I saw an episode of The Best Thing I Ever Ate last week that I felt at the time sort of wrote this week’s mindless moment for me. This program highlighted the Stout Vanilla Cake Shake served at the Public House in Chicago. They take a large, tall, stemmed glass and paint it in butter cream frosting. Then they roll the glass in confetti and pearl candies. Then they mix a substantial slab of vanilla cake with confetti frosting, vanilla ice cream, milk and a craft beer in a blender. They pour this concoction into the frosting/candy-covered glass and top if off with another big hunk of confetti cake on top. There’s a chocolate porter version of this shake for those who don’t like vanilla.
I absolutely confess to judging the many patrons in this bar who had one of these monstrosities sitting on their tables in the wide shot the Public House. I caught myself and thought it was a great example of simple mindlessness on both the patrons as well as the creator of this caloric nightmare. And then I thought some more. Was it a mindless act to create a drink loaded with nothing but unhealthy ingredients on top of who knows how many calories? Or was it mindfully crafted, with increasing business in mind, while creating something novel enough to garner free publicity on tv? And how do I know that the customers didn’t mindfully select this drink after reading all of the ingredients or based on seeing someone else’s on the table? The truth is, I don’t.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that mindfulness is good and mindlessness is bad. But as you’ve heard me say many times by now, a key tenet of mindfulness is that there isn’t really a good or bad anything, as that would be a judgment. Both mindfulness and mindlessness are a state of mind, a way of being. We can do something very harmful, yet still do it mindfully. Mindful means awareness. Mindless means a lack of awareness.
The patrons of that bar may have been very aware of the comforting smell of vanilla, the celebratory feel of the look of the shake, the novelty of such a weird mixture. They may even have been aware that they probably wouldn’t feel very good after consuming it. If so, they were mindfully consuming what has to be the most unhealthy food combination I’ve ever seen.
So what happened to our mindless moment example for this week? It was me. I cannot recall once in my life thinking, “it would be beneficial for me to sit down and watch a cooking show.” Nope. When I’m tired and plop down in the living room with remote in hand, if I happen across a food or cooking show, the mindlessness begins. I frequently think in the beginning that I’ll just watch one episode. But that almost never happens. Instead, I’ll binge watch show after show – Carnival Eats, The Best Thing, Good Eats… What makes this mindless is that I don’t intend to watch the shows, nor will I almost ever need the information. I’m not going to the County Fair in Macon, Georgia, nor am I going to smoke my own meat. But there I sit, mindlessly enjoying the smorgasbord of America!
Speaking of food, mindful eating is an excellent way to strengthen our overall mindfulness practice. It’s a tangible, tactile experience where we can become aware of a multitude of sensations and feelings. Mindful eating is remaining aware, in a nonjudgmental way, of the complete eating experience. The health benefits of eating mindfully include a reduction in negative emotions, improved digestion, and it can even contribute to weight release.
The most common practice in mindfulness classes is to practice on a raisin. Personally, I don’t like raisins, so I use apples in my workshops. The old adage, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” is actually backed by science and I love hearing a room full of people crunch into the red, green, orange and pink apples at the same time. Apples can help prevent heart disease because fiber and antioxidants prevent cholesterol buildup in the blood vessels of the heart. The fiber also helps move waste through the intestines which can help lower the risk of problems such as irritable bowel syndrome. And the apple skin contains half of the vitamin C in the apple and is rich in phytochemicals, which helps fight chronic disease. They even contain potassium which helps keep blood pressure under control. I’ll bet you’ve never thought of all of that as you’ve bitten into an apple.
And that’s a large part of the point of mindful eating. Being aware of everything about the process. You can mindfully wash and dry the apple. Take in a breath and focus on how the apple feels in your hand, its color, its weight. Its health benefits. How did the apple get to you? Where was it grown? Who picked it from a tree, loaded it on a truck, and unpacked it at the store? Think of all of the people who worked to get this apple to you right now. As you take the first bite, notice the burst of sweet juice that literally sprays from the apple. Focus on what it feels like in your mouth. What does it taste like? How does it sound? What is it like to slowly chew and swallow it? As you become fully aware of eating the apple, you become fully aware of the present moment. You become fully engaged in the here and now. Are you craving an apple right now?
I ask my workshop participants to try to chew their apple bite 20 to 30 times, noticing changes in the taste or texture of the bite. Then I ask them to eat a potato chip and chew it 20 to 30 times, noticing the same. While the apple stays true to its taste all the way to the end, no one can chew a potato chip that many times and the initial salt and crunch quickly dissipate into an unpleasant mush. It’s an excellent way to determine if what you’re eating is healthy or not. You can do the same thing with a French fry. It’s fantastic when it first hits your mouth, but if you pay close attention, it’s not so good at the end.
Mindful eating encompasses not only the item you’re eating, but being aware of how it effects your body. We frequently don’t hear what our bodies are telling us because we’re distracted by other things. Stress further muffles our bodies’ messages. Instead of feeling a craving for a banana or an avocado because we’re low on potassium, we think “candy bar” to soothe our anxiety. A good practice is to stay aware of our bodies after we’ve eaten something as well. Certain foods give us energy while others make us feel bloated, uncomfortable or sleepy.
Food triggers are another area where mindful eating can be beneficial. Before you eat your next bite of anything, pause and consider why you’re eating it. What prompted you to do so? Did you see the food and then want to eat it? Or did you smell the food and that prompted a craving? Was your stomach growling to indicate actual hunger? Did you feel upset, anxious, or sad and then decide you wanted that item? Being mindful of why you chose a certain type of food can help you hone in on your mind and body’s prompts and respond according to actual needs. If you discover that it’s your emotions prompting the choice, you can take a few deep breaths and calm down first. You may still want to eat the food you’ve chosen, but now you’re aware that you’re trying to meet an emotional need, not a bodily hunger need. Chances are though, the more you recognize your emotional food triggers, the less they will occur. Or you’ll make better choices in addressing those needs.
Calming down before you eat is always a good idea. You can mindfully prepare a meal or snack, relaxing and enjoying the process, which will help you more enjoy the experience of eating. If instead you’ve picked up fast food, take a moment to unwrap it and smell it before consuming. Expressing gratitude for the meal or snack before you eat it also increases the pleasure of eating. Many people no longer say grace before eating, but that may be a ritual to reinstate. Feeling grateful releases feel-good hormones into our bodies and that helps ensure good digestion. So whether you say a prayer to a higher power or simply focus on gratitude in general, you’re intensifying your focus on the food - and that’s mindful eating.
As for our Stout Vanilla Cake Shake, non-judgment is a key component to mindful eating. Most of us have our mindless moments where we consume something that makes our bodies feel sluggish or consume too much of something and feel the need for a nap afterwards. If you’re trying to eat healthy and slip, don’t waste energy on judging yourself. Feel gratitude for the experience that you enjoyed at least initially and set an intention to make the next thing you eat a healthier choice.