Mindfulness and Meals

I get lots of questions about what I eat; not so many about how, which I think is just as important. A few years ago I returned to Paris, one of the places I lived as a child. Whenever I travel I try to bring home one intangible thing from the trip, something I experienced that I can apply to make my life better. We were in the flea market one day around lunchtime in a tiny shop selling antique compacts, which my daughter wanted to buy for her grandmother. The proprietor told my daughter to pick one out for herself as well as a gift from him, and to bring the money around the corner, where he would be eating with a friend; he left the shop completely in our hands. Our next stop was at a small shop selling vintage linens, with several tables set up on the sidewalk out front. While we were looking at those items the proprietor placed a broom across the doorway, signifying that the shop was closed, and proceeded to set a table in the street with one of the vintage cloths, real silverware and china, and a lovely lunch for herself. The message was clear: “you may look at whatever you like, but don’t expect me to sell it to you until I have finished dining”. Contrast that with America, where we may grab a few bites out of a sandwich in the back room between customers, or throw down a snack bar and coffee in lieu of real food. Europe has the sidewalk cafe and Japan invented the tea house-we created the drive through. At any rate, mindful meals were the change I decided to bring home.

So how does that make a difference? Three major ways. First, we digest our food better when we are relaxed. The vagus nerve that runs behind the stomach affects gastrointestinal function, heart rate, and blood pressure in addition to esophageal and other functions. When we are rushing through our meal we usually are ‘uptight’, pushing the stomach into the diaphragm (often resulting in a hiatal hernia) so we constrict circulation to the nerve and related organs. Taking a short break to relax and focus just on eating releases that tension.

Second, we might actually take time to chew our food rather than mash it slightly with our teeth and force it down with a beverage (usually carbonated, so we distend the stomach and reduce our oxygen levels, and sweetened, so we stress the pancreas and create acidity, whether we use real sugar or artificial sweeteners). Digestion begins with smelling your food, which triggers digestive enzyme activity, tasting it, which lets the body know what specific levels of insulin, bile, etc. will be needed, and chewing it, which provides the initial breakdown of the starches. Skipping any of those steps causes unnecessary stress on the pancreas and makes you more susceptible to everything from Irritable Bowel Syndrome to Diabetes.

Third, it makes you much more aware of what (and how much!) you are actually eating. This is what prompted this entry: I rushed right into my day this morning, resolving a couple of crises left unfinished last night, so I just had some juice for breakfast, which I rarely do. Was just going to grab something quick for lunch, like hummus with chips (love the lentil chips from Simply Seven!) and carrots. Got a glimpse of the linen towel I bought (eventually) from the shop in Paris which reminded me I could afford two minutes to put my lunch on a plate, instead. The carrots looked lonely, so I added some snow peas; decided I would do even better with some multi-grain/flax crackers mixed with the chips, and remembered my own rule about three raw foods per meal so added some dried cranberries. Took less than two minutes to double the nutritional makeup and mindfulness of my meal, which led to a deep breath of gratitude before I ate, which took the tension out of my shoulders…….which will let me tackle my ongoing challenges with a better attitude and fresh resolve!

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