I remember when I first learnt to drive a car. I was mindful about everything that was happening around me, thinking about the gears, that car coming from my right and the colour of the traffic light in front of me.

But as time went on, I became more confident in my driving. It became automatic, so automatic that I sometimes can’t fully recall my drive from home to the clinic. Sometimes, it is to my detriment too, because I am not concentrating as fully as I should.

The same can happen with food. We often eat ‘on automatic’, not giving any attention to the food we are eating or how we are eating it. We are not conscious of the packet of crisps we have eaten as a snack or the dinner we ate watching TV.

And this has consequences too, in particular, on our ability to digest food. One remedy is to practise mindful eating. Let’s have a look at:

– What mindful eating is

– Why mindful eating is important for the digestive process, in particular with the stomach

– What other digestive areas mindful eating is affecting

– What other benefits mindful eating have

So what is mindful eating?

Mindful eating is based on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, bringing full attention to what you are doing. A simple definition of mindful eating is eating whilst being present in the act of eating. Basically, you want to be aware that you are eating, what you are eating, what sort of flavours, temperature, textures the food has (1).

Mindful eating and Energy

Mindful eating is about slowing down and enjoying the food we are eating instead on eating ‘on automatic’

Mindful eating usually involves a few steps:

– Eating slowly

– Being aware of the texture, flavours, smells, temperature of the food

– Being aware of when you are still hungry and when you are full

– Savouring your food

– Taking small bites. It’s easier to taste food when your mouth isn’t totally full.

– It starts with cooking! The mere act of cooking and being aware of what ingredients you are using, the smells developing etc… are all part of mindful eating too.

Eating more slowly and taking the time to see, smell and taste the foods then triggers the cephalic phase of the digestion.

The first phase of the digestion happens before we have even swallowed the food.

The first phase of the digestion process, the cephalic phase, is a conditioned reflex involving the central nervous system. The sensory stimulations (sight, smell, taste) increase the efficiency of the body to digest, absorb and metabolise food through the release of various hormones and gastric juices. They are the trigger to the production of saliva, stomach acid and insulin amongst others (2) (3).

Just smelling, tasting and looking at the food starts the secretions of the gastric juices in the stomach. Nearly a quarter of the stomach acid is produced in this way.

Having enough acid in the stomach is essential to the digestive process.

We need the acid in the stomach to digest protein, absorb iron and vitamin B12. Stomach acid also triggers the opening of the pyloric sphincter, so not enough acid means the food stays in your stomach for longer. Finally, not enough stomach acid means bacteria are not killed by the acid. The food ferments (causing some bloating and/or burping).

Because not all the digestive steps that should have happened in the stomach have been carried out, it is them much harder for the body to absorb all those nutrients further down the line.

This is what is happening to Anna.

Anna has noticed that each time she is rushing through her lunch, she ends up with a feeling of indigestion, like if the food was staying stuck in her stomach (The pyloric sphincter doesn’t open).

She also noticed that she is often feeling much more tired after lunch, especially if she has a ‘protein heavy’ meal, like a salad with some chicken, followed maybe by a yogurt for dessert (The body is struggling to digest the proteins).

She has also been burping, which has made her very self-conscious during her afternoon meetings too (Food has been fermenting).

Finally, following a few months of general increased tiredness, she has recently been diagnosed with anaemia (Inability of the body to absorb the iron from the food).

But the cephalic phase doesn’t just affect stomach acid production.

It affects many other steps in the digestive process and triggers the production of:

– saliva, which starts the digestion of some carbohydrates- lipase, which affects the digestion and absorption of fats- Bile that affects fat absorption- Insulin that affects blood sugar regulation- Pancreatic enzymes that are involved in the digestion of proteins, fats and carbohydrates- Leptin, which regulates our appetite (and tells us when we have eaten enough)- It also affects intestinal mobility so can lead to constipation.

All of those have a major impact on our energy levels. Without all the building blocks, the body can’t function properly. And, when the body struggles to fulfil all the processes, having the nutrients to produce energy in the cell, produce hormones etc… we feel tired.

 

Mindful eating supports the whole of the digestive process, not just the acid production in the stomach.

Mindful eating has a wider ranging effect.

Recent research shows that eating mindfully is also very helpful with weight loss and changing eating patterns (4). Eating mindfully helps to reduce stress and being more aware of what you are eating, when you are feeling full and what is the effect on your body of eating certain foods. It basically changes the way we see food and our relationship to it.

Isn’t mindful eating a chore? I don’t want to chew my raisin 20 times!

Mindful eating was developed around the more general principle of mindfulness and the program from Jon Kabat Zinn. And yes, he advised people to start with slowly eating a raisin, chewing it at least 20 or 30 times. However, on a day-to-day basis, the aim of mindful eating is more to be aware of what you are eating. Whilst chewing a raisin 20 times will certainly help you slow down and make you more aware of all the flavours and textures, you do not need to chew 20 times every mouthful of food.

Rather, mindful eating is about rediscovering the enjoyment of food.

The way I see it, mindful eating is about eating as if this was the first time you ate that dish. It might mean taking more time to make the food/plate looking appetising. It might mean just switching of the TV or stopping reading emails to really savour your lunch rather than gulping it down.

Let’s recap. Mindful eating is more than just a hippy fad.

By eating slowly and being aware of what we eat, we are also supporting the whole of the digestive process. In turn, this helps us absorb the nutrients we need. We have more energy and feel better in ourselves.

 

You might also be interested in:

Why Feeding Your Gut Flora Is The Best Thing You Can Do For Your Health Right Now

4 Things You Need To Know About Meal Timing