Browsed by
Category: Intuitive Eating

Out of your mind, into your body

Out of your mind, into your body

Think about your last meal. Were you actually there? Were you at the table, tasting your food, smelling its aroma, feeling its texture as you chewed and swallowed? Or were you in your mind, mentally lining up the next thing on your to-do list, composing an email, fretting over an argument with your spouse, or counting calories and grams of fat? Any time you’re doing anything but focusing on your food during meals, you’re in your mind. And even though the entire act of chewing, swallowing, digesting and assimilating food occurs in the physical being, we’re rarely around when it happens.

What does it mean to be “in your body,” and why is it so hard to do? I have spent much of my life in a formal meditation practice that teaches us to be present, embodied and in the moment, and sometimes it’s still hard. Sometimes, being in the body just isn’t as interesting as being in the mind. It’s quieter in the body. There’s less noise, no drama. The mind, however, is much more flashy; it’s cunning, clever and persuasive, and tells a fabulous tale.

We also feel like we’re more in control in the mind. We can spin our take on situations, weave stories that makes us feel comfortable and safe. And, if you have a body that was ridiculed, neglected, mishandled or otherwise harmed in childhood, in your body is a hard place to be. If your early physical sensations were unpleasant or painful, getting the hell  out of your body made way more sense than sticking around to feel.  When that happens, it can take time to come back.

Especially to the soft, squishy, most vulnerable middle of it–the belly. But when it comes to eating, that’s where the action’s at. Many traditional spiritual practices emphasize the hara, the area three fingers’ width below the navel, that’s often described as the energetic center of the self. No accident that it’s also the digestive center of the body.

But we don’t hang around in our soft, squishy centers, or the body in general. We spend most of our lives in our minds; we crash around in our arms and legs, then fling our torsos into bed at the end of the day, with little experience of what those body parts have felt through the day.

How do you get back in your body? If you’ve spent years fleeing from it at the first sign of trouble, it’s just a matter of creating a new habit. Some simple practices can help:

1.    Check in with your belly before you eat. Every single time. What does it feel like? A cursory glance will reveal only the most superficial of sensations–hungry, full–leaving the more interesting experiences buried deeper. Maybe your belly feels grateful, or lonely, or troubled. Take five full minutes before each meal to just sit quietly and sense what’s happening in your belly. Place your hand on the area below your navel, let your belly soften (even though that’s horrible and scary in our modern culture) and direct your attention to your breath. Your mind may quickly start jumping up and down, demanding to tell its story. Notice it, don’t react or respond, and keep guiding your breath back to your belly.

2. Eat with your senses. Look at your food before you put it in your mouth. Smell it; if appropriate, touch it. Become completely enchanted with the food on your plate. In most contemplative spiritual practices, eating is a sacred art. And when you think about it, the act of receiving sustenance from the Earth, and transforming it into flesh, bone, muscle and cells, really is pretty miraculous.

3. Meet your body. What does your whole body–every single part–feel like? Try this exercise: lying down comfortably, do a whole body scan. Starting with your feet, and working your way up, pay careful attention to each part of your body–the big and obvious parts, but also the parts that go unnoticed. What do your elbows and earlobes feel like? The spaces between your toes? The very center of your stomach, inside the actual organ? Focusing on the tiny bits helps get you out of a mental description of what your body feels like, and into a sensory experience. And you might be surprised to find that there are parts of your body you never even noticed.

4. Experiment with being in your body through movement. Thinking about your body doesn’t create embodiment. It’s purely experiential. Movement needn’t be elaborate or showy. Stretch your arms slowly overhead. Extend your legs. Arch, then flex, your spine, and see how quickly you come back to your physical being and its sensations.

5. Check in with your body throughout the day. Make it a regular habit to pause every hour or so, and do a quick scan of your physical self, from the part in your hair to the skin on the soles of your feet. In time, the habit of being in your body will come naturally and frequently. When I first started this practice in my early 30s, in the midst of a riot of mental noise, I was shocked to find that I spent well over half my life in my mind, while my body remained uninhabited. Now, it’s second nature, but it took years of practice.

The next time you eat, do it from your body. Be really, truly present, and notice how different the act of nourishment may seem.

The story behind your diet

The story behind your diet

What’s real story behind chronically weighing, calorie counting and dieting? In Journalism 101, we learned the importance of the Five Ws (and one H) in gathering information. Answering the Ws (and H)chronic-dieting—who, what, where, when, why (and how)—is considered essential in understanding the full story. What would happen if you applied them to your weight loss goals? Some Ws (and an H) to consider:

1. Who is it that wants to lose weight? Who is the “you” that’s dieting? Another way to ask this is, who are you, inside your body? The bottom line is, your body is a place for your soul to live. That’s it. Should it be comfortable, healthy, happy? Absolutely. But losing 10 pounds is not the call of your soul. It’s the call of your ego.

I once knew a woman who could light up a room just by walking through the door. Her eyes literally sparkled. When I spoke to her, her attention was so fully and completely on me, that it was as if no one had ever spoken before. I knew she would remember every word I said–and she did. She was so vibrant, deep, warm, compassionate, that it was a very long time before I noticed she was what some people might call “heavy.” Actually, I don’t think she ever noticed she was what some people would call heavy.

Likewise, I knew a woman who was wildly self-assured, sexy, vibrant, alive. She was in her mid 40s, tall, big boned; she weighed close to 185 pounds, and she literally turned heads walking down the street. Her secret: Inside, she loved herself, she was healthy and she felt good. That was enough for her. She knew who she really was, and that her body was comfortable, well-nourished–even if it wasn’t petite.

