I often wish I had time in the treatment room to teach my patients about nutrition. Nutrition is an important issue for a few reasons. First, because we’ve greatly reduced the number of deaths from accidents and infections, most people in developed countries now die from conditions that are influenced by long-term eating habits: heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.
Second, we have different nutritional challenges today than ever before. For most of human history, people ate to survive and barely had a choice of what to eat – but it was entirely natural and mostly local. Now our choices are dizzying, much of our food is created or processed in factories, and there are all kinds of new unknowns – such as the influence of pesticides, chemicals used in production and packaging, and nonstick coatings on cookware.
Third, in the nutrition conversation, everyone is yelling at once, and most of the participants have no qualifications to give nutritional advice or interpret scientific studies. Thousands of bloggers, journalists, self-styled “bio-hackers,” and medical professionals have an opinion about what people should and shouldn’t eat, save for a very few places that tell you what’s proper for you. There’s so much sensationalism and contradiction.
I believe people need a clear, consistent philosophy on nutrition that doesn’t change with every new study.
This inspired me to create an online course called How to Eat. It teaches traditional wisdom on nutrition, backed by modern science, in a format that’s easy to digest (I couldn’t resist). It’s designed to give someone an understanding of how and what to eat that makes so much sense that there’s no need to memorize anything.
But I’m realistic about modern attention spans, so I know I’m lucky if I’ve kept you reading even this long, and you probably want to know what that title is all about. If I were to distill my nutrition teachings down to one rule, it would be this: Stay conscious while eating.
I used to say the single most important rule was something I learned from one of my nutrition teachers, Dr. Paul Greenbaum: eat food that’s whole, pure, and natural. I still think this is great advice, but now I know that, even following this rule, it’s still possible to eat in a way that isn’t good for you.
I eat pretty cleanly, but a few months ago I started experiencing abdominal bloating. My belly would get as big and tight as a basketball; I could barely walk and was in agonizing pain. I tried some herbs and supplements and started eating only very simple foods, but it barely made a difference. Finally, I stopped eating entirely and the bloating went away, but of course I knew I couldn’t fast forever.
When I did finally eat again, I ate with all my attention. I chewed well and felt into my body and did nothing else at the same time. I just gave all of my presence to what I was doing. I noticed that my body wanted only about two-thirds as much food as what I expected and that it wanted to be fed that food at a relatively slow pace. Doing this, I digested everything well. I ate the very same foods as before, but had no bloating. I realized then that I had gotten into the bad habit of eating unconsciously. I had forgotten my own teachings, and was eating while working, while driving, and while walking through the house.
It was all better until yesterday. In the mid-afternoon I started to feel the bloating coming on and I realized I had been eating unconsciously again! Sometimes I like to learn things the hard way.
Now obviously you’re not going completely unconscious while eating (if you are, I highly recommend you don’t eat while driving), but we all let our minds stray while eating. Sometimes we’re just daydreaming. Other times our mind is actively engaged in something else, like having a conversation, or reading the news, or playing on our phone, or watching TV.
There are (at least) three good things that happen when we stay conscious while eating:
1. The eating process tends to work better. We’re relaxed, we consume at a healthier pace, the body assimilates it better, and I believe we probably derive more nutritional value from the food.
2. We notice and can respond to the subtle (or not-so-subtle) messages our body is giving us, such as, “I’m not hungry anymore” or “This food is not compatible with me” or “Slow down.” You can learn virtually everything you need to know about how to best feed yourself – both the specific foods and the ideal time and manner to eat them – just by giving all of your attention to the act of eating.
3. We have an amazing opportunity. Truly. I believe that most people may never experience just how profound the act of eating is. This profundity is only available when we give it our full attention. Then we start to get an inkling of it . . .
. . . the complexity of colors, textures, flavors, and nutrients in the food
. . . the incredible sophistication and intelligence of the human body; its ability to extract what it needs from the food and turn it into energy, blood, muscle, bone, and the capacity to remain conscious and sharp
. . . the whole ecology we’re part of – the sun and the almost magical ability of plant cells to turn its light into biological energy; the constructive roles of soil and water; the human labor and the care that was taken to cultivate this food; and the lineage of thousands of generations of plants and animals that were intentionally chosen for the purpose of nourishing us.
When we have an experience of just how special this is – we see ourselves putting the universe into ourselves and being sustained by it and connected to it in the process – eating is no longer just about making the hungry feeling go away or enjoying pleasant tastes. It could be our spiritual practice. It unites us with our environment. And it compels us to consider the impacts of our choices on this beautiful system.
So, if you do just one thing to intervene in your nutrition routine, I recommend that it’s this. When you eat, give the act all of your attention. If you can’t give it all of your attention, then eat minimally and slowly, or wait until a time when you can give it your attention. Then tell me what happens.