Thanksgiving at our house is pretty funny. In our family we have several committed meat eaters, a few vegans, one experienced foodie, one daughter with food sensitivities, and those whose needs vary each year. Our meal was diverse and complicated, but in the end, everyone felt like they got what they needed. Whew! If you’re like us, you try to eat what you enjoy, while also eating as mindfully and healthfully as you can. I love the expression “Eat to Your Heart’s Content.” In addition to giving thanks for the people and circumstances in our lives, on Thanksgiving, if we have the resources, we give thanks for being able to Eat to our Heart’s Content.
The conflicting messages we get from the media and from our friends and family about what and how to eat may sometimes feel like too much to sort out. We hear from one source that it’s unhealthy and unkind to eat animal products, and from another that meat is the only natural food for humans. Should grains and breads, especially wheat, be avoided, or should they form the basis of our diet? Throughout my lifetime, I have explored all sorts of ways of eating. Some years ago I mostly stopped eating meat, and eventually eliminated most animal products. I began including more whole grains and fresh plant foods. I have experimented with gluten-free, sugar-free, and entirely raw diets, using mindfulness to guide me. But how can mindfulness help us choose what to eat?
Mindful eating is the practice of being aware of what we are eating while we are eating it. My definition of eating includes thinking about what we want to eat, acquiring our food through shopping or farming, preparing food, eating it, and disposing of our food waste. When I define eating as this entire process, some half of my life is spent eating! To bring my mindful practice to all this time spent eating, I get curious about the impact that my gathering, preparing, eating and disposing of food have on my body, my family and friends, my community, and the earth.
My body’s reaction to a particular food may be an aversion due to what I know about the background of the food, or it may be a physical aversion that comes out in a rash or intestinal distress. For example, I have chosen to avoid most animal products and to eat whole grains and plants because I know that my overall well-being is increased when I eat that way. And the better I feel, the more I can support others.
I continue to learn the impact on my family and friends by getting to know my loved ones and by understanding their deepest needs. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “Understanding is love and love is understanding.” What do my loved ones really need to eat? Checking in with them is the first step. Seeing how they react to foods also supports this understanding. One of our daughters gets ill from eating foods containing sulfites, so I bought her cranberry juice not-from-concentrate for the Thanksgiving meal this year. Though I prefer not to cook or eat turkey, we had it at the table to provide sustenance to the ones who felt they needed it.
How do my eating habits affect my community and the earth? By studying the impact of different foods on the communities that produce them, and the way that food and processing wastes are eliminated, I can make a more conscious choice about what and how to eat. Most of us are aware that factory farmed meat has a negative impact on the earth in several ways (there are many books and films on this subject, such as Food, Inc.) but vegetable farms can also have a negative impact on the earth, depending on their agricultural practices. And this is just one of the many ways to measure the impact of eating on my community and the earth.
…as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world. ” — Michael Pollan
I once visited the world-famous Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for a comprehensive physical exam. I spent a lot of time hanging around the waiting rooms, which were filled with pamphlets about every manner of health-related concerns. If you have read my blog before, you know that the subject of food and eating is one of my favorites. So the pamphlet on healthy eating kept me occupied for quite a while. Unfortunately traveling can sometimes be a challenge for healthy mindful eating, and I can end up eating lots of simple carbs and even cheese for lack of better choices. But I anticipated that this trip to the Mayo would be different, especially after reading their healthy eating brochure.
When I finally got my lunch break and headed down to the Mayo’s food arcade, I expected to find all of the foods described in the healthy eating brochure — whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and plant protein. Well I was very wrong. The Mayo’s own cafeteria served mostly processed or roasted meats, sandwiches, simple carbs such as bagels, and plenty of heavy sweets. Not a single fresh vegetable, other than packaged salad. Since then I often bring food when I want to eat mindfully while traveling. Not only is it challenging to know what is healthy to eat, but eating mindfully sometimes takes thought, planning and effort.
Sorry to say that mindful eating, unlike the latest trendy diet, doesn’t give us one right answer on what to eat. The process of mindfulness is a process of discernment: what is the impact that my food choices have on my loved ones, my community, the earth and myself?
To begin making more mindful food choices, we could meditate with this phrase: “Breathing in, I recognize that my food choices have an impact on the world, breathing out I choose to reduce the harm caused by my food choices.” If we practice this way regularly, our impact becomes something we get curious about each time we shop and eat. This practice also provides us with the opportunity to learn about the world and our place within it. And when we are eating in ways that support the well-being of all that we cherish, we are truly Eating to Our Heart’s Content.