2. What would happen if you never lost weight? We set so many conditions on our love for ourselves. Unconsciously (or not) one of those conditions may be our weight. “I’ll feel better about myself when I’ve lost 20 pounds,” or “If I can just get rid of this last 5 pounds, I’ll be able to get on with my life.” As far as you know, this is the only life you have, and it’s happening right now. What would happen if you lived it right now, as you are, weighing what you do and wearing the size you wear? Can you love yourself anyway? Pause here, take a deep breath, close your eyes, and ask yourself that question. See what comes up. If the answer is “no,” it may be that learning how to love yourself is a bigger priority than losing 20 pounds.

3. Where do you want to be in ten years? Answer that question, and you’ll have a better sense of your reason for being here. Write down where you’ll be in terms of physical health, family, relationship, spiritual practices, career, home, travel–whatever comes up for you. Chances are really good that “I’ll be X pounds lighter” will come up on your list. That’s okay. Just recognize all the other things that are on your “where I’ll be” list.

How much time, mental energy and passion are you devoting to those aspects of your life, compared to counting calories and obeying the bathroom scale? Maybe you can see where weight loss falls on your list of dreams, goals and visions, and maybe you can assign it a different priority. Losing weight is not your life’s work. Your life’s work is to love, to serve, to be honest, to develop personal integrity, to be kind, to raise healthy children, to grow spiritually, to adore yourself. Which is not to say you can’t choose to shed some excess baggage. You’ll just do it with a sense of perspective.

4. When will it be okay? I once worked with a man who slaved tirelessly to lose 15 pounds. He exercised obsessively, starved himself, became a fanatic about supplements, drank diet soft drinks and coffee throughout the day to blunt his appetite, even took up smoking to blunt his appetite. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But here’s what’s really crazy: once he lost 15 pounds, he wanted to lose another 5. (I should pause here to tell you that the term “crazy” was his, not mine). He felt that being 5 pounds under his goal gave him a buffer, in case he gained a few pounds back.

I realized then that, no matter how much weight he lost, he wasn’t going to be satisfied. It would never be okay, because it wasn’t about his weight, or his body. It was about his sense of self; he was depressed and dissatisfied with his life, and no amount of weight loss was ever going to make that okay.

When will it be okay for you? Ask yourself that question, then listen softly and quietly for the answer. It might surprise you.

5. Why do you want to lose weight? Ask yourself with gut-level honesty: why do you want to lose weight? Is it because the doctor told you your weight was harming your health, or because that little red two-piece swimsuit went on sale at Neiman Marcus? Is it for your wife, your health, your ego, your high school reunion, your best friend’s wedding? Is it because you’ve decided the ten extra pounds around your middle no longer serves you, or because you still want to fit into the size 4 jeans you wore in your senior year of high school? Once you’re honest with yourself, you can decide just how important it is to you to lose weight and where it fits in the grand scheme of your life.

6. How will shedding pounds serve the world? We’ve already touched on how it will serve you. Now, take it to a deeper level: how will losing weight make a difference in the world around you? Perhaps being lighter and slimmer will boost your health, and make you feel more confident, inspired, energetic and passionate; in turn, that will positively affect your children, your mate, your co-workers. There’s no right answer here; it’s just about being aware and exploring possibilities, and perhaps understanding how your own personal goals fit into the grand scheme of life.

How to be embodied.

How to be embodied.

One of the key pieces to understanding-and changing-compulsive eating, overeating, binging or any other uncomfortable patterns with food is being deeply and fully in your body. We call that embodiment. “But,” you might say, “I’m always in my body. Where else would I be?”

It’s a good question. The answer is, “In your mind.” That’s where most people spend the bulk of their lives. The mind is bright, witty, cunning; it spins a clever yarn, makes up exciting stories about the future, dramatizes the past. Meanwhile, we drag the body around all day like a dog on a leash, paying attention only when something goes dreadfully wrong.

But until you’re keenly aware of your body, it’s hard to change your relationship with food. By listening to your body’s cues and attending to its needs, you can learn to feel — not think — when you’re hungry, when you’re full, and what you really need. You can stop binge eating, shift the way you use food, and make peace with your body. Some practices to try:

• Allow sensation over form. Have you watched the way toddlers move? They jump up and down, tiptoe then sprawl on the floor, roll about in the grass, arch and stretch; they touch their noses, grimace, yawn, stick out their tongues. They look silly and bizarre and wonderful. And you know what? They could care less (even about looking wonderful). They’re completely enchanted with the process of sensation.

That’s not how grownups work. We are encourage to craft our bodies and our lives a certain way. We are celebrated for material triumphs, for thinness, for beauty and youth; we’re all about the form. A life lived this way can appear quite spectacular yet feel empty to its participants. Trading form for sensation is rarely a good deal.

What happens if you let go of form, if you just allow sensation? If you focus on how your body feels inside, rather than how it looks to your co-workers, friends, siblings, lovers? When we heap upon ourselves the worries and cares of adulthood, it’s easy to forget how it feels to be a toddler in a body. See if you can remember; just notice the sheer pleasure of being in a body — embodied — no matter what its shape or size. Sense the temperature of the air on your cheeks, notice the texture of your shirt against your shoulders, feel the strength of your legs. And the next time you pass a mirror, don’t heap judgment on them, or wish them thinner or longer. Like any toddler knows, the body is really just a place for the soul to live.

