Saturday, 21 December 2013

One thing at a time

My sweetheart has a peculiar routine.

In the morning he makes a cup of coffee, and then he sits and drinks the coffee.  He doesn't read, he doesn't write lists, he doesn't listen to the radio, he doesn't chat, he doesn't do chores.  He just sits.

For the first few years that I observed this ritual I thought he was wasting precious time.  I couldn't understand how he could stand to just sit there, especially first thing in the morning. Once I actually manage to get out of bed, I am a morning person. I've got lots to say and lots to do during that first hour of being awake!

Me and my best buddy, enjoying a morning coffee.
This summer we were on a canoe trip, and I was torn, because I wanted to drink my coffee as soon as I got up (since it had been delivered to me in my sleeping bag), but I also wanted to meditate (since I was trying to develop a consistent meditation practice).  Oh, the dilemmas I face in my life!  Because I'd been learning about mindful eating I decided to give his approach a whirl.  I made the enjoying of the coffee my meditation.  I just sat and drank my coffee.

Jan Chozen Bays describes the perils of multi-tasking this way: "When we don't pay attention to our food and our body as we eat, we rob ourselves of the full experience, and therefore the full satisfaction, of eating."  For a newsletter from the Centre for Mindful Eating with tips on how to avoid multi-tasking while eating, click here

Taking time to enjoy something you're eating, without distraction, is a fundamental mindful eating habit.  Especially treats.  The other evening I encountered a tin of Quality Street chocolates that had been put out for Christmas.  I carefully chose one.  I almost unwrapped and ate it in the car on the way home...but I didn't.  I knew I wouldn't fully enjoy this special treat if I ate it in the car, in the dark.  I saved it until I got home, and ate it somewhat slowly.  Now, I did end up wishing I had chosen the dark chocolate orange one instead of the coconut one, but at least the experience wasn't totally wasted. 

I've come to realize that my sweetheart's routine is not peculiar at all.  It might even be brilliant.  It's definitely textbook mindful eating.  What IS peculiar - no, incomprensible - is the fact that if I'm not having a coffee too, he drinks cheap instant coffee.  I swear this man has a tastebud deficit.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Mindfulness classic

I did an experiment.  You see, almost every mindfulness text ever written describes the classic raisin exercise, whereby one eats a single raisin as slowly as possible, taking time to hold each tiny raisin bite in one's mouth, noticing its flavour and texture, and swallowing only once that bite of raisin has been fully explored and appreciated.  The point is to reacquaint us with what it's like to fully experience the present moment.

The first time I tried this experiment I used an almond, because I thought keeping a raisin in my mouth for that long would make me gag.  A few weeks later I was at a yoga workshop and we did the exercise with an actual raisin.  I didn't gag.  Instead, I was surprised to be washed in feelings of happiness and well-being.  An image of the familiar red box of SunMaid raisins popped in my head, and I knew a dim memory of primary school lunches carefully packed by my mom was being lit up by one or two sparks along some long-abandoned neural pathway.

Observations from my short-lived* experiment:
  • The first bite of a Christmas spiced pecan is satisfyingly crispy.  The second, third, and fourth bites are pretty much flavourless.  So I'm not sure what it is that entices me to eat the entire batch that I made for hostess gifts.
  • Kimchi by the individual forkful = flavour extravaganza.  It's the video for Gangnam Style in one's mouth, and all the good parts are missed when one eats it straight out of the jar standing in front of the fridge.  I had never before fully registered all the facets of its complex medley of sourness, spicyness, and saltiness.  Who needs chips?  Not me.  And, I don't need more than three bites of kimchi when I take the time to actually taste it.  Good news, since the kind I like to buy is REALLY expensive. (I know, I should make my own. I'm a little nervous after some failed experiments with home-made ginger beer and fermented figs.)
  • I don't actually like milk chocolate - not even the expensive kind.  Too cloying. 
  • *Eating each bite mindfully gets boring really fast.  Hence the short-livedness of this experiment.
Oh, if you're wondering what the good part of the Gangnam Style video is, it's not the yoga part.  It's the part with Peter Mansbridge.

Speaking of classics (can Gangnam be considered a classic yet?  Or should we wait until 2014?), here's a video called Top Hat Classic.  It's totally unrelated to mindful eating.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Right Amount

Something highly unusual has happened.  I'll set the stage:

Every morning I have a smoothie for breakfast.  I'm a proud initiate of the Magic Bullet cult.

