Forget fast food and instant gratification, eating should be a sacred act that nourishes the soul as well as the body. So, where have we gone wrong? Neha Jamani explains the zen of eating.
Ancient yogis from many traditions considered eating to be a sacred act, where one living part of nature integrates into another living being. In stark contrast, eating seems to be anything but sacred in our fast-food age. For many, eating today has devolved into a purely physical act to provide sustenance for the body — but definitely not for the soul. The start of a new year is a traditional time to reevaluate your life and health so you might be contemplating improving your diet in 2014. Perhaps you’re facing a health crisis or some sort of spiritual awakening that involves taking more care on how what you eat impacts you and the planet; or maybe you are in a new relationship and just want to feel and look better for your partner. Whatever your motivation, you’ve decided to eat in a healthier or a more ethical way but sooner or later, you’ll probably realise that ‘improving’ your diet is not as straightforward as you imagined. Buy any book on diet or nutrition and you will find plenty of persuasive advice on what you ‘should’ and ‘should not’ eat. Pick another book and you’ll find equally convincing advice contradicting the first.
Many mainstream books on nutrition advise us to limit our intake of fat, yet an increasingly prominent minority contends that traditional animal fats are good for us. One diet may push honey as a superfood; another says it’s just as harmful as any other sugar. Some experts say supplements are absolutely essential for good health, while others contend they just give you ‘expensive pee’. You’ll discover that there are diets based on religion, ethics, nutritional philosophy, anthropology, cleansing, the seasons and even blood types. The health food explorer is faced with a bewildering range of contradictory advice all coming from seemingly authoritative sources. Choose rightly: you will be saved! Choose wrongly: you will land in health hell. How do you navigate correctly through these choices? You can choose a nutritional trend and follow it — with all that such a choice entails. Or, instead of trusting any outside authority, you can go down the path of self-directed dietary exploration and experimentation with your food choices. This way, you learn to trust your body and senses while choosing how to eat wisely. But how can you trust your body when it often seems to lead you astray with unwise food choices because of an apparent lack of willpower?
LANGUAGE OF CRAVINGS
As a society, we from the misleading idea of not having enough willpower when it comes to eating. How else can we explain destructive dietary patterns when we fully know the consequences of poor eating choices? How else can we justify bingeing after a week of regimented eating? We incorrectly blame poor dietary choices on ‘weak willpower’ – which then leads to an internal conflict over what we ‘should’ and ‘should not’ eat. When it comes to food, we think that what we want must be ‘bad’ or indulgent. Therefore, we believe we need strong willpower to enforce ‘better’ behaviour. This constant reliance on willpower reveals a profound distrust of our natural ability to make good food choices intuitively. Craving certain foods can be seen as our body’s way of signaling nutritional imbalances. It is also well documented that in times of high stress we use food to fill in voids or to mask deeper issues. In these cases, our body is communicating to us in a language we might not understand — or even recognise as a language. We need to stop seeing the body as the enemy but rather listen to the messages encoded in the language of cravings, appetites and food preferences. Instead of second-guessing what our bodies need, why not tune into the language our body is speaking? Through these messages, our body communicates its physical and emotional needs. One of the ways we can understand the body’s needs is to create a quiet internal space in which we can tune in to the cues given in our cravings and appetites. By using a Zen approach to eating, we can create that quiet space within. You might ask, ‘What is Zen eating?’ In brief, Zen eating is a practice of eating thoughtfully, mindfully and in a state of gratitude. The tips below are designed to help you create this mindful space within, each time you sit down to eat.
9 TIPS FOR ZEN EATING
Breathe. Before you tuck into your meal, take three deep breaths to clear your energy and come into the present moment with gratitude.
Contemplate. Observe a moment of silence. A good exercise is to reflect on how your food got to your plate. Think about the people involved in the production, processing, transportation and preparation of your meal.
Chew and Taste. Devote your attention to the physical act of biting, chewing and swallowing your food. Fully experience and enjoy each bite. Notice the aromas, textures, tastes and temperature of each dish. Through this practice, you may discover new flavors or evoke memories connected to the taste and smells of your food. Paying attention gives you the opportunity to fully know what you’re eating and opens up a direct channel of communication with your body.
Eat meals in a peaceful setting. Be it your table at home or a quiet spot in the office cafeteria, choose a peaceful space. You may feel you rarely have the ‘luxury’ to devote your attention to fully enjoying your food or finding peaceful spaces to eat. In reality, this should not be a luxury, but a necessary part of your meal. As you start a practice of Zen eating, take small steps to integrate this practice into your routine. Have just one meal a day in a peaceful setting, if it is too difficult to do this practice for each and every meal.
Go device-free at mealtimes. Ditch the multi-tasking while you eat. Stay away from the phone, television and the computer at mealtime. Focus on what’s on your plate and engage in conversations with your dining companions. Or just be with yourself and your food.
Be patient. You cannot expect to gain instant understanding of your body’s messages. Be patient while you learn the language your body speaks.
Distinguish appetites from cravings. Pause and ask yourself: “Am I really hungry or am I just trying to change my emotions?” Is my body calling for sustenance? Or do I simply crave a specific taste?” As you become more fluent in your body’s language, you will become more able to distinguish between appetite and craving.
Eat food close to its natural state. In our fast-paced society, we depend a lot on processed and ready to eat foods, which are loaded with additives. By choosing foods that are as close to their natural state as possible, we can keep our choices simple and more healthful. As food writer Michael Pollan advises, “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.”
Don’t be dogmatic. People often feel wonderful on a special diet for a short time, but that great feeling of wellbeing doesn’t always last. Cleansing diets such as veganism, raw foods or juicing bring great short-term results but cannot sustain the body’s long term and changing nutritional requirements. Be flexible in your food philosophies rather than feeling that you must become a hardcore adherent of any one “diet.” You may struggle with this at first but with practice Zen eating becomes natural and pleasurable. While there is a lot of conflicting information out there, listening to your body will guide you towards a way of eating that’s right for you. This practice allows you to come into alignment with what you need, what you crave, and what you actually eat. The Zen of eating enables you to honour your body’s authentic needs and lovingly nurture your soul through mindful eating.
NEHA JAMANI, the founder of The Sacred Kitchen, is a therapeutic and holistic chef. A graduate of Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts in California, Neha aims to raise awareness about the importance of food choices and reconnect people with their bodies and the food they eat. Email firstname.lastname@example.org