The Epicurean Yogini: 5 Ways to Cultivate a Mindful Relationship with Food

Vegan grub and Catalan beer at Cat Bar in Barcelona

If you know me at all, or have even scrolled through my blog, there’s one thing you know about me for sure: I love food.

Let me clarify: I love a spectacular eating experience with good, real, live, lovingly prepared food that nourishes my body and soul. Not everything I eat fulfills all that criteria, but I try to get close as often as I can.

Media impact on our body image, dieting, and a little movement called Health at Every Size has been occupying my mind and internet browsing time lately. In recent years, food–and our relationship with it–has begun to fascinate me; the way it nourishes our beings on every level, the detriments of the Standard American Diet, how amazing our bodies are at using nutrients, and how undermined the eating experience is in our culture.

My recent 5 weeks abroad has completely changed the way I eat: I ate when I was hungry and sampled everything that caught my eye, from churros con chocolate to Turkish delight. This was a far cry from where I was a year ago: meticulously counting calories, weighing myself multiple times a day, and generally torturing myself to lose weight. This recent change in my own habits pulled me further down the rabbit hole, and when I came back from my trip, this is one of the first books I took out from the library.

90’s cover, timeless information.

Now, they’ve since released two more editions (sans shoulder pads) but I was lucky enough to read the first one that came out in like, ’93. This baby is packed with awesome information for the “recovering dieter,” which is something like 90% of the population according to my scientific estimates. But even if you’ve never been on a “diet,” Tribole and Resch provide useful steps to recreating a healthy relationship with food–something that I think everyone in our rushed, processed and artificially flavored society can benefit from. One of the things that struck me most about the guidelines is how Tribole and Resch emphasis the mindfulness and compassion one needs to have with themselves. Hmm…kinda sounds like a yoga practice, eh? Ehhh? These are the things I distilled from the book and found most relative to a yogic lifestyle:

1. Eat

T & R say “Give yourself permission to eat.” Michael Pollan in Food Rules says, “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I’ll add an addendum: If it’s not plants, taste it. If it’s good, eat more. I guess that addendum has helped me with stuff like cookies and brownies and cake, because I was so averse to them at one point and that just heightened their allure. Deep down, all we really want are the things we’re not allowed to have, whether it’s an illusive job, your friend’s sweet apartment, that hot bartender with the girlfriend or something deep fried and slathered in ketchup.

BUT if you suddenly make those things an option, you can then discern whether you really want them or not. Isn’t that a bit like the Tantric mindset? So taste that flourless chocolate cake; if you like it, taste some more. If not, then why waste your time on OK-tasting cake?

2. Make Eating a “Thing”

When was the last time you happily prepared a healthful meal for yourself, sat down at a table with no distractions (not even a magazine) and ate, focusing on the taste, and stopping when your mind and body were content? For me, this was never. Even when I was eating my most “heathfully,” it was the same thing every day, and I’d eat it while reading or working on the computer, and devour the whole thing because it was the amount of calories I was “supposed” to take in, regardless of if I was full, content or still hungry at the end of it. Saaaad. I feel like this is the way a lot of people eat: distracted from the meal, detached from the way their bodies feel, and generally joyless.

In Spain–OK, everywhere except the States–eating is a three to four-hour affair involving conversation and sitting down and genuinely enjoying your food. Now, eating like this every day for every meal isn’t practical, but the idea of being present at your meal can be done on a smaller scale. Admire your food; I love looking at colorful, cut up produce. Call me a dork, but it makes me happy and the meal seems all that more special.

Summer peppers ready for grillin.

Cooking with people I love adds an entirely new dimension to the experience; preparing food with friends becomes something so profound, ala Like Water for Chocolate. Try eating without distractions; no TV, no checking e-mail, no reading. When I worked for Vosges Haut-Chocolat, Katrina had a very particular way she wanted people to eat her truffles, and it began with closing your eyes and taking three ujjayi breaths. All of this is to bring your mind to the present without external stimuli; this way, flavors are more vibrant, food is more enjoyable, and you can tune into how your body receives what you’re eating.