• Be still. In our culture, we have impatience for discomfort of any kind. Thus we react. When we’re sad, lonely, bored, frustrated, unsettled, we rush to fix it. But there, at the edge of the discomfort, is where magic can happen.

Many years ago, I was in a long meditation retreat at an ashram. It was in the middle of an especially hot summer, and the windows were flung wide in an attempt to coax a bit of breeze into the room. The only thing that entered was a drove of flies. They crawled on our sweat-slick skin, and we swatted and flicked until the leader of the meditation commanded “Be still!” So my practice at that moment became tolerating the considerable discomfort of flies crawling purposefully across the bridge of my nose or along the part of my hair, while remaining perfectly still. And in that stillness in the face of discomfort, I found something new, a vast and quiet field that lay beyond the momentary flurry of reactivity.

Try this practice: when you’re emotionally uncomfortable, can you let your discomfort just be there, instead of swatting it away? Instead of turning to food to soothe your discomfort, can you sit still and let things just be as they are, without needing to fix or change them? An embodiment therapist I know says she gives herself simple and clear directions in these times: “Sit. Stay. Good girl.” It works every time.

• Downshift. If you ask ten people today how they are, at least six of them will say “busy.” Most of us live in a state of busy-ness and perpetual arousal; hyper alert, we’re ready to spring into action as soon as the alarm clock sounds. We rush to work, race between appointments and carpools, dash to the grocery store to buy fast-and-easy meals for dinner. Meanwhile, we’re thinking and planning for the next thing on our to-do lists. But when you’re racing about in your car and in your mind, you’re just not in your body.

Try this: the next time you find yourself rushing from or to anything, stop moving, take a deep breath and close your eyes. Feel the soles of your feet. Let your toes and jaw unclench, and let your belly relax. Take five deep, slow breaths, and consciously downshift inside. When you open your eyes again, resume movement at a decelerated pace. Apply this practice as you go through the day, and especially before you eat. Then eat very slowly, paying attention to every bite. This practice alone can transform the way you eat, think and feel about food.

• Make friends with your feelings. Early this year, I had a sudden and terrible loss that left me reeling and forced me to actually feel in a way I’d never done before. Once I became willing and stop resisting it, grief and anger and fear and pain washed over and through me, without direction, carving its own pathway through my soul. It wasn’t pretty, but it was real. And that raw emotion left in its wake a sweet openness — like emptiness, but more peaceful and friendly. My muscles stopped gripping my bones. My jaw unclenched. I came more deeply into my body than ever before.

What happens when you encounter strong emotions? If you’re struggling with food, those potent feelings may lead you straight to the kitchen, in search of solace. But what happens if you don’t go, if you just let yourself feel? Find a quite place to sit and notice your feelings. What is the physical sensation of anger? Where does it live in your body? Does it have a color? A voice? Surrender entirely to the experience, and let the transformative power of pure, raw emotion work on you. You’ll know when you’re done. And you might not even be hungry any longer.

Afraid to eat.

Afraid to eat.

Last week, I read six articles with variations on the good-versus-bad-food theme. Good food? Bad food? It’s funny how we attribute moral properties to what is, essentially, a glob of chemicals in a tasty package. Eating is supposed to provide nourishment and pleasure. But in our diet-obsessed culture, we have attributed to food a sometimes-sinister quality.

afraid to eatHere’s one example: “Annie” was so tormented by her fear of food that she avoided parties and dinner invitations, because she didn’t want to be tempted by the tasty treats. When she ate, she spent the entire meal adding and re-adding the number of calories she was consuming, and continued to do so well after she had finished the meal. She read labels obsessively, and could tell you the calorie count of almost any food–and usually the number of carbohydrates, fat and protein as well. At best, she regarded food with suspicion; at worst, it terrified her.

Dieters are most susceptible to this mindset, but they’re not the only ones. Other fear-inducing foods and ingredients include saturated fat, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, GMOs, gluten, dairy, soy, pesticides, refined carbs, wheat, diet sodas and anything that’s even remotely related to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, inflammation, heart disease or cancer.

It’s important to be wary of some of these. I’m a huge proponent of eating clean foods, and make my living writing about them. Will eating trans fats kill you? Perhaps. If you’re sensitive to gluten, should you avoid bread? Absolutely. But prudence and mindful choices can sometimes go the way of fear.

Think of how children eat. When you offer a child a cookie, he doesn’t think, “Dear god, that cookie was made with high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats! And it probably has 500 calories!” They think “Mmmm. Cookie. Sweet! Crunchy!” They eat the cookie, and have an experience of pure pleasure. Somewhere between the happily ignorant bliss of a child, and the ever-vigilant eye of a nutrition-savvy adult, there lies a middle path, one that doesn’t include worry, stress and fear.

If you find yourself from time to time (or frequently) seized by a fear of food, here are some ways to loosen the grip:

1. Confront your fears. It’s not the food you fear, it’s the potential effect of that food. Write down what really scares you, and carry it to the worst possible outcome. It may look like this: “I’m afraid if I indulge my sweet tooth, I won’t be able to stop. I’ll gain a lot of weight until I’m morbidly obese. I’ll be so fat, I wont’ be able to go on business trips any more, and my boss will fire me. Then I’ll be out of work, and I’ll lose my house, and be homeless.” Or maybe it’s as simple as “I won’t look good for my high school reunion, and my old friends will judge me.” Whatever your fear, when it’s on paper, it’s easier to then decide if it’s reasonable, or out of hand.

