Mindful eating: How to think more and eat less

'Mindful eating' is gaining followers among those who want to give deeper thought to their food. Will guzzler Simon Usborne become a convert?

Simon Usborne
Thursday 26 April 2012 20:58 BST

After observing my appetite for a few days, a former colleague once nicknamed me Cookie Monster after the omnivorous muppet whose famous phrases include: "Me want cookie!"; "Me eat cookie!" and "Om nom nom nom". I've only met one person who eats more quickly than I do, and he's related to me. I'm the guy who inhales Pringles as if the tube were a straw, and for whom no bag of chocolate treats (caramel nibbles, please) is too big to be swallowed like a pelican on a sardine bender.

There is another way, and it's called mindful eating, a meditative approach to consumption with roots in Buddhist teachings and a growing following among those who give more thought to food. I'm about to try it by taking 10 minutes to eat a single raisin. I'm a big raisin fan. As a packed-lunching schoolboy, I used to treat those mini red Sun-Maid boxes as a teenager would a shot glass.

"Letting the raisin rest on your palm, become aware of its pattern, colour and shape." I follow the instructions at my desk, the site of much of my daily face-stuffing, holding my phone with my other hand. On the end of the line is Michael Chaskalson, aka Kulananda, a Buddhist based in Cambridge and a mindfulness trainer with more than 35 years of experience. His focus is not eating – he teaches people to be more in tune with themselves and their surroundings – but he uses the raisin exercise to start his courses.

"Taking your other hand, moving it towards the raisin, feeling the movement of your muscles as you do it, pick up the raisin between your thumb and forefinger and get a sense of its texture." I obey, trying to block out the din of the newsroom, as well as competing urges to giggle and suck up the raisin.

Mindful eating is not a diet, which is great. Its practitioners do not care what you eat, but how, and how quickly. Just as a Buddhist is encouraged to expand his consciousness by thinking about breathing, he should also think about eating. Mindful eating is being taught in boardrooms, including Google's, and has cheerleaders including Oprah Winfrey.

Academics, too, are interested. Dr Lilian Cheung is a nutritionist at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. Mindless eating, she says, is the product of our time, and part of the cause of our advance towards a global obesity epidemic. "Being aware of what we eat and drink has become a very important defence to ensure we eat the right food and don't over-consume," she says.

Studies have shown that thinking about food and the way we eat it means we consume less. Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell University in New York and author of a book called Mindless Eating, conducted an experiment to show this. He gave stale popcorn to cinemagoers in different sizes: large or extra large. When he weighed the buckets after the film, he found those with bigger buckets ate 53 per cent more stale popcorn. When we don't think about food, we'll eat any old thing and, given the chance, we'll eat more of it and get fatter.

As food containers grow, be they popcorn buckets or the average dinner plate, along with distractions and demands on our time, it's bad news for our hearts and waistlines. Other research has shown that those who eat quickly will get fatter because the chemicals that tell our brain we're full take time to reach it.

"Slowly begin moving the raisin towards your lip... As it passes under your nose you may be aware of some fragrance [yep, it smells of raisin]... Now, popping the raisin slowly on to your tongue just let it rest there, noticing any urges and exploring any faint flavours." Five minutes after picking up the raisin, it has finally made contact with my face. But there'll be no eating yet.

I'm getting a brief – and slow – taste of mindful eating courses gaining popularity in the US and France. Dr Cheung is the co-author of Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, with Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and founder of monasteries in the west. At Plum Village, in the Dordogne region of France, and at the Blue Cliff Monastery in upstate New York, anyone can sign up to one of his mindful eating courses. Meals start in prayer and continue in silence as diners consider everything about their food – textures, smells and tastes.

Mindful eaters are also conscious of the origins of food. Dr Cheung uses a chocolate bar as an example. When you eat one, she says, "give thanks to all those who made the chocolate bar possible, including nature (sun, clouds, rain, soil), the cocoa plant and farmers... You would not have the chocolate bar in your hand if these elements were not present".

Right. The raisin has been resting on my tongue long enough. Chaskalson continues: "When you're ready [I am!], move the raisin between your back teeth, letting it just rest there." Oh, come on!

"Now, in your own time take a single bite. Be aware of the sound, and texture... Take another bite... and again... slowly chewing until there's almost nothing left. And then, swallowing and tracking the raisin as it goes down your throat until you lose sight of it altogether."

After 10 minutes, the raisin is no more. I have never eaten so slowly. Chaskalson asks me what I've noticed. I say I felt the squidginess of the raisin between my teeth, and almost heard the popping of the tiny saliva bubbles as I slowly bit it. I noticed its taste as much as I usually would. And I'm satisfied. Weirdly, as I respond, I also notice my voice is quieter and calmer. I put the phone down. Do I then eat the rest of the packet more slowly? Perhaps not, but I certainly think about doing it.

Michael Chaskalson mbsr.co.uk

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