I love the creative ritual of assembling the ingredients* in the evening.  Then, in the morning, all I have to do is whiz it up and gulp it down!

In the summer, I would sit on my deck and enjoy looking at my garden whilst gulping (slowly). With colder weather I've been sucking back my breakfast smoothie while getting dressed and blow-drying my hair.  I've been telling myself that it's OK to have breakfast in a non-mindful way because I'm on a timeline and I can eat supper mindfully later.

A few Saturdays ago it was warm enough to sit outside - a rare treat for late fall in Ontario.  So I decided to enjoy my smoothie while sitting on my deck and looking at bare soil and leaves I needed to rake.

That's when it happened.  About halfway through my regular smoothie, I noticed I was getting full.  This triggered an internal debate.  I knew, because of all my good mindful eating research, that I should stop and put the smoothie away.  But it was so yummy!  So I decided to have 3 more sips.  And then I put the rest in the fridge.  Baby steps to liberation - that's what I'm talking about.

Dr. Jan Chozen Bays is a Zen teacher, and a wise and engaging writer.  She describes the concept of  right amount in her book "Mindful Eating - A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food".  She explains the connections to Buddhist teachings and Zen traditions, and teaches us how we can become familiar with what is "just enough".  There are many reasons why we keep eating after we've had just enough.  All of them constitute overeating.

Since I've learned about "right amount", I'm much more conscious of the physical cues that my body is sending to my brain, telling me that I'm starting to get full.  Seems like an obvious concept, but it's been quite surprising to find out how often I think about eating something when my belly is actually full.

*Coco's Breakfast Smoothie Ingredients*
I'm one of those people who is hungriest in the morning.  This usually lasts me until lunchtime.

The basics
- 1/4 cup of instant rolled oats, kamut or spelt flakes, or quick-cooking steel-cut oats (all these things need to soak - that's why you make it the night before)
- 1 tsp. raw cacao powder (forget Fry's processed cocoa - enjoy life AND actually get some of chocolate's benefits)
- about 1/2 cup of organic cow milk, sunflower milk, coconut milk, or quinoa milk
- about 1/3 cup of Ceres brand natural fruit juice
- about 1/2 cup kefir or local organic yoghurt
- 1 tsp. organic nut butter - sunflower or almond/cashew is nice

- a few drops of stevia and sometimes some local honey
- Floradix iron supplement (foul-tasting to me - hence the honey)
- hulled hemp seeds
- fresh or frozen fruit (I have a freezer full of organic strawberries I picked this summer!)
- beet seedlings (only during garden-thinning season, of course)

I should warn you: a friend tried this recipe and said it made her nauseous.  I have this every single day and I feel great.  Maybe she did something wrong?

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Sometimes mindless eating is OK; judgment never is

A few days ago I travelled to a dreary town with no redeeming qualities* for a work meeting.  At the end of the meeting a colleague recommended we check out the baked treats at a local cafe on the way out of town.  "Their brownies are to die for!" she promised. 

Dreary town's redeeming feature.
What do you know?  This town now has a redeeming feature.  The cafe was charming, with friendly staff and a countertop full of fresh-baked treats.  The obscene brownies had a chocolate chip cookie base and a thick, dense brownie centre topped with a half-inch layer of icing.  They weighed about a pound each.  I requested the largest one.

"It's also important to understand that mindful eating includes mindless eating", Jan Chozen Bays says in her book (see side panel).  This is the first mindful eating book that I read, and that phrase was the one I remembered most often for the first few months of my attempt at mindful eating.  Funny how thinking "it's OK for me to eat this massive amount of food when I'm not hungry because I acknowledge that I am doing it mindlessly" didn't really change my eating patterns.

Back to today's brownie.

I may have mentioned before that chocolate is not the boss of me.  I may even have been a little righteous about that declaration.  So why did I buy that colossal brownie and then eat the whole thing in the span of 10 minutes in the car on the way home, while talking to my coworker AND driving?  Why did I make such a mindless -  and ultimately unsatisfying and slightly nauseating - choice? 