2. Get to know your food. When you’re eating, just eat. Don’t watch TV, work on your computer, read a book, drive, whatever. Look at the food on your plate, chew it slowly, really taste it. Be fully present, enjoy what you’re eating, and then move on to the next thing. You’ll soon find that even “off-limits” foods aren’t really that scary. And notice what that food feels like in your body. Do you feel lousy after eating it? Maybe it won’t be your first choice next time.’

3. Choose foods for the benefit. Rather than saying “no” to what you don’t want, try saying “yes” to what you do want. Instead of saying “I can’t drink coffee because it makes me jittery and makes my skin look bad,” try saying “I choose to drink green tea because it’s calming and makes my skin look healthier.” Same end result–but instead of rejecting what you don’t want, you’re choosing instead what you do want.

4. Eat for quality. There’s a lot of nasty food out there, and it’s reasonable to be careful. But if you choose foods for quality, you’ll eliminate many of the justifiable concerns, like agricultural chemicals, trans fats, sugar and so forth. If you enjoy cheese, choose organic varieties, and pay attention to how much you’re eating. If you like sweets, go for raw, unfiltered honey, instead of high-fructose corn syrup. And if you shop for foods without labels–whole fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, dried beans–it’s hard to go wrong.

5. Banish forbidden food. The concept, that is, not the food. Unless you have an overriding health concern–you’re diabetic, or allergic to nuts, for example–it’s really not necessary to outlaw any one food. When you make a food off-limits, you only increase the cravings. So if you love potato chips, but you avoid them because they’re fried and high in sodium, have a few potato chips when you crave them.

6. Trust yourself. Speaking of potato chips, are you afraid you’ll eat the whole bag? It’s a common fear. When we fear food, it’s not really the food we’re afraid of. It’s our uncontrolled reaction to it. A spoonful of ice cream turns into a quart, a few cookies turns into a whole bag. That may happen at first. But in my experience, when people allow themselves to remove the labels and indulge in a “forbidden” food, it soon loses its appeal. Once you see it as just another food, you’re on your way to being free.

All Worked Up: Our obsession with food.

All Worked Up: Our obsession with food.

I recently spent a lovely week on the farm where I played out my childhood summers. Sitting in the kitchen, I was awash in memories of my grandmother stirring a pot of collard greens, putting up pickles, cutting peaches for a cobbler, shelling peas into the big tin pail that still hangs in the curtained pantry.

worked-up-about-foodMy cousins were there, and we spent our days as we had in childhood: riding down dirt roads on the tailgate of a pick-up truck, casting our lines into the local fishing hole, and gathering around the kitchen table in eager, puppy-like anticipation of dinner. My most beloved aunt now took the place of my grandmother, but the meal was much the same.

As I was waxing poetic about the field peas and hot cornbread, one of my beloved cousins looked at me and said, with genuine curiosity, “I don’t understand getting so worked up about food.” When I nearly dropped my forkful of fried okra, she explained “I think eating is a nuisance. It annoys me that I have to stop what I’m doing because my physical body requires fuel.”

Well.

I had to wonder: does it make sense to get worked up about food? Admittedly, my viewpoint is skewed. As a food writer and intuitive eating coach, I spend my days creating recipes, researching food, teaching cooking and nutrition classes, and helping people explore their eating habits. But still. I don’t think I’m alone. As a whole, we’re just generally all hot and bothered by food. We’re seduced by it’s loveliness, enraptured by its flavor and aroma, dazzled by its health-giving properties, and wistfully smitten by its rumored ability to make us wrinkle-free, toned and lean, ten pounds lighter by Labor Day and possibly immortal.

I went to the bookstore today, to browse the magazine racks. In the food section, the spreads were like centerfolds: lushly saturated with color, glossy with sauces, the food looked almost indolent. The cover lines read “Desserts to die for,” and “Decadent dinners.” Adjacent to this were the Healthy Living sections. These were the headlines on the magazines there: “Fat-loss formula.” “Your weight minus eight” “Be thinner in 30 days.” “Foods that fight fat.” “The best cancer-fighting foods.” “Blast fat.” “Fat-melting foods.” “Lose 10 pounds this month.” “Glycemic index for weight loss.” “Four-week slim down.” “Drop two sizes.” “Eat more, weigh less.” Later that evening, when I fed our household animals, I noticed that the cat food box read “What cat wouldn’t do anything to be set loose in a deli?”

For the most part, we Americans are just impossibly worked up on about food. It can “blast fat” and protect us from cancer, and a cheesecake is worth dying for. We are alternately tormented with food porn and then chastised for eating it. We would even sell our feline souls to have free run of a deli.

It wasn’t like that for my grandmother. Stewing tomatoes and okra, chopping mustard greens, shucking corn–she saw food as utilitarian stuff that just happened to taste good. She fed it to us children, so we would grow healthy and strong, and made blackberry pies because it was the best way to use the bucketfuls we’d collected during the day. There were no tangy pomegranate molasses glazes or pungent harissa sauces; it was good, solid food, fuel for the bodies working on the farm. As far as I knew, she never counted a calorie or tried to melt fat (except in her cast-iron skillet), and she hadn’t a clue about the glycemic index of collard greens. But almost everything she ate came from the farm, and she lived to be 96, in robust good health until the very end.

