups were in a highly stressful period before deployment. The researchers found that the nonmeditating military group had decreased working memory capacity over time, whereas working memory capacity among nonmeditating civilians was stable across time. Within the meditating military group, however, working memory capacity increased with meditation practice. In addition, meditation practice was directly related to self-reported positive affect and inversely related to self-reported negative effect.

Focus. Another study examined how mindfulness meditation affected participants’ ability to focus attention and suppress distracting information. The researchers compared a group of experienced mindfulness meditators with a control group that had no meditation experience. They found that the meditation group had significantly better performance on all measures of attention and had higher self-reported mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation practice and self-reported mindfulness were correlated directly with cognitive flexibility and attentional functioning (Moore and Malinowski, 2009).

Less emotional reactivity. Research also supports the notion that mindfulness meditation decreases emotional reactivity. In a study of people who had anywhere from one month to 29 years of mindfulness meditation practice, researchers found that mindfulness meditation practice helped people disengage from emotionally upsetting pictures and enabled them to focus better on a cognitive task as compared with people who saw the pictures but did not meditate (Ortner et al., 2007).

More cognitive flexibility. Another line of research suggests that in addition to helping people become less reactive, mindfulness meditation may also give them greater cognitive flexibility. One study found that people who practice mindfulness meditation appear to develop the skill of self-observation, which neurologically disengages the automatic pathways that were created by prior learning and enables present-moment input to be integrated in a new way (Siegel, 2007a). Meditation also activates the brain region associated with more adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations (Cahn & Polich, 2006; Davidson et al., 2003). Activation of this region corresponds with faster recovery to baseline after being negatively provoked (Davidson, 2000; Davidson, Jackson, & Kalin, 2000).

Relationship satisfaction. Several studies find that a person’s ability to be mindful can help predict relationship satisfaction — the ability to respond well to relationship stress and the skill in communicating one’s emotions to a partner. Empirical evidence suggests that mindfulness protects against the emotionally stressful effects of relationship conflict (Barnes et al., 2007), is positively associated with the ability to express oneself in various social situations (Dekeyser el al., 2008) and predicts relationship satisfaction (Barnes et al., 2007; Wachs & Cordova, 2007).

Other benefits. Mindfulness has been shown to enhance self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation, all functions associated with the brain’s middle prefrontal lobe area. Evidence also suggests that mindfulness meditation has numerous health benefits, including increased immune functioning (Davidson et al., 2003; see Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004 for a review of physical health benefits), improvement to well-being (Carmody & Baer, 2008) and reduction in psychological distress (Coffey & Hartman, 2008; Ostafin et al., 2006). In addition, mindfulness meditation practice appears to increase information processing speed (Moore & Malinowski, 2009), as well as decrease task effort and having thoughts that are unrelated to the task at hand (Lutz et al., 2009).

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