Take a breath and go slow

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Gandhi once said “there is more to life than increasing its speed” but you’d never know by the way many of us eat.

We live in a society that has a love affair with speed and it seems we’re far too busy to give food and eating the attention it deserves. We grab something quick to quiet the hunger pangs and gobble it down before rushing onto the next thing. Or we skip meals altogether with food taking a back seat to the many demands of our family, our work and our lives. It seems that taking the time to eat mindfully is an indulgence and, quite frankly, unnecessary! But at what cost?

When we move through life at a hectic pace, we inevitably eat too fast and this comes with many disadvantages. Eating at speed denies us pleasure and satisfaction from food which encourages us to eat more, and it creates a stress-response within the body that actually shuts down digestion. If you’ve tried to lose weight without lasting success, or you suffer from chronic heartburn, indigestion or reflux, the fundamental reason is not what you’re eating, but how: it’s likely you’re moving too fast. If food has to fit into your hectic schedule and you eat at high speed, it’s time to change gears!

Eating at speed makes us eat more food
When eating at speed, we barely taste the food and register only a vague experience of eating. And without pleasure from the tastes, textures and sensations of food, we’re likely to want more. The stomach may be full but if the heart and mind remain unsatisfied, they will fuel the desire for more food and encourage us to eat more than we need.

Eating at speed also makes it impossible to tune into our levels of hunger during a meal and realise when we’ve had enough to eat. As food travels from the mouth to the stomach and into the small intestine, our bodies produce hormones and chemicals that determine when we need to stop eating. However, this biological feedback loop takes about 20 minutes to be completed, so if we eat quickly, we may have already eaten too much before the satiety signal arrives. By slowing down when we eat, we can derive pleasure and satisfaction from our food and work with the intelligence of our body without eating too much.

Eating at speed shuts down digestion
Eating at speed triggers a stress response in the body. Commonly known as ‘fight or flight’, the stress response produces hormones that provide immediate energy and directs blood to the brain for quick thinking (fight) and to the limbs to run away (flight). As the body is geared for survival, digestion shuts down. This stress response was essential millions of years ago when early humans were being chased by sabre-toothed tigers and the like. And it’s an invaluable safety mechanism to support us during life-threatening situations today. After all, you don’t want your body to concentrate on digesting lunch when you’re about to be run-over by an oncoming car!

However, when we eat at speed, rapidly shovelling food into our mouths, barely chewing before we swallow, and introducing the next mouthful before taking a breath, the stomach is bombarded with large lumps of food and the body thinks it’s under attack. The primitive part of our brain doesn’t realise that eating at speed is not life-threatening and it triggers the stress response anyway: digestion shuts down, the body struggles to burn calories and assimilate nutrients in the food and the ‘fight or flight’ hormones, particularly cortisol and insulin, cause us to store fat. By taking the time to slow down and eat, we can ‘switch off’ the fight-or-flight stress response and maintain optimal digestive function.

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Return to the breath
If you’re a moderate or fast eater, it’s time to go slow! With Mindfulness, we use the breath to become centred in the body and focus on the present moment. Using the breath with Mindful Eating is important because when we eat quickly, our breathing is often shallow, erratic and infrequent and this breathing pattern plays a part in triggering the stress response. Focusing on the breath as we eat, taking deep, regular breaths in between each bite, helps us to slow down, relax and switch off the stress response. Slow, deep breathing aids digestion and the increase in oxygen also fuels calorie-burning.

Chew your food well
Our mouths enjoy different textures and some of the satisfaction in eating comes from chewing our food. Chewing food well not only gives the mouth a sense of participation, we can more easily assimilate the nutrients in the food. The enzymes in saliva break down food in the mouth and we start absorbing nutrients even before we have swallowed. Once in the stomach, food that has been chewed well is much easier to digest. How many chews it takes to process each mouthful of food depends on what you’re eating, of course, but aiming for ten chews per mouthful is a good place to start.

Mindful Eating Practice
This practice is designed to slow down your eating and will therefore your meals will take longer. It sounds obvious, but you will need to give yourself the gift of more time. Start with a meal where there is less time pressure, practice the steps below and see what arises. With other meals, simply using the breath to become centred and focused before you start eating, and taking a slow, deep breath in between each bite is a fantastic step in the right direction.

Any time you are about to eat, follow this Mindful Eating practice:
1. Sit in a chair with your spine straight and your feet flat on the floor (no more eating standing up in the kitchen, hunched over your keyboard or when driving!)
2. If you are able to close your eyes, please do so. If not, focus on a fixed point and soften your gaze
3. Focus on the breath and breathe in through your nose. Notice any areas of tension in the body and let the tension go on the exhale
4. When you feel your mind slowing down, take at least five deep, slow breaths
5. Open your eyes and look at the food you’re about to eat. Notice the ingredients, colours, shapes and textures. As you bring the food up to your mouth, can you detect the aroma? As you take the first bite, notice the tastes and sensations in your mouth
6. Put the food, or your cutlery down as you chew
7. Chew slowly and carefully noticing how the taste and texture of the food changes as you chew. Try not to swallow until the food has been thoroughly broken down (your tongue might have other ideas!)
8. Take another one or two deep, slow breaths before picking up the food, or cutlery, for the next bite
9. If the mind wanders and you notice you are eating without tasting, gently bring your attention back to the breath without judgement or criticism
10. Half way through your meal, check in with your stomach and body to assess your level of hunger. Are you full? If not, how much food do you need to feel pleasantly full? Is the food you’re eating still worthy of your tastebuds? Acknowledge that you have a choice to continue or stop eating
11. Continue to put your cutlery down and chew each mouthful thoroughly, then take a slow, deep breath in between each bite
12. Notice any resistance or impulses that arise during the practice. If you are a fast eater, remember that you have eaten this way for some time and it might seem awkward at first. The more you practice the easier it becomes – aim for progress, not perfection!

Let me know about your Mindful Eating experience. I’d love to hear what you learned from the practice.

Emma Hackett
Mindful Eating Coach
www.emmahackett.co.uk