I wonder what would happen if we stopped being so worked up about food? What if we stripped our meals, our clothing size and the numbers on our bathroom scale of their supposed power to extend our lives, fix our problems, and make us thinner, happier or somehow better? I wonder if not getting worked up about food, and being more matter-of-fact about our meals, is one of the first steps on the way to eating intuitively.

Loving and enjoying food, truly appreciating the seductive pleasure of a well-crafted meal, is a vital part of life. But when we start obsessing about it, giving it disproportionate power over our health and happiness, that’s when we disconnect.

When we’re frustrated by the mundane troubles of our daily lives, food is the fastest, easiest, path to pleasure and gratification. It’s always available, it never says “no,” and it’s instantaneous: who wants to spend an hour in quiet meditation, when five minutes at the pastry counter will yield the same results? Food is pleasurable, but it’s not a spiritual experience. Whether you call yourself spiritual or not, there’s a part in each of us that longs for a connection to something beyond ourselves that we can’t name. And whether you see food as a nuisance or think a cheesecake is “to die for,” it won’t get you to that connection.

What’s your relationship with food? Do you see it as an occasional necessity, or as a route to health, self-love and your overall happiness? Be honest with yourself. And please comment; I’d love to hear what you have to say.

The Pleasure of Food.

The Pleasure of Food.

What brings you pleasure? Real pleasure, so rich and deep that even thinking about it creates a visceral response? Right now, see if you can list a dozen things that bring you shivers of excitement or delight, elicit little mmmmms of satisfaction or make your lights burn a little brighter.

pleasure of foodYour sources of pleasure may be as mundane as getting a manicure, as spectacular as skydiving. But more likely than not, food is somewhere on your list. Nothing wrong with that… until there is. When food becomes the primary — or sole — source of pleasure, that’s when problems arise. Food as a source of pleasure is natural; it tastes good. It’s comforting and reliable. Compared to other sources of pleasure, it’s cheap, fast, easy and legal. And like some other pleasures, it’s addictive, shame-provoking and harmful when taken to extremes.

Food was our first pleasure. When we were babies, we cried for food; it filled our tiny bellies. It gave us comfort in other ways — we associated being fed with being embraced, with the sensuous delight of being cradled in loving arms, held close, cared for.

As toddlers and preschoolers, we were praised for eating; we were good little boys and girls for finishing our peas. We got cupcakes when our plates were cleaned. When we skinned our knees or banged our heads, we were soothed with cookies and kisses. The link between food, physical comfort and love became ever more inextricably intertwined.

Then, as we moved toward puberty, the tables turned — especially for girls. Suddenly, eating mounds of food wasn’t good after all. Suddenly, we were encouraged to minimize and restrict intake. “Don’t eat so much, or you’ll get fat,” we were cautioned by peers, mothers, fashion magazines. Being “good” no longer meant cleaning our plates. It meant restricting food in a way that was perceived to encourage slimness. We were taught to make self-denial more important than pleasure. That message was reinforced through our adult years. So, for many of us, the simple act of eating has become a torturous, tangled web of love, comfort, guilt, shame and fear.

If food is one of your great pleasures, then celebrate it, in all its lush, robust glory. Start like this:

1. Make it beautiful. Whatever you’re going to eat, bring an element of beauty, grace and dignity to the experience. Set the table with utensils and napkins, maybe flowers or candles, too. Arrange your meal on a plate in whatever way you find most visually appealing. There’s nothing elegant or dignified about standing in front of an open refrigerator, furtively spooning chocolate chip ice cream from the carton and into your mouth. If you’re going to eat ice cream, serve it in small, lovely dishes (or anything besides the carton). Sit down at the table and really eat your ice cream.

2. Savor it. The last time you had a massage, did you rush the therapist, urging him or her to go faster, to just get it over with? Probably not. The same goes for any pleasurable experience, be it a trip to Provence or a memorable erotic encounter — you don’t want the experience to end, and the last thing on your mind is rushing. But that’s often what it looks like when we use food for pleasure: we eat hurriedly, even frantically, as if we’re racing to get it over with. The next time you decide to eat for pleasure, savor the moment: Maintain a leisurely approach, chew slowly, taste each flavor, enjoy the textures. Be exquisitely conscious of the entire experience.

3. Really get into it. We’re afraid if we really get into food, the pleasure will be so overwhelming that we’ll never stop eating. But some studies suggest that women who get less pleasure from eating actually eat more. In one study, as women overate and gained weight, they subsequently derived less pleasure from eating — but they still continued to eat more. They were chasing that first high they got from food. Conversely, women who are really into food — who find robust pleasure in a well-designed meal — actually eat less. It’s as if they’re so acutely aware of the experience, their senses are sated long before their physical hunger is.

4. Release the shame. In my experience, many women would rather talk about their sex lives than their food lives; they feel guilty about the hidden chocolate bars, the binges, the bags of chips and boxes of cookies furtively consumed in a shame-filled spree. Even a shocking number of “normal” eaters are bound up by guilt, fear and shame; we know too much about food — the sugar, trans fats and pesticides. It’s hard to be fully receptive to pleasure when a big hunk of your brain is screeching “Dear God, have you gone mad? What are you thinking, eating that?!” Or the low, menacing whisper that says “You are so bad. I am ashamed of you for eating that.” If you choose to eat a food you love — food that brings you pleasure — eat it slowly and mindfully, bring an element of beauty and grace to the experience. Tell the voices that they’re not invited to the party.

