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Food & Spirituality: The Science and Practice of Mindful Eating

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Mindful Eating retreat teachers (left to right): Jampa Sangmo, Andrea Lieberstein and Elissa Epel. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

I never mean for it to happen. I make enough pasta for two meals, and the idea is, I’ll eat half the bowl, and save the rest for tomorrow. What happens is, I’m watching TV, and then at some point, I look down and realize I ate everything. I also notice I can barely breathe because I ate too much. “I can’t do this again!” I tell myself. Of course, it happens again.

It’s funny, but I’m really troubled about my lack of control. Why can’t I will myself to eat just enough and no more?  What does it say about me that I can’t? How can I change my relationship with food?

Of all the Food & Spirituality stories I’m producing for KQED News this fall, the feature on Mindful Eating hits closest to home.  While I’m not a Buddhist, I genuinely believe that distress is an invitation to pay attention, and then engage.

At Spirit Rock Meditation Center for “Mindful Eating; Mindful Body: The Science and Practice of Mindful Eating.” Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
At Spirit Rock Meditation Center for “Mindful Eating; Mindful Body: The Science and Practice of Mindful Eating.” Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

So, earlier this year I went to Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin for a retreat called “Mindful Eating; Mindful Body: The Science and Practice of Mindful Eating.” Of all the Mindful Eating retreats in the Bay Area -- and you know there are a lot -- this particular one caught my eye because it featured three experts, each in a different field: psychology, biology, and Buddhism.

Andrea Lieberstein was the lead teacher. She trains people in Mindful Eating in her private practice, and directs Mind, Body, Spirit Programs at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco.

“Eating is a wonderful tool to awaken,” she tells the class of about 100 people; “To remember who we are, to remember our connection with all of life."

That is not, of course, what I use eating for. I use it to feel relief from hunger. I use it to bury boredom, and stave off exhaustion. I use it because it’s readily available, and legal. Even when I’m being a good girl and passing up the mango ice cream pops in the freezer...you should see the way I eat frozen blueberries. It’s compulsive. I don’t stop till I get to the bottom of the plastic clam shell.


Lieberstein is a registered dietitian nutritionist as well as a mindfulness-based coach, but she says the practice of mindfulness does not require following a particular diet. It includes being knowledgeable about healthy eating and choosing to eat in a way that makes sense for you.The key is training yourself to be conscious about eating.

Turn off the TV set. Put away the New Yorker magazine. Sit with your food. Appreciate the journey it took to get to your table. Appreciate its color, smell, texture, taste. Be in the proverbial moment.

"In slowing down," Lieberstein says, "There's more space. We touch that place of inner wisdom, where we're not at the mercy of the automaticity of all our habits and our thoughts and our beliefs. We can pause and notice that impulse to eat -- and in that space, make a different choice."

Rachael Myrow contemplates lunch at the Mindful Eating retreat at Spirit Rock. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Rachael Myrow contemplates lunch at the Mindful Eating retreat at Spirit Rock. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Lieberstein has the class conduct an experiment. Attendants pass out Dove chocolate squares. We’re encouraged to take two or three.  We draw out the moment as long as possible, until every cell in our bodies is focused on the promise of chocolate.

“And then,” Leiberstein intones, “Slowly begin to bite into it, noticing the flavor, the taste of that first bite.”

It’s like...a nuclear explosion, the most satisfying experience imaginable...rich, silky...just like the commercial promises.

Then we’re invited to have a second square.

It’s the same chocolate, but the intensity of the satisfaction is...weaker. I suddenly realize that I could have been just as happy eating one chocolate. If you’re really paying attention as you eat, you enjoy it more. It satisfies earlier in the process.

Also, my brain has registered that I’ve had enough.  So says Elissa Epel, a health psychology researcher at UC San Francisco.

“When we are splitting our attention, which is what we do most of the time, we’re reading something while we’re eating or we’re walking or talking or driving, that is automatic attention. That is, we’re giving very little attention to the experience of eating. That also means that eating is not being registered in our satiety center, our reward center. It’s just automatic behavior that is often leading to excess calories.”

Sound familiar?

But there’s another driver, another reason food is so compulsive for many of us is its connection with our reward center. “We are hardwired to have many, many triggers to eat, just to make sure we get enough to survive,” Epel says.

“The pleasure center in the brain is one of the most powerful motivators of human behavior. We do things to stimulate that center and get dopamine, and that includes sex, drugs, love, and highly palatable food.”

“Highly palatable” is science-speak for sugar, fat and salt. Why doesn’t will power work? Because you’re fighting your hard-wiring. This is a core truth employed by  processed food makers with their legions of scientists in white lab coats -- but also home cooks with an apple pie in the oven: sugar, fat and salt entice and satisfy humans like nothing else.

It doesn’t help that we’re surrounded by an embarrassment of riches on that score. Whether it’s a Big Mac you crave or a clever cocktail at your favorite SOMA bar, temptation is all around.  “We are not in full control of our behavior, as much as we think we are," Epel says. "And until we realize that as a society we’re kind of screwed because we don’t do anything to help our environment support us in a healthy lifestyle, meeting our goals.”

There’s a third major driver feeding our drive to over-eat: chronic stress. That's because anything that draws on your body’s resources sends a signal to the brain, and the brain wants to restore balance to the system, so it tells you to eat. It also rewards you for obeying. Have you noticed what happens after you eat? You feel a mild rush of endorphins. Your shoulders drop. You calm down. You might even feel compelled to nap.

Epel says “Eating improves mood in all of our studies." Your body knows this whether you're aware of it consciously or not. "When we feel negative emotions, our immediate response is to get rid of them, and eating is the easiest, often most accessible, quickest way.”

Let’s try another experiment. Don’t think about the ice cream in your freezer right now. How’s that working for you? “Suppression actually causes more anxiety and depression,” Epel says.

This is a powerful, sophisticated system of signals. You think you’re going to off-set it with a little will power? As Epel says in this TED talk, "We have vastly overestimated our ability to control conscious behavior."

This is where Buddhism comes in -- a practice designed to help us grapple with desire. Long before anybody conducted a scientific test, Buddhists have been trying to come to terms with the human condition by cultivating habits that encourage us to a) witness our experience dispassionately; b) cultivate compassion for ourselves and others; and c) challenge ourselves to move toward a more harmonious way of being.

The Venerable Jampa Sangmo is a Tibetan buddhist nun in the Gelugpa tradition, the same one followed by the Dalai Lama.

“I love that science has discovered what the Buddha discovered almost 2,600 years ago, that we awaken to what really is,” she tells the class.

You could also say the best way to displace the compulsion to over-eat is with a new habit: meditation.

“The first thing we find is it is so busy, right? The mind will wander to the future and the past. It will wander to your physical sensations. But then...you awaken to the present moment.”

The Venerable Jampa Sangmo at Spirit Rock. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
The Venerable Jampa Sangmo at Spirit Rock. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Science tells us that feeling full is a relatively weak signal, but if you pay more attention, if you savor more, you encourage your brain to recalibrate the way it responds to food.

Changing the way I eat turns out to be about changing the way I live, making life itself the meditation. This is not going to be easy, but given how central food is to my experience, isn't the challenge worth it?  Now, to make some Pasta Puttanesca and repeat the test...


Sampler Platter of Places Offering Mindful Eating Sessions in California:

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