A woman practices mindful eating at Beijing Mindfulness Center. Photo: Zhang Xinyuan/GT
Li Shanshan, a 29-year-old girl in Beijing, sat quietly on the ground in a dimly lit room with light music floating through the air. Holding the plate in front of her, she opened her eyes. With a deep breath of the aromatic air, she grasped some food from it and took her first bite.
While she ate, she did not think about anything else. She put all of her attention toward the food. She takes her time to chew slowly, sense the vegetable's flavors and textures and observe how her body reacts to the food.
"It feels really different when I eat my food this way. I feel so relaxed and pleased. I can actually feel which food my body wants, if the food can give me more strength and if I want to eat more," Li said.
Li experienced this on Tuesday at the Beijing Mindfulness Center (BMC) in Dongcheng district, which provides classes and workshops on meditation to seek awareness of one's body and mind. Li first started to practice the method in September, and lost five kilograms after the first week.
"It's not just about losing weight. I am also healthier and in a better mood since I feel more in control of myself," Li said.
The practice of mindful eating has existed for over 3,000 years within Buddhism. Recently, it became more popular as a secular practice as the latest research has shown that practicing mindful eating has been directly related to the regulation of weight and fighting obesity, according to Dalida Turkovic from Serbia, the executive coach and founder of the BMC.
Turkovic has hosted nine mindful eating sessions in Beijing so far to raise awareness on healthy eating.
This mindful practice will enable people to experience present moment awareness. Apart from mindful eating, there is also mindful breathing, looking, listening, walking and meditation. Other mindful practices have also been used to help people have an improved quality of life and ease symptoms such as high blood pressure and some immune system diseases, according to Turkovic.
"A slower, more thoughtful way of eating could help with weight problems and maybe steer some people away from processed food and other less healthy choices," Turkovic said.
"Currently in China, mindful eating is practiced only during fasting retreats or in temples, but as more people are paying attention to healthy eating, it is becoming more popular," she said.
Research shows that mindful eating can be used to curve the appetite, control binge eating and improve health. Photo: IC
Concentration is key
Erica Huang, the founder of Farm to Neighbors, a local farmer's market in Beijing that encourages healthy and organic food, is the ambassador of the Food Revolution that originated in the UK. Food Revolution is an activity launched by the English chef Jamie Oliver to help society fight obesity and change negative eating habits to live healthier.
Huang is also the co-organizer for mindful eating with Turkovic.
Although mindful eating in China is just in the beginning stages, Huang believes that China needs mindful eating more than anywhere else does.
"Most Chinese people lead a fast-paced life, especially for white-collar workers in big cities. They just see eating as a task to solve quickly so that they can get back to work. They don't focus on the food. It's just a means to feel full," Huang said.
Before Li started practicing mindful eating, she had a love-hate relationship with food.
"I have a habit of working or watching videos when I eat, which leads me to overeat," Li said.
"When I eat, I don't pay attention to what food I'm eating or how much I am eating. When I stare at the computer sending e-mails or watching videos, I just gorge on whatever is in front of me and later I feel very uncomfortable," she said.
Li also had a problem with emotional eating. Whenever she feels unhappy or lonely, she eats, hoping it will make her feel better.
She projects her emotions on food, only to find that it causes her more guilt and a negative impact on her and her emotions.
"I started to blame myself because I could not control myself, then I felt even worse," Li said.
Like all other mindful practices, the first step of mindful eating is to become aware of how we are experiencing the present moment, according to Turkovic.
During the process, you should notice the colors on the plate, sense gratitude for the meal and everything that had to happen in order for you to enjoy it and reflect on how your body experiences the connection with the food.
"When you fully concentrate on your body and the food, you will feel playfulness and enjoyment while you eat. Also, your body will send you signals of whether the food is agreeing with you or if you are full," Turkovic said.
In order to notice every bite, we need to chew slowly and experience each bite until it reaches the stomach. You can also experiment with chewing each bite 10 or 20 times before swallowing. Slower eating enables your mind and body to align and instead of waiting 20 minutes after the meal to know that you overate, your mind processes the information immediately, Turkovic suggested.
Mindful eating has been proven to help with weight loss and binge eating.
According to a report by Times magazine in April, research fellows at Birminghan City University in the UK conducted research, which showed that mindful eating can be used to curve appetites.
The researchers taught people a short body meditation routine that primes them to become more aware of their own body, and then gave them candy bars and cookies. The people who participated in the meditation ate fewer cookies than others did.
A report by Harvard Health Publications in February 2011 also showed that mindful eating is useful to help binge eaters.
The randomized controlled study conducted by research fellows at Duke University included 150 binge eaters and compared a mindfulness-based therapy to a standard psycho-educational treatment and a control group. Both active treatments produced declines in binging and depression, but the mindfulness-based therapy seemed to help people enjoy their food more and have less of a struggle with controlling their eating.
The problem with binge eating is that people do not know when to stop; most of the time the person will eat mindlessly while watching TV, looking at their phone, or as a way to deal with emotions, said Turkovic.
She said that this is a form of emotional eating. Like any other addiction, this kind of eating seemingly helps us deal with difficult emotions but consequences are detrimental for health.
"And [when binge eating,] we still only focus on the taste of the food, instead of thinking whether it's healthy and if our bodies really need it. We are not focused on the connection between food and our body," she said.
Li said that she used to have a tendency to binge eat.
"I suffered from emotional eating. Even when I was already full, I could not stop putting food in my mouth," Li said.
Since Li started to practice mindful eating, she has become more in control of when and how much she eats.
"Eating is now fun. There is so much to experience and observe while eating. I can look, smell, chew and swallow the food, and sense how my body responds to it hours after I eat. I have a more enjoyable life now," Li said.
According to Turkovic, the lifestyle of eating more processed food, eating in a hurry and eating while distracted has only been introduced to China in the past 10 years. Therefore, the eating disorders in China are not as prominent as they are in Western society.
"This is why mindful eating has only just started to develop in China," Turkovic said.
"With more people concerned about obesity and healthy eating, mindful eating will be accepted and help more people."
A starter kit
Turkovic suggests starting gradually with mindful eating by eating one meal a day or a week in a slower, more attentive manner. Here are some tips (and tricks) that may help you get started:
1. Pace your eating. It should take you at least 20 minutes to finish an average meal.
2. Try eating with your nondominant hand.
3. Eat silently for five minutes, thinking about what it took to produce that meal, from the sun's rays to the farmer, from the grocer to the cook.
4. Take small bites and chew well.