Originally written for The Washington Post, May 25th, 2017
What if all the wisdom we needed to learn how to eat came from one little raisin?
Nutrition will forever be a hot debate, with new science, and new fads. The value of each macronutrient (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) is always being disputed, and one is often looked at as the hero or enemy. We play with vitamins and minerals and discuss miracle supplements and superfoods. We experiment with smaller, more frequent meals or fasting.
But what if nutrition didn’t have anything to do with meal timing or magic bullets? What if the answer had nothing to do with food, but rather our awareness of how we’re eating? Could becoming more mindful be what’s needed to create the nutritional change you’re looking for?
Most of us eat mindlessly. We’re rushing and stuffing food in our mouths as we go from point A to point B. We’re so engrossed in our conversation at dinner (or the Facebook feed on our smartphone) that we eat the whole plate, barely noticing what was on it and how it tasted. Or our minds are focused on the ongoing to-do list in our heads.
All this mindless eating may be having a negative impact on our health. Standard portions in restaurants and elsewhere in the food industry are growing, and that plate of food may be more than we need. However, if we don’t notice our hunger cues or consciously decide to stop, we’ll probably just keep eating.
Mindful eating is the practice of just that: being mindful when you eat. Paying attention to the flavor, smell, texture of food and noticing how it makes you feel.
A very common first lesson when learning about mindful eating is called the raisin exercise. It’s so simple yet surprisingly powerful.
1. Sit in a comfortable chair in a quiet place.
2. Take one raisin and place it in your hand. Imagine you have no idea what a raisin is and this is the first time you’re seeing one.
3. Look at it. Notice the wrinkles, the color, the size, and feel the weight. Really look at it. Hold it up to the light and notice how it looks in different perspectives.
4. Bring the raisin to your nose and smell it. Close your eyes and smell again.
5. Bring the raisin to your ear and roll it in your fingers and listen. Close your eyes and listen.
6. Place the raisin in between your lips, not yet in your mouth. How does it feel? Can you taste anything? Is your mouth watering?
7. Place the raisin in your mouth and move it around without chewing. How does it feel in your mouth? On your tongue, against your cheeks, in your teeth. Is your mouth watering now? Can you taste anything? How does it taste?
8. Finally start to chew. What does chewing feel like? Can you feel your jaw and/or teeth? How does it taste now? How does it feel? What does a chewed raisin feel like in your mouth?
9. And finally, when ready, swallow. Take note of how your mouth and throat feel.
Do this exercise very slowly. It could take five to 15 minutes.
The first time I led a group through this exercise, there was a woman who laughed so hard she had to leave the room. I understand! It seems a bit silly to spend that much time on one raisin. However, once you go through this exercise, your relationship with this little wrinkly fruit feels very different. Many notice the raisin’s powerful taste. Think of how easy it is to mindlessly inhale a whole box of raisins. Maybe you only need one to satisfy a sweet tooth. It also can really open your eyes to how fast we eat and how unaware we are of what we eat. If you could take this much effort on a raisin, imagine a plate of food. I led this exercise in a group where one man said how he thought he liked raisins, but now he realizes he really doesn’t. Another man had an opposite experience; he thought he hated raisins, but tasting one mindfully made him really enjoy the taste!
Mindful eating is a phenomenal tool that you can use throughout your day to manage portions, pay attention to choices and just slow down a bit. Your mealtime doesn’t have to be as slow and detailed as the raisin exercise, just a version that works for you.
• Before eating, sit comfortably and look at your plate. Notice what you’re about to eat.
• Take a forkful, taste the flavors, chew with some intention, swallow and check in with yourself.
• Take each bite a bit slower, and be aware of what is happening.
• After each bite, take one second to check in with your hunger cues and notice whether you feel full or need more.
• When you feel full, put the fork down.
Mindful eating is easier to do in quiet, as it can be distracting when you’re talking with others, but eating in quiet may not be possible. Do what feels right for you, and slowly but surely pay more attention to your food. Maybe once a day, week or month eat one meal in silence. Practice mindful eating with no distractions and savor each bite. It may surprise you how your portion sizes and choices change when you simply become aware.