5. Find other pleasures. It’s okay to love food — to find joy in eating — but keep it in perspective. For all its sensory pleasures, food is ultimately fuel, not entertainment. While it can (and should) delight the palate and stimulate the senses, it’s no substitute for human touch, goals reached, adventures had and love fallen into. But it does make a pleasant way to power yourself through such endeavors.

 

Intuitive Cooking: Find your inner chef

Intuitive Cooking: Find your inner chef

We read a lot about intuitive eating. Just as important, and the first step in the process, is intuitive cooking. But it’s hard in our world. We’re pressed for time, and accustomed to looking outside ourselves to the experts — the celebrity chefs, the cooking show stars, the charismatic cookbook authors —for the latest word on what to buy and how to cook it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for education in culinary and nutritional topics; it’s how I make my living. At some point, though, it’s exhilarating to rely on an internal compass rather than external directions. It’s not like celebrity chefs or we simple food writers have cornered the market on cooking. Food preparation is the most natural, instinctive activity in the world, right up there with nest-building and baby-making. And I believe it’s as important as intuitive eating in terms of our relationship with food.

Cooking by availability and intuition — shopping the market, choosing produce that looks fresh and appealing, and then combining it with ingredients on hand, according to taste and personal preference — is perhaps the oldest and most authentic way of food prep. My southern grandmothers cooked this way, without recipes or elaborate meal planning. They simply gathered vegetables from their garden, combined them with ingredients on hand, and added a pinch of this and a dash of that until it tasted good. At the end, it was invariably a feast.

Cooking without a recipe requires only a little skill, plus a lot of imagination, and a willingness to be bold and inventive. These five steps will get you started:

1. Head to local farmer’s markets. That’s where you’ll find an abundance of fresh, seasonal produce. Don’t write off local grocery stores; most larger natural markets carry an abundance of organic produce and a vast array of herbs, spices, oils, nuts, cheeses and specialty items. Shop around at smaller markets for more competitive prices, and check out mainstream grocers — most are doing a decent good job of offering more organic and local produce.

2. Start with color. It will be one of your main guides for choosing ingredients. Begin with one main ingredient — asparagus, for example — then look around the market or produce section for seasonal produce that would compliment their bright-green color. Look for what appeals to you — the pale lime hue of green onions, for example, and the soft tan-gray of wild mushrooms.

You could sauté these in olive oil, then top with a pinch of black sea salt and shaved Asiago cheese.

How would you cook them? Maybe transform them into a soup with a light broth, a little cream and nutmeg? Or sauté them in sesame oil with garlic and ginger, and top them with black sesame seeds? You get the idea; anything is possible. Don’t overlook fruit; pears, berries or citrus fruits compliment many vegetable dishes with a subtle, fresh sweetness.

3. Try something new. The first time I saw a rutabaga, I was consumed with curiosity. I purchased the monstrosity, which looked something like a mutant potato. At a loss, I chopped it up, boiled it and served it with butter, salt and pepper. It was delicious — sweet, clean, with a mildly nutty, cabbage like flavor. Try something new — celery root, cardoons, chanterelle mushrooms, tomatillos, fiddlehead ferns, chayote squash, kumquats. Ask for cooking suggestions at the market. Start by seasoning simply with a little salt and pepper, and branch out from there. You’ll know.

4. Stock up on basic cooking ingredients. An artist needs the proper paints, brushes and canvas upon which to express her creativity. You’ll need an assortment of oils, vinegars, salts, spices, fresh herbs and other ingredients to make the most of your cooking artistry. Basics include:
• A good olive oil and grapeseed or other neutral cooking oil
• Balsamic, sherry and red wine vinegar
• Kosher or coarse salt, sea salt and, if you like, a finishing salt, such as fin de sel, to be added after cooking
• Seven or eight spices you love (try cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, chili powder, black pepper, white pepper, paprika and curry powder) and a wide selection of fresh herbs, garlic and onions.
• A selection of dried beans, lentils, grains, nuts and seeds.
• Canned tomatoes, canned beans and a good, basic broth or stock.

5. Start with a great recipe. It sounds counter-intuitive, but having guidelines for a dish you love — pasta, salad, soup — creates a basic framework, the scaffolding upon which you can lay your own original design. A basic soup recipe, for example, might be 6 cups of broth, 2 cups of vegetables, 1 cup of beans, 2 tablespoons of oil or butter and 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs.

Armed with a recipe you love, head to your favorite market, and be willing to be bold. At the very worst, you’ll discover what doesn’t work — and that’s a valuable life lesson in itself.

What’s eating you? The emotional side of holiday dining

What’s eating you? The emotional side of holiday dining

Don’t get me wrong: eating the right foods is important. But even the most creative dieting tricks and healthy stuffing recipes won’t help if you don’t follow them. Really, you already know what and how to eat. So why do you find yourself bent over a plate of brownies, or halfway through a second heaping helping of stuffing that you swore you wouldn’t take?

Tricks don’t work because they don’t explore the underlying issues, the mental and emotional side of eating. And the holidays, more than any other time, are fraught with emotions. We’re short on time, low on cash, and either overburdened with family responsibilities or feeling the pang of loneliness. Certain key dishes may also bring back happy memories of past holidays. And all those high-carb, sugar-rich holiday treats temporarily boost levels of serotonin, the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitter, which makes us crave more.

Most of the time, you’re not really hungry for pecan pie or holiday ham. You’re craving a quick boost of feel-good brain chemicals to counter the effects of holiday emotions, or you’re starving for connection, peace, happiness, a fond memory of past experiences.

