What is your earliest food-related memory? Is it a multi-sensory extravaganza? A memory saturated in saffron hues and heady citrus aromas. No? Perhaps it involves fear, or the dull, metallic tang of the authoritatively-wielded but well-meaning spoon most infants encounter during their first foray into solid foods?
For a baby every experience is a revelation that engages sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing (areas of the body with the highest nerve densities). The recent media coverage of the baby- weaning study, published by University of Nottingham, which found that "infants who are given finger foods instead of spoon-fed purees from the start of weaning seem to be more likely to maintain an appropriate weight as they get older." highlights the importance of how our emotional and physical experiences with food, conditioned at such a tender age, can influencing our eating habits.
When was the last time you were as mindful as a baby in discovery mode, dedicating all five senses to every mouthful? How often do we eat and fully focus on the experience of eating? Our multisensory eating experiences inevitably diminish with age. Our meals become more familiar, we eat fast, chew less, and drown out our senses with other concerns (breakfast on the run, laptop lunches and TV dinners sound familiar?).
Mindful eating, involving all senses and meditating on the providence of food, is a practice stemming from Ayurveda (the ancient Indian "Science of Life") and Buddhist philosophy. An extreme example is the novice Buddhist one hour meditation upon a single raisin, but it is already used in treating chronic pain, addiction, anxiety, depression and substance abuse treatment programmes. Despite the Nottingham study's narrow sample size (and other Bad Science worthy study-design shortcomings) these findings have implications for our current eating habits and obesity crisis.
Mindful eating has captured the interests of researchers from a variety of fields, including Harvard Medical School who compared a mindfulness-based therapy to standard psycho educational treatment of 150 binge-eaters. Both treatments reduced bingeing and depression, but the mindfulness-based group "enjoyed" their food more and reported "less sense of anxiety" about their food choices. Participants used the "moment of choice" to consciously differentiate between emotional and physical hunger, the urge to eat and eating. Eating slowly, in a relaxed environment and using all senses to fully focus on the eating experience lead to a greater appreciation of subtle flavours, lower quantity of food consumed and more enjoyment of food (as a scientist and Ben Goldacre worshipper though, I cannot state there is an explicit cause-effect for weight management).
Still unconvinced? Not so are Google, who host a vegan mindful eating lunch once a month. The practice, perhaps to the detriment of its perceived credibility, has been advocated by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Godlie Hawn.
We are, in effect still being spoon-fed. Our eating experiences are pinioned by stress-laden lifestyles, multi-tasking, marketing (breakfast bars would outrage the monks!) and prioritising time over consciously savouring the act of self-nourishment. Most cookery programmes (not so Masterchef and The Great British Bake-off - two hugely successful programmes), have relegated the act of eating to a few seconds-worth of headshots as we voyeuristically try and fulfil the emotionally vacancy of truly engaging with our food.
It could be argued that we are more "mindful" of our food than ever, living in an age where our understanding of nutrition penetrates the molecular level. However, being bombarded with calorie content and Guideline Daily Allowances has not solved our neuroses with food.
Satisfaction from food isn't just about satiety and, and our age of obesity and diseases of comfort is not a single matter of poor nutritional choices. Our relationship with food is steeped in emotion and so it should be. Eating is a biorhythm, a social galvaniser and most importantly: a source of pleasure.
As adults, we too are in need of "re-weaning" from our current eating habits. Our 21st society is one steeped in extremes: unable to strike a balance with our own bodies let alone the environment. Dieting through restriction, further removes us from fully engaging with food. Why not truly engage with food, treating eating as a sacred moment? I encourage you to give it a try and re-discover your eating experience. Allow your senses to be electrified by something simple as a slice of bread! Dare yourself to study a raisin and take absolute delight with every morsel, or, if you're just about to finish that last bite of your lunch - take the time to truly experience it.