Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mindful Eating

Many people are concerned about the food we eat and how we eat it. We often have good intentions when it comes to consuming food, but just how aware are we of the food we put in our bodies? Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Brian Halweil, a sustainable food writer and activist, speak at the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York on the topic of "Mindful Eating: What Does it Mean for You and the Planet?"

As the editor of Edible East End, co-publisher of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, and someone who keeps his hands in the soil (and sea) with a home garden, orchard, and oysters, Brian had plenty say about how we relate with food. Many of us know that our food choices have repercussions, but when it comes down to the moment do we always make the most beneficial choices for ourselves, others, and the planet? Not always. But Brian provided many examples of people working locally and globally to decrease harm and increase the positive impact of food. For example, the oyster raising he is involved with on Long Island helps keep the waters clean, provides food for those who harvest it, and brings people in the community together. Brian likes to think of the oyster gardens as "little underwater mollusk militias, fighting pollution along the coast."

Plus, oysters are delicious.

There are plenty of people and organizations out there making positive changes in our food systems, but I've been thinking lately about what obstacles prevent us from making the best food choices in our everyday lives. The other week I was at the supermarket and was struck by the baskets of other shoppers. I noticed that other consumers my age had baskets filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, carefully selected organic milk or meat...and then just one item that didn't seem to fit. For one shopper it was Totino's pizza rolls, for another it was Little Debbie snacks. I looked in my own basket and laughed--I had all the ingredients for a nice salad. And frozen mozzarella sticks. The intention of good eating was there for all of us, but we didn't quite make it on the follow through.

So I asked Brian about this aspect of our food choices. We can have the knowledge about what food is healthy for our bodies and the best origins of that food, but sometimes we give in to nostalgia and the deeply engrained cultural habits that we grew up with. As a meditation practitioner I know that meditation has the power to help us become aware of and change our habitual patterns. But when it comes to food did Brian have any advice on how we disrupt such deep patterns of food consumption?

As expected, Brian had a lot of insight and practical advice on the matter. First he acknowledged that much of our relationship with food is emotional. This is important to remember--sometimes we crave something, not because it's what we physically want but because we have some emotional attachment to it. I certainly notice this when it comes to food, as I'm sure you all have certain items you don't necessarily need but really want.

In terms of actually changing those habitual patterns, Brian suggested being more conscious of where we do our food shopping, noting that the environment we find ourselves in can greatly impact us. He commented that farmer's markets and co-ops were much better places to buy food than the "toxic environment" of a supermarket where there are many food items we would ideally avoid. From my knowledge, supermarkets are laid out in such a way to lure you into buying items you don't need. When you do shop at a supermarket, it's best to stick to the edges of the store--produce, meat, dairy--rather than go up and down the aisles where the food is highly processed. Of course, shopping at a farmer's market and getting more directly to the source of the food is ideal, but when it's not an option there are still wise ways to manage a supermarket.

Brian also suggested that eating with others can help alter our food habits for the better. When we eat alone, we are often mindlessly stuff food in our face as we zone out or watch something on Netflix. In these circumstances we tend to eat more than we need and are more likely to make poor food choices. When we eat with others, the meal can be infused with joy. Eating returns to being a communal activity (which it has been throughout human history), and we share in the delight of eating good food with our friends and families. Dining in groups of like-minded individuals can also encourage us to stick to our ethics of good food choices.

The final piece of advice from Brian was to expand our food options. We often become so used to what we think we like that we rule out other foods. When we open our minds (and stomachs) to new foods, we may be presently surprised. When it comes to our tendency to gravitate toward particular food items for nostalgic reasons, there are often other options out there. For example, one year for my birthday I was craving ice-cream cake. Rather than buying me the typical Carvel's ice-cream cake that basically tastes like childhood, my friend made me an ice-cream cake from scratch. I didn't even think of that as a possibility, but results were delicious! And much better than Carvel's.

(Ok, so in this context maybe I should have used an example of eating homemade kale chips instead of potato chips or something, but ice-cream cake is important too!)
We may think of our food choices as minor, but their impact is far reaching. We will drive ourselves crazy if we all of a sudden try to be conscious of every single food item we procure and consume. It is likely sitting down to meditate for the first time and thinking we will reach enlightenment. But if we start small eventually the larger patterns of food consumption will change as well. There are always alternatives to what we think of as fixed situations. So good luck and happy eating!   


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