‘When walking, walk. When eating, eat.’ ~Zen proverb
By Leo Babauta
Picture me 7 years ago, about 60 lbs. heavier than I am now, with a chubbier face, a growing gut, and an addiction to junk food.
I ate pizza, chips, cookies, fried meats and cheeses, French fries, and drank beer and sweet & fatty lattes. I was 32 and headed for diabetes and heart disease, and couldn’t figure out how to change.
And yet, a year later I had lost about 20-30 lbs. and ran a marathon. The pounds kept dropping away, year after year, and more importantly, I was eating healthier foods. I now love fresh fruits and veggies, raw nuts and seeds, beans and whole grains that haven’t been ground up, real unprocessed food.
How did I do it? I used a really simple method that is not hard to do … and yet most people will be unwilling to do it, even after I explain how simple it is.
Here’s the secret: I used eating as a form of meditation.
It’s a method that’s thousands of years old (Buddha did it, among others), and yet it is so at odds with our current society that most people won’t even consider it. Slowing down, pausing, really paying attention to the food instead of a screen … it’s a radical thing to do.
It’s not even hard. Let’s take a look, first, at what most people do (including the 2005 Leo), and why it adds up to bad health and being overweight.
The Standard American Diet
Not everyone in the Western world will follow these generalizations, and I’m going to highlight the negative stuff just to make a point.
The average American eats way too many calories, and gets many of those calories from processed sugars, white flours, fried foods, saturated animal fats, sweet beverages. We’re talking about sodas, sweet breakfast treats, hamburgers and fried chicken, French fries and cookies and chips. Very very little nutrition, lots of calories and sugar and saturated fats and sodium and added chemicals.
Part of the problem is advertising and the fast food industry and convenience food industry, but another part is mindless eating. We eat not because we’re hungry, but out of habit, because we’re stressed or need reward or are tired or depressed or lonely. Food becomes a substitute for love.
We eat while watching TV or reading on the computer or mobile device. We eat while talking with other people, and barely notice what we’re eating.
And yet, the food we eat becomes who we are. It takes energy to grow and harvest and prepare and transport. In many cases, hundreds of living, suffering animals have given their lives for us. The food affects our long-term health, one of the most important things in our lives.
We ignore all of that as we focus on other things. We skip out on one of the most critical elements in our lives, because of addiction to screens, because of habitual emotional responses, because of socializing patterns we’re unwilling to change.
Eating as Meditation
I don’t always practice this, but I often will use eating as a form of meditation. This is the opposite of mindless eating — it’s a way to practice completely mindfulness, focus, awareness of thoughts and emotions, gratitude for the food I’ve been given.
When we do sitting meditation, we drop all other activities and just sit, paying attention to body and breath, being present with ourselves without expectation or judgment. Food meditation is the same thing, but instead of just sitting, we just eat.
It’s not eating for the point of rapid consumption, or even for the point of sensory pleasure (though that does happen). It’s about slowing down, paying attention to the food, really savoring it, being grateful for where it came from and who prepared it, noticing our emotions as we eat.
The benefits of eating meditation are many:
- Food tastes better when you pay attention.
- You can learn to enjoy healthy foods when you slow down and savor.
- You eat less because you’re not eating mindlessly.
- You naturally gravitate towards simpler foods because of the savoring.
- You begin to address the emotions around eating.
- You get a little oasis of slow mindfulness in your busy day.
- It relieves stress.
- It’s fun.
The Meditation Diet Method
So how do you do it? It’s not very difficult — you can do some or all of the items here:
- Create space. Too often eating is multitasked with reading or working or driving or watching. Create some space for the eating meditation — clear away everything else, and just do one thing. Just eat.
- Put your food in front of you, and consider it. The food you choose doesn’t matter — it can be food you already eat on a regular basis, or you can consider a handful of berries, a carrot, some broccoli, some raw almonds or walnuts. Sit down with the food in front of you, and look at it. Notice its color, texture, imperfections. Smell it.
- Think about its origins. Take a moment to think about where this food came from — is it from another continent, or somewhere in your area? How did it get to you? Who grew it, picked it, transported it, prepared it? What animal gave its life and suffered for your pleasure and health? Be grateful for all of this.
- Taste it. One bite at a time, put the food in your mouth and savor its taste and texture. Is it crunchy, soft, chewy, grainy, syrupy? Is it earthy, sweet, floral, salty, spicy, oaky, citrus-y, grassy, herbal, mossy, tangy, tannin-y? Think too about what has been added to the food — chemicals, salt, sugar, fat? How does the food make you feel? Consider what nutrients the food is giving you, how it is nourishing you.
- Notice your heart. What do you feel as you eat? Are you hungry, stressed, sad, happy, hurt, angry, afraid, confused, lonely, bored, impatient?
- Pause between bites. Don’t pick up the next bite as you chew. Just stay with one bite, then swallow. Breathe. Enjoy the space. Then repeat the process for the next bite.
Practice this once a day. When it becomes a regular habit, try it twice a day. Eventually, do it every time you eat a meal or snack, or have anything to drink.
This is not a lose-weight-fast diet. I lost about 20-30 lbs. in my first year of eating healthier, but that’s only about 1/2 a lb. per week. Not a lot of progress right away, so don’t worry about weight lose or appearance at first.
This diet is about relearning the eating process, about changing your taste buds to enjoy healthier food, about creating lasting change, about being more mindful throughout the day, about being grateful for what you have, about remapping our actions around emotions, about understanding what you put into your body and how it becomes who you are.
So there is no goal that you’re trying to reach over the long term (weight loss, six-pack abs, reduced chance of diabetes and heart disease). The process of meditating as you eat is the goal itself. If you are being mindful as you eat, you have already succeeded.
And so success in this program is easy — you just have to do it, and you are a world champion.