I wasn't actually having a chocolate craving, and I definitely wasn't hungry.  Our colleague planted a seed in my brain, and I let it take root and get watered by several factors.  I was tired.  It was the low point of the afternoon (2:45 pm - you kill me). I hadn't had a coffee all day.  I told myself this was my monthly over-the-top treat.

When Jan Chozen Bays talks about mindless eating, she's not talking about a Get Out of Jail Free card.  She's talking about the times when you choose to eat your food without fully appreciating it, for practical reasons.  Eating that brownie, at that time and in that way, was not the best choice I've made in the past few months, and I didn't have a good reason for making it.  But judging myself is not going to help; in fact, feeling guilty leads down a dangerous path.  For a moment in the store I worried that I would slip into my old daily cookie/chocolately treat habit, just because I was buying one brownie. Before I learned about mindful eating, that might have been true. 

Now I have more conscious control over my food choices.  I didn't fully enjoy that brownie, and I felt yukky after I ate it.  It's kind of like Pavlov's dog again, but in reverse.  When I have treats like that, I don't feel good afterwards.  When I take the time to enjoy each bite of a treat and stop when I've had enough, I feel good.  So, with this huge, complex, human brain that I've been training for years through yoga, meditation, and other means, I can make those connections each time.  And, I always have the option of making my next food choice a healthy, satisfying, and mindful one.  I love this quote from the Centre for Mindful Eating: "Remember that when you feed yourself, you are feeding your life.  Make wise choices so that you can grow into the person you were meant to be".

*I apologize for the hurt feelings of anyone who recognizes their town in this post.  I don't take back what I said though.  I have never come to your town without getting lost or feeling a derelict, gloomy vibe.  I do like the look of your downtown yoga studio. 

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Chocolate really ISN'T the boss of me

But it definitely used to be.  I love it! (A rare trait in a woman, I know.)  I thought I NEEDED it during the afternoon lull, during monthly hormone rampages, or whenever it was present within a 50 meter radius. 

While mindful eating is NOT about dieting or using willpower to restrict food choices, I have found that seriously cutting back on processed sugar helped reset my brain and body so that I could take control of my relationship with the beloved chocolate.  For the first time in my entire life, chocolate has a lifespan in my home.  I've had a bag of dark chocolate squares in my kitchen for a month, and there are still at least 10 left.  In fact, the bag's sitting next to me right now, and it's not even calling my name.

If you, too, have been a slave to chocolate, you will appreciate what a coup this is.  In university I had a skinny roommate, German Nat, who used to leave half a chocolate bar (of the good German variety) sitting in the fridge for days at a time.  My normal roommates and I were astonished, infuriated, and tortured by this bizarre behaviour.  Now *I* am German Nat, and I'm so pleased with myself.

There's not one particular mindful eating practice that has caused this miraculous transformation, but breaking my sugar addiction was key.  I am convinced that processed sugar is an addictive, toxic substance.  You will be too if you check out this and this.  And I'm not even getting into the environmental implications of how it's produced.  

After not having it at all for a few weeks, I now try to have less than 6.5 teaspoons or 26 grams of added sugar per day, as recommended in Nutrition Action.  It's really not that hard once you try it.  I've done a lot of cleanses where you can't have sugar, fruit, alcohol, wheat, honey, or fun.  That's hard.  Saying no to treats and processed foods isn't so bad.  I did find that increasing my fruit intake helped.  So did eating a few chips once in a while, actually.  Our bodies do need fat, and chips don't hold the same addictive allure for me.  Taking this approach wipes your palate and endocrine system clean, letting you set a new baseline for your tastebuds.

I can't be too annoyingly smug here though - there is still Bufala Maple Yogourt. Best to keep that out of the house for now...

Friday, 22 November 2013

Rome wasn't built in a day...

...and dismantling a lifetime of food habits and hangups won't happen overnight, either.  A reassuring thought, no?  No need to beat myself up when I forget (every single day) to try to eat mindfully.  Baby steps are good enough for me. 

