Sweet advice: mindfulness when eating brings many health benefits.
A few months ago a sultana stopped me in my tracks. Trawling the internet for information about the self-awareness tool, mindfulness, I came across a YouTube clip of a psychologist quietly instructing a roomful of people to eat a raisin incredibly slowly in order to become more present in daily life.
Intrigued by the magic of a dried grape, I raided my children's sultana supplies and returned to the clip on my laptop to be told to choose, look at, feel, smell and taste the morsel without haste or incredible hunger. The aim is to become absorbed in the experience of eating the raisin – or sultana, in my case – and quietly revel in that moment.
I'm not fond of dried fruit but it did the trick – it made me think about how mindlessly I eat food of any kind for sustenance and gobble chocolate too readily for a quick fuel intake as part of the increasingly chaotic timetable that is life. Those few minutes sitting quietly initially made me feel twitchy and frustrated but eventually alerted me to the fact that I could choose to eat better and make wiser choices about the amount, type and source of my food intake.
"Most of us eat raisins by grabbing a handful, throwing them in our mouths, giving them a quick munch before swallowing," says one instructor from a web-based tutorial called How a Raisin Can Teach You About Mindfulness Practice. "The next raisin you eat is going to be quite a different experience, so pause for a moment, grab a raisin – just one or a similar dried fruit if raisins aren't your thing – then sit comfortably. It's time to wrap your senses around your raisin."
Mindfulness is a mental well-being tool, first embraced in some of the world's oldest cultures, that encourages us to live in the present. Anything can be done mindfully but mindful eating is showing promise in clinical studies for its ability to curb disordered eating and promote well-being by reducing anxiety.
Mindful eating is not a diet but is meant to induce awareness and appreciation of food and a feeling of nourishment. It encourages us to eat slower and make better food choices.
A 2014 review of literature published in Obesity Reviews, the journal of the World Obesity Federation, supported using mindfulness as a tool to help shift emotional eating and binge eating in particular. It followed a 2011 University of California study which found that mindfulness helped obese women to become more aware of their bodily sensations and reduced anxiety and eating in response to emotions.
Mindfulness for Life author Dr Craig Hassed suggests that instead of arriving home and immediately fronting up to the fridge, we first take notice of whether or not we're hungry. "The ability to stand back from urges with non-attachment to them, whether it's an urge to eat, smoke or anything else, is sometimes called 'urge-surfing'," says Hassed, a senior lecturer at Monash University's Department of General Practice.
"Eating more mindfully generally means slowing down and tasting the food, consciously, without eating on autopilot. This helps us to not only enjoy the food more but also to be in touch with our body's messages about what it wants and when it has had enough."
Experiencing the taste of food is a practice also used in traditional ayurvedic medicine. In his latest book, What Are You Hungry For?, doctor and author Deepak Chopra outlines the need to incorporate the "six tastes of every meal" – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent.
"In the centuries that preceded modern nutrition, including all six in every meal ensured that the major food groups and nutrients were represented but it also provided a feeling of complete satisfaction, which in ayurveda is just as important," Chopra says.
Chopra says that after his move to "awareness eating" his body felt lighter, he lost weight effortlessly, stopped doing unconscious things such as taking phone calls during meal times, and didn't deprive himself of food.
The result? He lifted his mood, energy and buoyancy. I'm hoping to do the same, one raisin at a time.