What does mindful eating even mean? Here is one interpretation I found.
“Mindful eating involves paying closer attention
to your food and how it makes you feel.”
This sentence came from a popular website which explores a variety of health-related topics. I do like the ideas this sentence is suggesting. Do we take a few moments to be present with our food? Why have we chosen the foods we are placing in our mouths? Are we truly hungry or are we trying to feed emotional discomfort? How do we even identify our motivations for eating?
To understand if you should be eating in a particular moment, making a daily eating plan will be helpful. The blog post “Flush Your Body of Inflammation: The solution for a post-holiday carb hangover”, from earlier this year, contains points you should consider when making your plan. If you find yourself straying from the plan, that is a clue that you may be trying to feed something besides physical hunger.
Once you are aware that you are not physically hungry, then it is important to look beyond the surface of your craving. Is there something beneath the craving that you are trying to avoid acknowledging? Our primal brain, the part of our brain that is responsible for survival, drive and instinct, has a goal of helping us feel better. If we are emotionally hurt or uncomfortable, and we don’t have the desire or skills to address that uncomfortability, the brain will seek another way to achieve pleasure.
Dopamine is a powerful molecule in the brain and the primary one that that induces pleasure. The brain will release dopamine if we achieve a goal, give or receive an act of service, have a positive outcome from an interpersonal interaction, or in some way feel successful. It is often described as the neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with taking a risk. Dopamine is part of our reward pathway that encourages human beings to make good choices, to stretch beyond our current abilities and to grow. The most commonly abused drugs activate dopamine release, creating a cycle of addiction. These drugs, in actuality, hijack the reward pathway by helping an individual FEEL good without DOING something good.
Sugar also increases dopamine in the brain. We can become addicted to food in the same way people become addicted to illicit or controlled substances. When we consume sugar, we may feel that little hit of dopamine initially, but then when we have had too much, it will be followed by bloating and inflammation, metabolic dysregulation (impaired energy production) and in most cases, weight gain. Telltale signs of metabolic dysregulation, also called metabolic syndrome, are insulin resistance, elevated fasting glucose, high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, fatty liver or other organs of the viscera, and a larger waist circumference.
Signs of metabolic syndrome are another indication that you should explore your relationship with food and begin to practice mindful eating. As you begin to explore what may be beneath your cravings, if there are painful feelings of shame or guilt, you may have an eating disorder. It is important that you seek support from a licensed therapist to help you work through your addiction. These can be very complicated situations that involve traumatic events that occurred when you were very young and are unresolved. My desire is for those who struggle with these feelings and have anxiety with their past, to not be afraid to reach out for help. I cannot promise you that your journey will be comfortable, but with appropriate support you can begin to gain the control of your choices to help liberate you from this addiction. You can then become a powerful mentor in the life of someone else who struggles as you once did.
So, I end this conversation where I started. What thoughts come to mind for you when you consider the idea of exploring mindful eating? What would a practice of mindful eating look like for you? It takes courage to explore our relationship with food. It can often be a tip of an iceberg, leading us deeper into a past that we have been trying to avoid for a long time. The thing with icebergs is, they typically don’t just evaporate and go away. Beginning this journey of exploration may seem overwhelming. In these cases it can be very encouraging to find an environment that will help you feel safer in taking the first steps along this unfamiliar path. Chaos to Calm Retreats seek to create an environment just like this. These retreats bring women together to help facilitate hard conversations about our relationship with food and many others. We are planning our next retreat soon. Please peruse Chaostocalmretreat.com for more information on our upcoming events.
Best in health,
Biochemist and Certified Health Coach