STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Each of us can recall a time when we thought we had the best chocolate or pizza or green chile on Earth. But were you truly present for the experience, or did descriptive phrases such as “most delicious” and “best ever” roll unconsciously off your tongue like a Food Network star on autopilot?
How many of us truly revel in the first bite into a creamy chocolate center and later can describe the joyful feel and sensation of chocolate? Are we fully awake for the dance of molten sugar that teases its way across our tongues?
In our plugged-in, amped-up electronic worlds, when did we last set aside time to eat without simultaneously tweeting, texting or talking about the day’s other events?
Ahhh – the Zen of eating. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to get it.
It’s the moment when all else blurs into the background except what you are tasting at that third-eye pleasurable moment. It’s directing your awareness to how food nourishes the body and pleases the mind. It is conscious exploration and awareness of the multi-sensory act of putting a single morsel of food in one’s mouth, rather than plowing reflexively through a pesto-crowned pile of pasta.
Who has time to hang onto every morsel, you ask?
Chill out before you chow down.
Eating mindfully, with all the senses, is how one should eat, said Susie Young, registered dietitian and nutrition counselor at Southwest Oncology and Durango Cancer Center. But it’s not what most of us are doing.
Young was one of a half dozen local women’s health professionals who spoke at last month’s Women’s Health Coalition wellness workshop at the Durango Elks Lodge. Each touched on the importance of having gratitude and living fully in the moment, whether you’re doing Pilates, caring for your calloused feet or chowing down on a cheeseburger.
There was no finger-wagging in this crowd. The Women’s Health Coalition, led by Durango’s BJ Boucher, is an all-volunteer group of professional women passionate about cancer prevention, reproductive-health issues, education and outreach to underserved women in the area.
Volunteers from Planned Parenthood, the American Cancer Society and local medical offices sponsored the free workshop and nutritious lunch attended by more than 50 local women interested in exercise opportunities and good health practices.
“If you choose to eat something, do it knowingly and do it without guilt,” Young said. “Dieting is not about denial, but about being wholly conscious of what you put in your mouth.”
Eating should be affordable and about enjoying food that is accessible. Rather than locking oneself into a mindset that weight loss is about giving something up, Zen eating is the recognition that all foods are good and that eating should be a response to actual physical hunger.
Young hinted that obesity rates may be because of unconscious eating, a failure of being in the moment. Eating while driving, working at a desk or sitting in front of the TV robs one of the pleasure that conscious eating promises. And it can pile on the weight.
Eating out of boredom, with habitual and automatic hand-to-mouth action, rather than consciously fueling our bodies, can contribute to destroying our bodies, she said.
The first step in Zen eating, Young said, is to recognize and distinguish physical hunger from other emotions and to disengage or unravel automatic behaviors that may be triggered by events that have nothing to do with eating.
Knowing what satiety feels like and relishing that sense helps to establish healthful eating limits, she said.
There’s a difference between wanting to eat and needing to eat, Young said. Diverting one’s attention from the desire to eat could be as simple as deciding to take a walk, read a book or play with a dog, instead of eating, she said.
Once physical hunger is recognized, slowing down to touch, smell, savor and consider where the food comes from adds to the pleasure of eating.
“Stop to consider the farmer who has grown it. Think of who has created it,” Young said. “It’s truly about being in the moment.”
Young offered hints ranging from taking a deep breath before beholding the color or beauty of each bite, to setting the fork down between bites for a pause of reflection and appreciation. Taking small tastes of each item on the plate helps to “reset the taste buds,” Young said.
Learning to be aware of satiety cues is critical to knowing when to stop eating. Magnifying your mindfulness by growing and enjoying food preparation also puts you in touch with what’s on the plate, Young said.
“There’s real joy in cooking and in growing food,” she said.
Young facilitated an informal exchange among participants who recounted mealtime challenges with children and husbands who were neutral, unappreciative or even negative.
Young urged the crowd to take small steps to recognize insights in their personal eating habits or those of their families, encouraging them to be creative and visualize success to inspire change for the better.
Zen eating is not a prescribed event that fits a particular mold, she said. It can take place while on a shopping trip, or in a car – anytime, anywhere.