This season, if you’re hoping to maintain some control over holiday binging, look to the underlying cause — the emotions themselves. Approach this exploration with a gentle, inquisitive air, rather than another must-complete item to cross off your to-do list. Here’s how you might start:

1) Stay in touch with your feelings. Most of the time, we don’t have a clue what we’re feeling in any given moment. Make it a habit to check in two or three times a day; just before meals is the perfect chance to stay on top of your feelings, before they run your food choices.

2) Be in your body. Most of us walk around all day in a state of half-awareness, not really present in the room, on the earth, in our bodies. But if you’re not in your body, you have no way of knowing when it’s hungry or full. Get in the habit of checking in with your body, especially your belly, during the day. Where are your feet? How do your legs feel? Is your stomach tense, cold, empty, satisfied? Once you’ve practiced this for a while, it becomes automatic and makes it easier to choose foods based on what your body needs.

3) Examine your cravings. Binges and cravings are fraught with symbolism. The next time you find yourself in the throes of a craving, examine it. What is it about that food that you’re really longing for? If you like crunchy cookies when you’re stressed, is it the sweetness you’re craving, or the texture? Biting down on something hard and crunchy relieves tension in the jaw, and that loud, crunching sound as you chew may literally drown out the noise in your head. If you’re aching for warm eggnog, maybe the temperature and creamy texture is symbolic of what you need in your life: something warm, rich and soothing to fill up empty spaces.

4) Shift your focus. Imagine you’re alone in the house with a refrigerator full of holiday leftovers. Just before you plunge your hand into a box of chocolates, or your fork into an apple pie, quickly shift your attention. Take your focus to something outside of yourself. It may be visual: look out the window at the snow, the clouds moving across the sky, the blush of sunset. Or it may be auditory: the sound of your children playing in the living room, a favorite song. Focusing on sensory input calms the mind, gets you back in your body and helps you stay present. It’s also a fast, simple way to break the chain.

5) Be happy now. We think that once we get thin, or lower our blood pressure, or give up sugar once and for all, we’ll be happy. Most of the time, though, it’s the opposite: once you get happy, you’ll have a better chance of achieving your goals. A few years ago, a study found that happiness may breed success, rather than the other way around. The researchers suggested that happy people were more likely to seek out opportunities that would ensure their success. I believe happy people are more likely to stick to a way of eating that works for them, and less likely to eat from stress, depression or anxiety.

At any rate, there’s no point in delaying happiness, or loving your body and yourself, while you wait to achieve some possibly far-off goal. It’s all a process, and it may be a life-long one. Enjoy your holidays — and your life — in the meantime.

What we want from food.

What we want from food.

I spent last Thanksgiving in the Santa Fe State Penitentiary. It’s not what you think; I left after a couple of hours, having gone there as an invited speaker to lead a talk. Our topic: what makes us feel nourished. And though I expected the answers to be vastly different, they were heartwarmingly similar. Family. Love. Rest. Nature. And, not surprisingly, food.

What is it that makes most of us feel nourished, and what exactly does it mean to be nourished–truly, deeply nourished? For me (not surprisingly) as it is for many of us, the answer is food. It’s quick, easy, darn cheap compared to other pleasures, and can be had at all hours of the day or night.

Of course, we want nutrition from food: we expect it  to make us lose weight, lower our cholesterol, increase our energy, make us live longer, and generally render us infallible, if we can just arrange the appropriate line-up of vitamins, minerals, omega-3s and healthy fats. But we also turn to food for solace, comfort and joy, for company when we’re lonely, for peace when we’re feeling put upon, to make us feel whole, complete and nourished.

How does nourishment differ from nutrition? Not long ago, I had an illness that resulted in, among other things, an inability for me to chew and swallow. Needless to say, this greatly interfered with my ability to eat. Suddenly, my once-fertile culinary landscape–rich with fragrant sauces, tangy dressings, robust spices and interesting textures–was barren. I couldn’t eat harissa, coarse sea salt, pomegranate molasses, chipotle peppers, crisp lettuce. All I could eat were bland, lukewarm soups, pureed into a drinkable gruel. I made as many variations on these as I could; because I was sick, I often ate them alone. Brimming with sometimes a dozen different organic vegetables, legumes and nut oils, they were the gold standard for a nutritious meal. But I didn’t feel nourished.

The difference between nutrition and nourishment is easy to see. The difference between the soul’s need for nourishment and the mind’s desire for distraction can be trickier. When we turn to food for  comfort, indulgence, solace, company or peace, we’re not really seeking nourishment. The mind is looking for a quick fix, a way to get out of itself. It’s using food as a fix, a fast-acting, cheap and painless drug. We dig into a pint of ice cream while we’re standing in front of the freezer. That’s not nutritious, and it’s certainly not nourishing. It’s the “get me out of here!” reaction of the ego’s fear of discomfort. This concept is at the heart of understanding cravings: if a desire for a certain kind of food feels obsessive, desperate, intense, or as if immediate action is required, that’s usually the mind’s desire, not the body’s or the soul’s need. The whims of the mind can be distracted with immediate, enjoyable but simple tasks: a telephone call, a crossword puzzle, an interesting book, a funny movie. The body’s needs and the soul’s desires are not so easily avoided.

