The last two years have changed our lives and lifestyles in a zillion ways, big and small. Take, for example, the case of Sunil Awasthi. This Ahmedabad-based heritage teacher, who once would lead groups every alternate day to explore the nooks and crannies of the old city, suddenly found himself stuck at home. "What began as an interesting turn of things where I explored cooking and turned to clean eating soon gave way to a more sedentary lifestyle with unhealthy and disorganised eating habits," he rues. As the world around him turned upside down with the chaos of the pandemic taking over, Awasthi found himself turning to food. "Mindless eating is how I would describe the phase. I was eating not because I was hungry and my body needed food, but to ward off psychological stress and distract my mind," he adds.
According to metabolism researcher Herman Pontzer, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology and global health at Duke University and the co-author of an October 2021 study published in the journal Science, many of us aren't hungry when eating on autopilot. Those extra bites can quickly add up to overeating and weight gain. "Distracted eating causes people to take in around 10 per cent more calories at the moment—and up to 25 per cent more calories at later meals," he stresses in the study. Awasthi, too faced this; the marker on his weighing scale raced northwards.
Experts say our digestion is not optimal if we are eating in a 'stressed state'. "It's more about focusing on why you're eating instead of what you're eating," writes Susan Albers, a Cleveland-based mindful eating expert and author of the book Hanger Management. Mindful eating habits can also be a needle-mover for your weight. Not following the usual lifestyle habits such as socialising, travelling to work or spending time outdoors, the last two years have pushed many towards various eating disorders. Of course, a large part of the blame lies due to the absence of a routine. Sticking to a schedule even when it seems near impossible allows the body to react positively and send you the right signals when and how much to eat.
Awasthi realised that he needed professional help to counter his 'pandemic boredom eating syndrome'. He was lucky to find the perfect nutrition therapist in Naina Mahajan, who explained that mindful and intuitive eating practices are not really fad diets. The Ahmedabad-based therapist explained how one shifts to trusting their natural instincts and listening to the body's hunger signals through these concepts. "Mindful eating focuses on being fully present while you are eating. It also increases awareness of your thoughts, senses and feelings during and after you eat. It's all about rethinking food choices and going back to traditional ways of eating," she says. A practitioner of mindful eating slowly begins noticing colours, smells, sounds, textures, and tastes. Of course, like any therapy, this too can take weeks and months to master. But enjoying building a stronger mind-body connection and, in the process, improving one's relationship to food is what matters.
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"As we bring mindful awareness to our surroundings, the benefits to mind and body only increase further. Notice and soak in your five senses—the shapes, the sounds, the tastes and smells, and savour the sensations. Bring in more mindfulness to what could be a mundane experience like eating," says Dr Christopher T Willard, a clinical psychologist and master at Ekaanta, Mindversity on Ganges. It is essential to be in touch with your feelings and not let food dictate your emotions. Listening to your food cravings is the key. Mindful eating does not ban indulging in your favourites; it just teaches you not to be overpowered by them.
Mahajan explains further, "In most cases, our life revolves around a table and chair for a better part of the day. Little wonder that snacking at the desk becomes a natural choice for many. While this may boost your energy levels, it also results in your body storing unnecessary fat. The smartest way out is to plan your meals and keep them as fresh and organic as possible." Moreover, the foods we eat not only affect our mood but our sleep patterns as well. So it is essential to be the master of your body and rein in your wants and cravings.
One way of achieving this is by building what experts label 'a mindful kitchen'. How many times do you wander around looking through cabinets, eating at random times and places, rather than thinking proactively about meals and snacks? Organise your kitchen in a way that encourages healthy eating. For example, keep clean foods within sight for when you get a sudden craving. Planning and eating at a regular time can go a long way in helping you with the process of mindful eating. Online health and fitness educator and life coach Yash Vardhan Swami says, "Improving the eating environment is a surefire way of improving your digestive health and satiety management. Be sure to eat at a designated eating place." Also, eating at one's workstation or on the move was a bad idea, he adds.
Six months into practising mindful eating, Awasthi is at a more healthy space in his life. "Slowing down and understanding my intention to eat lets my body connect with my mind and effectively differentiate between emotional hunger and physical hunger. Multitasking is not meant to include eating," he says.