I started my new mindful eating approach by writing out some of the tips that I found most resonant, and keeping them in a jar on the kitchen counter.  Things like:
  • slow down and enjoy
  • is a cup of tea what you really want?
  • let yourself experience emptiness
  • fully love all treats

Here are a couple of practices I've been trying each time I eat (when I remember):
  • Put down the fork or spoon between each bite 
  • Pay attention to what your body, rather than your ingrained habit mind, is asking for

There are many, many, many, many mindful eating tips and practices.  Your habits, patterns, and deep dark food issues will determine which ones really click for you.  You might be surprised.  I certainly am each time I realize that I have the next forkful of food waiting at the door before I've even finished chewing, swallowing, and experiencing what's already in my mouth. I had no idea I was a shoveller.  I've also found it quite satisfying to listen to my biological hunger, rather than my craving/habit hunger.

Craving/habit hunger: It's Tuesday.  You know what that means.

Me: Tell me.

Craving/habit hunger: You should get a mocha latte.  You'll be going by the coffee shop.  You haven't had one since last Tuesday.  They're so delicious.

Me: Good idea!  I love that ritual. I think it makes me feel happy.

Biological hunger: Uh, not only am I not thirsty or in the mood for coffee, but how about some vegetables?  I need something green.

Me: Hey, GREAT idea!  You just saved me $5.35 (+ tip). Kale it is!

Craving/habit hunger: You haven't heard the last of me...<<sinister cackles>>

Saturday, 16 November 2013

What's wrong with me?

My sweetheart does not have food issues.  He eats when he's hungry; he stops when he's full.  If treats happen, great, but he doesn't plan his outings around encountering them.  It's all so weird to be around.

While patiently listening to my I-Ate-Too-Much-I-Feel-Gross-You-Should-Have-Stopped-Me-At-The-99th-Cookie episodes, he says things like (this is an actual quote from him): Why don't you just stop putting the brownies in your mouth?

So, what's wrong with me? 

(thanks for sharing your pictures, Allie Brosh)
Why DON'T I just stop putting the brownies in my mouth?

The beauty of learning about mindful eating is that now I know there's nothing wrong with me at all.   

My eating habits are the product of my DNA, my forebears' DNA, the culture I'm submerged in, and the lifetime of patterns, habits, and experiences that have moulded my brain.  The same is true for you, by the way.  The really great news is that there is a huge component of all those factors that we do have the ability to change: the neurological patterns that have been laid down over our lifetimes.  By doing the mindful eating practices, I can create new pathways and associations in my brain. 

You may recall Pavlov's dog...or you may be familiar with neuroplasticity.  Rewiring the brain doesn't happen through force of willpower.  So, making so-called mistakes doesn't mean you have a lack of willpower or some other flaw.  It just means you're making food choices based on EVERYTHING that's going inside you - your moods, your habits, your cravings, your chemistry.  With more mindful eating practice, you might make a different choice. Pavlov didn't force his dog to drool by pulling on its lips. He patiently and consistently created new associations that led to new behaviours.  The dog wasn't "bad" or "weak" if it drooled at the wrong time.  I am not bad if I eat a cookie or 3.  (I know this is not a perfect analogy.  Don't worry about it.)

The relief of letting go of self-recrimination is energizing.  If I make an unhealthy or less-than-mindful food choice, I don't waste energy being upset about it, or thinking "oh well I might as well eat the other half of the pizza now", or worrying that my pants won't fit tomorrow.  Now I acknowledge that it was a choice I made, it's done, and the next choice I make can be a mindful one.  I can think about why I might have made that unhealthy choice, but I don't need to get all judgy and hang-uppy about it.  What a refreshing approach.

Like 21st century public school, there's no failing or cheating at mindful eating.  It's all about showing up and staying awake.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The journey begins for real

Mindful eating - like yoga and meditation, learning to kitesurf, or any other activity that is new and challenging - is a practice.  Of course, it's fun (for brainy smurfs like me) to put lots of effort into reading books, finding websites and journalling about the concept of mindful eating.  Oh yes - over the past 6 months or so I've really filled my head with all kinds of information about eating mindfully.

But I still snarf down lunch at my desk every day.

This blog is inspired by "Eating the moment - 141 mindful practices to overcome overeating one meal at a time" by Dr. Pavel Somov, a clinical psychologist.  This great little book suggests starting a food blog as one of the many practices alluded to in the book's title.  The point of this exercise is to make one conscious of the experience of eating by writing about it.  As Dr. Somov says, this is a better use of time than logging mindlessly consumed calories.  So, I intend to blog about actually practicing mindful eating practices.  I hope you'll try a few of them too and let me know what your experience is!