A long time ago, I cooked for groups of people in a spiritual environment, we in the kitchen came to cook after meditating, in a tranquil state of mind. We moved slowly and spoke in calm, happy voices, occasionally punctuating the air with laughter. We learned to sing beautiful chants as we chopped onions and stirred beans. The great peace and calm in the kitchen, the sweetness of the atmosphere, the melodic, rhythmic sounds of devotional chants—all conspired to render a meal as simple as dahl and rice a gourmet masterpiece. This sense of reverence for the practice of nourishing our bodies extended to how we ate the food. We paused before eating. We ate first with our eyes, taking in the colors and textures of the food. As we ate, we chewed slowly, breathed deeply, paused often to notice how the food was feeling in our bodies.

I’d like to say these practices are so automatic to me now, they’re almost second nature. It’s not true.  I still fall into bad habits—especially eating  at the computer, or when I’m stressed. When that happens, I may feel full, and righteous about my nutritional choices, but I usually don’t feel nourished. Incorporating mindfulness and discerning between nutrition, distraction and deep nourishment is a lifelong practice that, like any practice, requires patience, determination and, ultimately, compassion and forgiveness.

Don’t Let Shame Be Your Dinner Date

Don’t Let Shame Be Your Dinner Date

What brings you pleasure? Real pleasure, so rich and deep that even thinking about it creates a visceral response? Right now, see if you can list a dozen things that bring you shivers of excitement or delight, elicit little mmmmms of satisfaction or make your lights burn a little brighter.

Your sources of pleasure may be as mundane as getting a manicure, as spectacular as skydiving. But more likely than not, food is somewhere on your list. Nothing wrong with that… until there is. When food becomes the primary — or sole — source of pleasure, that’s when problems arise. Food as a source of pleasure is natural; it tastes good. It’s comforting and reliable. Compared to other sources of pleasure, it’s cheap, fast, easy and legal. And like some other pleasures, it’s addictive, shame-provoking and harmful when taken to extremes.

Food was our first pleasure. When we were babies, we cried for food; it filled our tiny bellies. It gave us comfort in other ways — we associated being fed with being embraced, with the sensuous delight of being cradled in loving arms, held close, cared for.

As toddlers and preschoolers, we were praised for eating; we were good little boys and girls for finishing our peas. We got cupcakes when our plates were cleaned. When we skinned our knees or banged our heads, we were soothed with cookies and kisses. The link between food, physical comfort and love became ever more inextricably intertwined.

Then, as we moved toward puberty, the tables turned — especially for girls. Suddenly, eating mounds of food wasn’t good after all. Suddenly, we were encouraged to minimize and restrict intake. “Don’t eat so much, or you’ll get fat,” we were cautioned by peers, mothers, fashion magazines. Being “good” no longer meant cleaning our plates. It meant restricting food in a way that was perceived to encourage slimness. We were taught to make self-denial more important than pleasure. That message was reinforced through our adult years. So, for many of us, the simple act of eating has become a torturous, tangled web of love, comfort, guilt, shame and fear.

If food is one of your great pleasures, then celebrate it, in all its lush, robust glory. Start like this:

Make it beautiful. Whatever you’re going to eat, bring an element of beauty, grace and dignity to the experience. Set the table with utensils and napkins, maybe flowers or candles, too. Arrange your meal on a plate in whatever way you find most visually appealing. There’s nothing elegant or dignified about standing in front of an open refrigerator, furtively spooning chocolate chip ice cream from the carton and into your mouth. If you’re going to eat ice cream, serve it in small, lovely dishes (or anything besides the carton). Sit down at the table and really eat your ice cream.

Savor it. The last time you had a massage, did you rush the therapist, urging him or her to go faster, to just get it over with? Probably not. The same goes for any pleasurable experience, be it a trip to Provence or a memorable erotic encounter — you don’t want the experience to end, and the last thing on your mind is rushing. But that’s often what it looks like when we use food for pleasure: we eat hurriedly, even frantically, as if we’re racing to get it over with. The next time you decide to eat for pleasure, savor the moment: Maintain a leisurely approach, chew slowly, taste each flavor, enjoy the textures. Be exquisitely conscious of the entire experience.

Really get into it. We’re afraid if we really get into food, the pleasure will be so overwhelming that we’ll never stop eating. But some studies suggest that women who get less pleasure from eating actually eat more. In one study, as women overate and gained weight, they subsequently derived less pleasure from eating — but they still continued to eat more. They were chasing that first high they got from food. Conversely, women who are really into food — who find robust pleasure in a well-designed meal — actually eat less. It’s as if they’re so acutely aware of the experience, their senses are sated long before their physical hunger is.

Release the shame. In my experience, most women would rather talk about their sex lives than their food lives; they feel guilty about the hidden chocolate bars, the binges, the bags of chips and boxes of cookies furtively consumed in a shame-filled spree. Even a shocking number of “normal” eaters are bound up by guilt, fear and shame; we know too much about food — the sugar, trans fats and pesticides. It’s hard to be fully receptive to pleasure when a big hunk of your brain is screeching “Dear God, have you gone mad? What are you thinking, eating that?!” Or the low, menacing whisper that says “You are so bad. I am ashamed of you for eating that.” If you choose to eat a food you love — food that brings you pleasure — eat it slowly and mindfully, bring an element of beauty and grace to the experience. Tell the voices that they’re not invited to the party.

Find other pleasures. It’s okay to love food — to find joy in eating — but keep it in perspective. For all its sensory pleasures, food is ultimately fuel, not entertainment. While it can (and should) delight the palate and stimulate the senses, it’s no substitute for human touch, goals reached, adventures had and love fallen into. But it does make a pleasant way to power yourself through such endeavors.