Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Art of Savouring and Mindful Eating

How often do you absent-mindedly shovel nuts, crisps or other snacks into your mouth while your focus is on something else, like the TV or the day's events? Do you ever reach the end of the day and realise that you "accidentally" ate far more than you intended to?

In the first Mindfulness class that I attended, each of us were given a raisin and asked to focus on it; the feel
 of the raisin in our hand, the ridges we could feel when we ran our finger over it, its squishiness between our fingers. Then, we brought it up to our noses and focused on the smell, before slowly popping it on our tongues. We took a moment to appreciate the gentle sweetness on the tip of our tongues, and noticed the texture of its ridges inside our mouths. Finally, slowly, we bit into it, focusing on the flavours and textures, on how our teeth and tongues knew just what to do, before allowing ourselves to swallow it.

Approaching food with the "raisin mind" might seem like teasing yourself when you just want to devour the thing, but the practice exists to draw our attention to things that we would not normally notice and to bring our awareness to physical sensations, as mindfulness often does. As well as making the raisin taste a hundred times better, it made me appreciate it so much more than I normally would have.

You don't have to practice mindfulness to pay attention to what you eat. When we don't fully notice what we're eating, we're more likely to eat junk food, gain weight (as we don't remember what we've eaten) and less likely to appreciate not only food, but life. Stopping and savouring positive experiences increases our enjoyment of life and can reduce the number of negative emotions we feel (Hurley & Kwon, 2012).

Psychologically speaking, "savouring" (Bryant & Veroff, 2007) involves making the most of positive experiences. This can mean being more "present" while good things are happening, such as focusing on a beautiful piece of music, sipping a cup of coffee slowly while appreciating its aroma, or taking in a sunset. It can also involve savouring precious memories of the past, through visualising them or using photographs or stories to relive them.

As part of our Masters in Applied Positive Psychology course, we had to try a few "positive interventions" on ourselves and see whether they made us feel happier, more satisfied with life or enhanced our sense of meaning. I decided to try savouring, so I made a point of walking to work while focusing on the flowers and tress that I saw and listening to the birds, rather than my usual practice of over-thinking possible future scenarios and replaying memories. Savouring has a lot in common with mindfulness; it's about being present in the moment, about paying attention to the input from your sensory organs, rather than letting thoughts rule you and grey your experience or experiencing life on auto-pilot.

I have to admit that I often eat while watching TV (in my defense, we're talking quality TV like Doctor Who, Arrow or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), which can take a lot of the experience away from the food itself. That's why I made a concerted effort to eat at least one meal per week at the table with no distractions, honing in my focus onto the smell, the texture, the flavours, and appreciating how each individual ingredient had found its way into my kitchen somehow.

Dalen et al. (2010) found that "mindful eating" helped with weight-loss, self control and reduced negative emotions. It makes sense - if you are truly mindful of what you consume, you reduce the chance of "secret eating" - where you shovel food into your mouth without it even registering consciously - and feeling more in control of your life will reduce those feelings of guilt that we so often get when we realise we just ate another donut (but someone brought them into work and left them in the office, damnit!). I even started to realise that I didn't like some of the things I was eating, but rather was eating them due to habit.

So, here are some tips for increasing your awareness and enjoyment of what you eat:

  • Keep a food diary and show it to a friend (or your online community) so that you are accountable for what you eat.
  • Try, with at least one item of food or drink a day, to inhale the smell, to slowly place it on your tongue and focus on the texture and the flavours that reach your mouth, to feel it travelling down into your belly. If you can touch the food - e.g. a raisin, not so much soup - focus on the feel of it against your fingers, too.
  • Take a moment to think about the origins of your food - think of every ingredient that was used, where it came from, and all the people who had to work together to grow, harvest and transport that food to the shop where you purchased it, and mentally thank each individual person for contributing to your meal. Gratitude also contributes to our well-being and might increase your sense of connectedness to the world and the people around you.

    Of course, savouring isn't just about food - it's something you can do for any pleasant experience; however, I find that eating is something we all enjoy, and so is an easy one to start with! References:



Bryant, F. B., & Veroff, J. (2007). Savoring: A New Model Of Positive Experience. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.


Dalen, J., Smith, B. W., Shelley, B. M., Sloan, A. L., Leahigh, L., & Begay, D. (2010). Pilot Study: Mindful Eating And Living (MEAL): Weight, Eating Behavior, And Psychological Outcomes Associated With A Mindfulness-Based Intervention For People With Obesity. Complementary Therapies In Medicine, 18(6), 260-264.

Hurley, D. B., & Kwon, P. (2012). Results Of A Study To Increase Savoring The Moment: Differential Impact On Positive And Negative Outcomes. Journal Of Happiness Studies, 13(4), 579-588.
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