How much time do you spend thinking about food? Do you worry about where your food comes from, or how it got to you? Do you think about the food you eat whenever you feel sick, stressed, happy, or sad? If you eat food you haven’t cooked, do you wonder what quality of food you are receiving, or the conditions in which it was prepared?
Being mindful of what we eat and how we procure and prepare that food can make a big difference in our health. Mindfulness means having an awareness of the reality of things. What does this have to do with our diets?
Let’s use the Five W’s concept found in journalism (who, what, where, when, why, and how) to break down the standard Western approach to nutrition:
WHAT We Eat: Never in history have people relied so much on packaged, processed, and fast foods. The majority of calories in a standard Western diet come from wheat, corn, soy, rice and sugar. We eat foods that are marketed to us in TV commercials, magazine ads, posters or billboards, or coupons from the supermarket. An average shopping cart is full of tinned or packaged items made with preservatives, additives, artificial colours and flavours, chemically-altered ingredients, and other unpronounceable things that renders the end product a non-food item by all accounts. The fresh produce has been conventionally grown and saturated with pesticides. The conventionally raised meat has been fed poor-quality commercial feed which contains antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, fertilizers, and protein supplements normally made from soya bean meal. Caged hens fed a diet of soy and corn produce poor quality eggs and their meat is slimy, tasteless, and watery.
Outside the supermarket, we have limitless options to feed ourselves in the form of fast food joints and restaurants that serve ammonia-washed beef, pink sludge chicken nuggets, reformed watery sandwich meat, drinks filled with syrups created in labs, and foods cooked in rancid seed oils. Even our gas stations (or petrol garages for the Brits) sell food, so you and your car can refuel at the same time! The truth is the average person has no idea what they are putting in their mouth.
We eat only a small portion of the edible food available in the world, and unfortunately it is the wrong portion! Tasteless and potentially harmful wheat, corn, rice, and soy now constitute a majority of the typical person’s calories, instead of the variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, and dairy we could be enjoying. Moreover, eating a typical Western diet will not provide a sufficient amount of vitamins and minerals. We are not thriving on this diet, we are simply surviving.
WHERE We Eat: As our lives become busier and more fast-paced, we feel forced to eat wherever we can. This means we are guilty of eating outside the home a large portion of the time, feeding during transit (car, bus, or train), sitting in front of a TV or movie screen, at work, shopping, walking to or from somewhere, or while we are doing other activities.
How many of us actually sit down at a table in our house, in a quiet room free of LED screens and distractions, and just eat? How often do you share a meal with your family without one of you trying to ‘multi-task’ on your phone or computer?
WHEN We Eat: We are surrounded by food. This makes it possible to eat any time of day, no matter where we are. We eat on arbitrary schedules (I.e. I have breakfast at 7am, we eat dinner at 6pm every night). We eat on breaks at work regardless of hunger. We eat during other activities or travel. We eat when others around us are eating, or when people tell us to eat. We eat when we’re not hungry.
WHY We Eat: We are constantly receiving messages to eat via TV shows or adverts, newspapers, movies, or billboards. We turn eating into a social event or celebration when we’re with other people. We eat out of boredom, sadness, stress, or even happiness. We are driven to eat by chemical imbalances in the body, insulin spikes, or hypoglycaemia. Some of us eat due to intoxication, and many of us eat because the food on offer is free (at conferences, meetings, weddings, or parties).
HOW We Eat: In our modern world, we no longer prioritize family meal times or taking the time to enjoy a meal (unlike many European countries where meals can last 3-4 hours). More often than not we consume food quickly, mindlessly, out of cartons or tins, without stopping for breath or putting our forks down, and without being involved in the process. It would be accurate to say many people inhale their food, rather than enjoy it.
By being mindful and present whenever we deal with food, we can change where, when, why and how we eat. We can ask ourselves; How will this food affect my health? Where did this meal come from? When was this harvested, and is it fresh? Why am I eating this; am I truly hungry? Through this process, what we eat will naturally change. When we repeatedly tell ourselves that we deserve to nourish our bodies with fresh, healthy, ethically and organically raised foods, we change our expectations and standards.
When we are in tune with our body and have a calm awareness of the relationship between the foods we eat and our bodily functions and sensations, we can recognise just how ill the effects are of a standard Western diet. How many people recognise that the following problems are a direct result of their diet?
Indigestion, acid reflux, bloating and gas, bowel problems, dry skin and hair, skin irritation and acne, joint pain, inflammation, arthritis, nail and hair brittleness and growth, fertility problems, frequent illness, chronic pain, poor energy levels, poor insulin response, low sex drive, mood changes, irritability, anger, depression, anxiety, memory problems, diabetes, asthma, dizziness, numbness in the extremities, heavy or irregular periods, PMS, eye twitching, anaemia, excess weight, mucus overproduction, yeast infections, bad breath, tooth decay.
These symptoms (and more) are indications that our body is not being well nourished.
We have lived with these side effects for so long -since childhood for many of us- we no longer know or recognise what constitutes good health. We overmedicate in an effort to mask the symptoms but rarely seek to remove or rectify the root cause. By weaning ourselves off drugs and junk food, we are forced to deal with the full effects of stuffing ourselves full of poison, making us less willing to do it again. However hard you think it will be to give up your favorite foods that make you ill, it does not compare to living a life riddled with disease, illness, and possibly an early death.
Mindfulness is an antidote to delusion, and when we practice it we can no longer fool ourselves into thinking our diets are not that bad or our symptoms are not so serious. We need to understand that feeling like this is not normal. This empowers us to take control of our health through our diet, which is the #1 source of disease and illness. By changing your diet, you can change almost everything else.
The standard Western diet needs to change. But first, our lifestyles and relationship with food need to change.