Do you much on the run? For better health, a dietician says, slow down and let all five senses savor your food.
Sixty people with their eyes closed consumed a single almond each. Then a berry. Then a piece of chocolate.
“Free your mind,” said the speaker. “Feel the food on your tongue. Smell it. Taste it. Notice the sounds when you bite down and chew.”
The event was a recent presentation at Ramapo College by dietitian Jacqueline Ehlert, a research fellow at the College. The assembled group ranged from teens to seniors, and she was taking them through simple exercises to “waken the senses.” The goal was to acquaint them with a strategy called conscious eating. “This is how we should be eating all the time,” she said. And if you’re someone who grabs breakfast in the car on the way to work—or gobbles a salad at your desk for lunch while staring at a screen, or punctuates dinner with smartphone check-ins to see who’s texted what—it just may be that your senses could use some waking too.
Ours is a society on the go, says Ehlert, and daily distractions such as work, television and social media frequently pull us away from what’s most important—our health. Slowing down to practice conscious eating, says Ehlert, is much better for us, particularly because unconscious eating typically becomes overeating.
Our hasty, hurried gobbling can turn into a cycle that works like sugar addiction, the dietitian explains. (and in many cases, of course, it is sugar addiction.) While not fully paying attention we rapidly consume large amounts, and that causes our blood-sugar levels to spike. Then, in perhaps an hour, those levels crash, producing sensations of lethargy, hunger and a new craving for more of the same food.
“We begin to think things like ‘all i have to do to be happy is to eat ice cream,’” says Ehlert. “It can be a strong loop, easy to get caught up in. To break it, you need to be a conscious eater. If you’re eating chocolate, stop yourself after two or three pieces, then breathe and feel what’s happening inside your body. If you slow down and take a deep breath, you’ll be more conscious of what you’re doing and make better choices.”
Audience member Stan Richmond, a member of Ramapo Foundation’s board of governors, took ehlert’s words to heart. “If you sit at the table and concentrate on eating—without a sound, without reading emails—you can really enjoy your meal,” he says. “A lot of us have to make a concerted effort to do that. It’s a whole new experience for me. Instead of having a whole cup of walnuts or almonds each night, I'm going to start eating them individually—and consciously.”
Full-sensory eating leads to more awareness and attention to the foods we consume, says Ehlert. It’s not meant to “guilt” us to limit our eating, but rather to make us conscious of how we feel so that every bite can truly be a choice.
And there’s one more thing conscious eating does: it creates good and bad “food memories.” “Research shows that our experience of foods can actually modify cell biology,” Ehlert reports. “Our brains form strong connections to these memories of food.” And our bodies will thank us when we practice conscious eating.