Mindful Eating, Mindful Life

By Bill Reddy, LAc, Dipl. Ac.
Board Certified Licensed Acupuncturist (NCCAOM)
Director, Integrative Healthcare Policy Consortium
President Emeritus, Acupuncture Society of Virginia
Professor, Virginia University of Oriental Medicine

Many of us are constantly on the move with little rest, and we eat that way as well. It is very important to discuss our diet with a healthcare professional such as a Registered Dietitian or Nutritionist in our path to healthy eating, but the suggestions below provide some food for thought.

Chew food completely
Since many of us are on the "go," we tend to eat on the run, barely chewing our food a few times before swallowing. We may remember learning in grade school that "digestion starts in the mouth." Saliva contains Amylase which breaks down starches into smaller carbohydrate compounds. When we chew quickly and swallow, we don’t allow the enzyme to mix with our food to start the digestive process. Chewing our food slowly and completely will provide us with more energy because the nutrients will be more effectively broken down and absorbed into our body.

Be present with the meal
The central tenet of Zen Buddhism is to live life fully aware. The venerable Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about it eloquently in his book "Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life" that "When we eat and our mind is aware of each bite, savoring the taste and the nourishment it gives us, we are already practicing mindfulness. To be mindful of something, we need to learn to be fully present for an instant and to look deeply into that something. We must first stop our wandering mind in order to engage in what is there in the present moment. This awareness of the present gives us the opportunity and the tools to touch peace and joy, to see the true nature of who we are and how we are related to everything else, and to end our struggle with weight." So take time. Enjoy the meal. Taste every bite.

Don’t drink with the meal
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the spleen is the primary organ involved in digestion, and "cold liquids interfere with spleen function." From a Western medical point of view, the stomach can be seen as a muscular bag that moves gently to fully bathe your ingested food in acid. When a cold beverage is introduced to the stomach, the "motility" or movement of the stomach slows down, leading to incomplete digestion. Furthermore, any liquid we drink during a meal will dilute the hydrochloric acid in our stomach. Not drinking with our meal guarantees we will chew our food more thoroughly versus washing it down with our favorite beverage. Also be aware that sugar sweetened beverages are one of the major causes of weight gain in America. A 12 oz can of Coke Classic has the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar. Sports drinks such as Powerade packs in 280 calories and 76 grams of sugar (a whopping 19 teaspoons) in a 32 ounce bottle. Even Vitamin Water which sells itself as a "health" drink contains 32.5 grams of sugar and 125 calories in a 20 ounce bottle.

Eat slowly
This is very important. As we fill our stomach with food, our hypothalamus (the "operations center" of your brain) monitors how "full our tank is" through stretch receptors sending messages from our stomach. It communicates "30% capacity – keep it coming!" When our stomach sends the message to "STOP," there’s a 10 to 15 minute lag time to when our cerebral cortex (thinking/reasoning part of our brain) gets the message. During that time, what are we doing? Eating of course! So we will always eat a bit more than we really need to be satiated, but if we eat slowly, there’s less volume of food going down after the "stop" message. We Should try eating until we are 80% full. We’ll find if we wait 10-15 minutes we’ll be happy with what we consumed.

Drink before deciding to eat later in the evening
Studies show that when we age, we mistake thirst for hunger after dinner. So if we feel hungry, try drinking 12-14 ounces of water first and see if we still have a craving 15 minutes later. Most likely we are actually thirsty. If we are feeling fatigued in the mid afternoon, or we’re experiencing a slight headache like a band around our head, drink water and it should pick us right up and eliminate that headache. Americans are chronically dehydrated. Dehydration makes chronic disease patterns worse such as osteoarthritis, asthma, allergies, hypertension, excess body weight, and a number of other chronic conditions according to Dr. Batmanghelid, author of "Your Body’s Many Cries for Water."

Hydrate!
The average person should drink eight 8-ounce glasses of filtered water per day. The rule of thumb is we should consume half of our weight in ounces of water per day, so someone tipping the scales at 200 pounds should drink 100 ounces of water per day. What does water do for the body? It relieves constipation, helps with detoxification of the cells, and reduces fluid retention. Studies show that a decrease in water intake will cause fat deposits to increase, while an increase in water intake will actually reduce fat deposits. If you’re thinking "but I’m not thirsty!" – that’s a sign of chronic dehydration. Once we rehydrate, our natural thirst will return along with an improvement in our endocrine function. Want to live longer? Drink water. Our cells will thank us.

Food from a Taoist/Chinese Medical point of view
We hear of the concept of "Qi" (pronounced chee) as energy that flows through our bodies, but there’s actually a broad spectrum of Qi, such as Yuan Qi, that which is passed down from your parents (DNA), Kong Qi that comes from the air we breather (oxygen) and Gu Qi, the energy stored in the food we eat (protein, carbohydrates, fat, etc.) A Fuji apple for instance contains life force (is nutrient dense) compared to a candy bar that contains very little Gu Qi. When we choose to eat something, recognize its value in terms of life force, supplying every cell in our body the energy needed to make us vibrant and full of life.

Practice Compassion
Practice compassion – toward ourselves. Eliminate the critical words ("I’m too….", "I’m not enough…") and replace them with words of gratitude and kindness ("I’m thoughtful…"). Every cell in our body knows what we’re thinking. Let go of the negative and focus on the positive, we’ll live a longer, more satisfying life as a result of this shift of consciousness. Our quality of life may be based not on what we’re eating, but what’s eating us.

Eat well, live well, be well.

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