3. Listen to your Hunger

It’s easy to become completely out of touch with the signals our body gives us these days. Our mind-body connection is so anemic that sometimes we can’t event tell what feels good or not, let alone recognize the subtle things our body is telling us, like if we’re hungry or not. In a day where we’re constantly nursing coffee or snacking, sometimes we haven’t felt true hunger in a while. Or our bodies are so nutritionally deprived that we’re always hungry on some level. When our body needs nutrients, it sends hunger signals. If you need a refresher on what true hunger feels like, try this: eat a light breakfast, then wait 5-6 hours before eating again. Try to do this on a Sunday morning, or another day where you won’t be distracted with work, because this will give you a perfect chance to listen to your hunger. Notice when you start to feel a little empty; that it gently tugs at you and becomes slight stronger as time goes on and your body wants to refuel. Ask yourself how hungry you are? Hungry enough to eat an apple? Or two apples? Then, once you decide you’re hungry enough to eat a meal, listen to what sounds good to you: a kale salad with pine nuts? A turkey sandwich and guacamole? A rare burger and sweet potato fries? Your body knows what it wants, and your mind is there to make the healthy choices; your body wants chocolate so your mind chooses the raw, dark chocolate square instead of a 1/2 pound of fudge, or baked sweet potato rounds instead of sweet potato ‘tots, all the while knowing that the “less healthful” option is always an option–but do you want it? If yes, go for it!

4. Trust your Body

This is probably the hardest step, mostly because we’re taught to mistrust the signals we receive from our bodies. But when we attune ourselves to what they need, our body works perfectly, smoothly and efficiently. When you get all of the head stuff out of the way (emotional eating, counting calories, etc–easier said than done!), our bodies tell us when they’re hungry and when they’ve had enough. And if you listen carefully, they’ll also give you hints about what you need nutritionally–this is why listening to what you’re craving is important. If a spinach salad sounds awesome, go for it. If you’d rather have carbs and meat, opt for a chicken breast sandwich on whole wheat bread. If you’d like something sweet and breakfasty, try oatmeal with ripe bananas and cinnamon. This is all within reason, of course. Choosing whole, raw and unprocessed food most of the time is best, but again, nothing is off-limits.

Mindful Indulgence: Brownie mix + Greek Yogurt = Party

Trusting your body is another way to nix guilt: if you have an evening of pizza and beer, know that your body will make up for it. You’ll realize the next day you’re not as hungry, or you’ll want fresh, green produce instead.

5. Move Because it Feels Good

Our bodies are meant to bend and stretch, our muscles to ache and strengthen, our hearts are meant to race. Your body is one of those things that unless you use it, you lose it–it’s just that efficient! So find a way to move that you enjoy; walk, run, play beach volleyball, belly dance, do yoga. I read a statistic that 10% of Americans get regular physical activity–I forget where but it sounds pretty accurate. So start slow and find something that feels good because it feels good.

I began running last November because I wanted to lose weight faster. When I came back from my trip with this new mindset about food, I wanted to take the same approach to adding physical activity back into my routine as well. I had been doing yoga on the road (although less often that I would have liked) and that’s something I dove right back into when I returned. Running was something different though; I had kind of forced myself into it and guilted myself into continuing. Running felt good, but it came from a place of pushing. I wanted to restart running from a place of compassion for myself, not to change myself but because it felt good. So I’ve slowly begun incorporating running back into my routine. I listen to my body and skip days if it’s too hot, but it feels SO GOOD instead of mean and badgering. Now that I know running is something I truly enjoy, I’m not worried that I’ll stop and never pick it up again.

This is where I say start a yoga practice. Just kidding. No I’m not. Asana (poses) and pranayama (breath work) are so beneficial for body and mind. Nearly all of the principles I’ve mentioned here (presence, compassion, mindfulness) are bolstered by a yoga practice. And these things are crucial not only for a healthy relationship with food, but for healthy relationships with yourself, your loved ones and just getting along in general.

OK, enough preaching. Relationships with food are so tricky and personal–these are the things that were pertinent to me and my prior kooky eating habits. How do you keep your relationship with food happy? If you practice, has this changed how and what you put into your body?

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