Susan Albers' most vivid eating experience happened at 18, as an exchange student in Japan. "I bought a fluffy, glazed doughnut," she says, giving a joyous play-by-play of her sweet and sticky interlude. "I went outside the store, sat down, and savored each bite. Growing up, I was a typical kid who ate what my mom gave me, but this was the first time I really savored what I was eating, taking it all in and noticing how the doughnut made me feel."
It was a doughnut-to-destiny moment. Years later, that experience helped her connect the concept of mindfulness to the graduate work she was conducting on eating issues. Since then she has written several books on the subject (Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful and Mindful Eating 101) and helped hundreds of patients learn to consciously relish their food.
That's the core of mindful eating: a heightened awareness and conscious appreciation of each bite of food that passes your lips—the flavors as well as the feelings they evoke.
The risk of mindless eating, of course, is obvious: too much food, eaten too quickly, followed by guilt and possible weight gain. And December is the red-alarm month, as we run the gauntlet of parties, dessert buffets, and New Year's Eve celebrations. But it's also a perfect time to work on mindful eating: The food is especially good, the feelings are warm, and there's much to savor.
Albers, who describes her own eating habits as those of "an average American woman who has ups and downs," shares a few of the lessons that have helped her practice what she preaches. Lesson #1: Fear no food. After all, Albers' journey began with a doughnut.
DR. ALBERS' FAVORITE MINDFUL EATING EXPERIMENT
The Chocolate Exercise
"I choose chocolate intentionally—raisins or orange slices aren't something we struggle with. Chocolate taps into all the complexity of feelings we have about food—guilt, desire, longing."
STEP 1: Put a Hershey's Kiss in your hand, and feel the weight of it. Describe it to yourself—the shape, the color. Then listen to the crinkle of foil as you open it.
STEP 2: Bring it up to your nose and smell it, taking deep whiffs of the aroma and thinking about the memories that emerge.
STEP 3: Put the whole Kiss into your mouth. Notice the taste, the texture, and how it changes, how it melts in your mouth. Finally, notice how it feels as you swallow it.
DR. ALBERS' TOP 5 MINDFUL-EATING TIPS
- Put other things aside. "When you sit down to eat, just eat. The experience is so much more vivid, so much better. I enjoy the bite that I'm eating, focus on it, and finish it before I take the next. You enjoy it so much more, and you have much greater control of portion sizes."
- Tune in to your food. "I love watching great cooks. They will take a spoonful of a sauce they're making, and you can see them really tune in and taste it: 'OK, this needs what? Basil? Rosemary?' Bring that experience to the plate."
- Learn to yield. "With the yield concept you're just slowing down, not making a sudden stop. This is great for parties: I stand back and try to be mindful about what I choose instead of going into autopilot."
- Swap sides. "A recent study showed that if you eat with your nondominant hand you can reduce what you eat by 30% because it breaks up that automatic hand-to-mouth flow. If you have trouble slowing down, put your utensil in your other hand. It's inconvenient, it's awkward, and you cannot go fast."
- Mind the day, not the goal. If your end goal is to lose weight, focus only on what you can do that day—not the daunting final goal. "Too often, people focus on the end goal and miss the process. They become frustrated. Each and every day, focus on the process, not the outcome. It will keep you motivated and engaged." In the case of a weight-loss goal, each day—like each bite—should be savored, not endured.