If you have experienced heightened stress levels within the past few months, you are not alone. As if normal life isn’t hard enough, the year 2020 has been marked by dramatic changes and uncertainty. No matter your particular circumstance, we are all in a more fragile state—whether we recognize it on a daily basis or not. This is indeed a time of great potential, and also a time marked by fear and loss for many. With so many changes good and bad happening around us, it is more important than ever to develop daily habits, such as mindful eating, that keep us grounded, clear-headed and healthy.
Ayurveda and Mindful Eating
Fortunately, in Ayurveda exists a tremendous legacy of wisdom to assist us through trying times. Ayurveda, an ancient healing system and sister science of yoga, offers a wealth of practices for supporting the health of your body and mind. This article focuses on mindful eating practices. These habits support a healthy body and a peaceful mind, but Ayurveda offers a myriad self-care practices.
Think of these mindful eating habits as simple life hacks—small choices that can have a big positive impact when practiced daily over time. Some of these daily practices may seem very simple and common sense, but when you take a few moments each day to tune in and give your body and mind a little extra TLC, you will likely notice remarkable benefits. Science shows that mindful eating has been linked to reduced calorie consumption, less impulsive eating, and better food choices (Ackerman, 2020).
1. Eat in a Peaceful Environment
According to Ayurveda, how you eat is as important as what you eat. We are so used to assessing our foods in terms of nutrients, calories, glycemic index, and other quantifiable factors, that this concept may take you aback. However, it is worthwhile to pause and consider the importance of mindful eating for a moment.
When your body and mind are in a stressful state, your physiology goes into fight-or-flight mode, producing chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline that interfere with effective digestion (Rao, 2020). Conversely, when you have calm and peaceful feelings during meals, your body is in rest-and-digest mode. Not only will you enjoy your meals more, but your body will be better primed to digest your food. Eating mindfully helps you maximize nutritional value and minimize digestive disturbances, such as gas, bloating, feeling sleepy and heavy. Also, mealtimes then become a chance to decompress and be present.
A simple mindful eating practice that helps create a sense of calm and ease during meals is to eat in a peaceful setting. This means sit down, close your laptop and put down the phone. Turn off the television and take a couple of slow breaths before your first bite. Pleasant, easy conversation and mellow music are fine during meals, but try to avoid work, arguments, and any stimulation that causes mental agitation. When you truly make space for mealtimes, you will likely notice a big change in your state of mind, digestive health, and sense of satisfaction with the food you eat. Also, by slowing down and paying attention, meals become a better opportunity to connect with friends family…or just yourself!
2. The Magic 75%
You know that what you eat matters and you know that how you eat matters. Along with that, how much you eat makes a big difference. In Ayurveda there is a Sanskrit word, agni, which refers to one’s digestive fire. If your agni is low, you may feel sluggish and sleepy after meals and are more likely to gain weight. If your agni is too high, you may experience burning hunger, malabsorption, and excessive weight loss or muscle atrophy. When agni is just right, no digestive problems are present, and you generally feel vibrant and nourished—eating gives you energy rather than making you feel heavy or sleepy.
One of the ways that you can balance your agni is to eat just the right amount of food. Overeating is like putting too many logs on the fire; the flames will be smothered. Eating too little can lead to fatigue and malnourishment. Ayurveda offers the 75% rule as a guide—at the end of each meal aim to feel 75% full. This means that your hunger has subsided and yet you aren’t stuffed. There is no exact way to measure this. Rather it is a felt sense, but once you get the hang of it, this simple Ayurvedic practice can make a huge difference in managing weight and boosting energy levels. Also, it typically takes about 20 minutes for your gut to send your brain the message that you are full, so slowing down can help you notice when your body has reached its satiety point (Harvard Medical School, n.d.).
If it’s hard for you to judge just exactly where the 75% mark falls, here is a tip. It may sound odd, but watch for the burp. For most of us, if we are eating mindfully and paying attention, there will be a place in the meal where you have a small burp. This is the perfect time to put down the fork and call it a meal. Next time pay attention…you might be surprised!
If you try this out a few times and no burp detected, another good marker is a sigh. Again, as long as you are tuned in, there will typically be a point in the meal where you put down the spoon or fork and have a sigh. Pay close attention to your gut at this time. It may signal that magic 75%.
3. Take Three
Breath gives life and how you breathe can have a monumental impact on your body and mind. Taking slow, deep breaths activates the calming parasympathetic nervous system, whereas fast shallow breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system, which signals a number of stress responses (Andre, 2019). If you practice yoga you are probably well aware of the power of mindful breathing. Cardiovascular exercise also gives us a glimpse into the impact of tuning into one’s breathing patterns.
Mealtimes are also a great chance to incorporate mindful breathing in small ways. If slow, deep breathing calms the mind and a calm mind means better digestion, why not slow down and breath deep before taking a bite? This can be as simple as taking one to three slow breaths before commencing a meal. Pausing also offers the chance to feel gratitude for the meal and to tune into the smells of your food, which will in turn aid your digestion. Lastly, most of us don’t get to pause enough during the day. So, by taking a few slow breaths before tucking in, you are also building a few mental pauses into your day.
As mentioned earlier, Ayurveda is rich with practices that support wellness. In addition to these mindful eating habits, daily exercise, good sleep hygiene, meaningful work, and healthy relationships are key to wellbeing. Start with these three lifestyle hacks and hopefully you will experience the rewards of slowing down, tuning in, and breathing and eating with a little more awareness.
Ackerman, C. (2020). 58 Science-based mindful eating exercises and tips. PositivePsychology.com. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/mindful-eating-exercises/
Andre, C. (2019). Stress reduction, insomnia prevention, emotion control, improved attention—certain breathing techniques can make life better. But where do you start? Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/proper-breathing-brings-better-health/
Harvard Medical School. (n.d.). Mindful eating may help with weight loss. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/mindful-eating-may-help-with-weight-loss
Rao, R. (2020). Good living practices. KaivalyaWellness.com.