Savor Each Bite

Maybe your mom told you not to eat so fast.

But did she urge you to ponder each bite, meditating on the yellowy-green ruffles of the romaine in your salad, or the juicy scarlet of a garden tomato in July?

There's eating. And then there's eating mindfully, eating slowly and savoring each bite, with a little bit of deep breathing and meditation thrown in.

"Mindful eating is being more conscious of what we're eating and why we're eating," said Jeffrey Greeson, a psychologist with Duke Integrative Medicine, part of the Duke University Health System. Greeson teaches and studies the effects of mindful eating. "Mindless eating would be watching TV or at a computer, we're just having some food, munching away."

But less food can be more satisfying, he said.

Mindful eating starts with a little pre-meal self-evaluation: Start by assessing how hungry you are on a scale of 1 to 7, from starving to stuffed. As you eat, periodically stop and assess again. Greeson suggested that you stop eating when you reach 5 or 6.

Take a few deep breaths before you eat. Then, begin by looking at the way the light hits the food on your fork, its textures and colors. Raise it to your nose and smell it. Put down your utensils between bites.

Act "as if you've never seen this piece of food before," Greeson said. "Use all the senses to eat your food. The idea is to be more conscious."

Greeson and other researchers at Duke and Indiana State University are looking at how mindful-eating programs may help people with eating disorders. They're also curious if it can help with weight loss and maintenance.

One study funded through the National Institutes of Health showed that binge eaters went from binging an average of four times a week to one after they learned mindful-eating techniques, Greeson said. They were less depressed, less anxious and had decreased insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a precursor to type-2 diabetes.

Maggie Dailey, an instructor and the associate director of the Women's Health Center of Excellence at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, teaches mindful eating during seminars in mindful stress reduction, a program started in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Mindful eating is a component of the program.

Dailey's students spend one entire class -- six hours -- of meditation and yoga in silence at the end of the seminar. It includes about an hour for a mindful meal. Students pack their own lunches, and later, often remark that they brought too much food, Dailey said.

"With the pace that most of us live at, we're just shoving it down as we go from one place to another. I think most people are surprised at the way things taste," she said.

We bring a lot of baggage to the table, the paradox of nagging, albeit perhaps grandmotherly, voices that tell us we should clean our plates but not blow our diets. Greeson encourages people to consider if they are eating because they are hungry or because the clock is telling them to eat. Our bodies give us physical cues when we are hungry -- a pit in our stomachs, a lag in energy, and if we wait too long to eat we are more likely to binge, he said.

While you're eating, check for signs that you are full, such as a warm belly. There's about a 20 minute lag between when you are full and when your brain registers that. Don't just shovel in food until your plate is empty or your lunch break is up.

"Cultivate awareness moment by moment. Listen to (the body's) whispers," Greeson said. "Many people eat, including myself, when we're stressed. And that's a different reason than eating when we're actually hungry."

Greeson thinks that mindful eating could help with other eating disorders, too, such as anorexia and bulimia.

Some of the mindful-eating regime sounds like common sense. Just slowing down your eating will help a "whole plethora of health problems," said Penny Riordan, a dietitian with Forsyth Medical Center, including digestion.

Riordan advises her patients to eat slower. But she doesn't tag it with any label, and she doesn't think that it's practical to meditate on each bite. We're just one of those cultures. We're doing several things at one time. We don't just sit and eat. I just think we've gotten to the point where we are too busy," she said.

Greeson admits that it's probably not realistic to eat every meal mindfully. But even eating those first few bites more deliberately can give us more joy from what we eat.

"We're getting a chance to pay attention to each sense," Greeson said. "That gives rise to a greater sense of appreciation and pleasure rather than wolfing it down."

■ Laura Giovanelli can be reached at 727-7302 or at lgiovanelli@wsjournal.com.

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