“What do you like doing best in the world, Pooh?”

“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best-” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.
— A. A. Milne, The House At Pooh Corner

Have you ever heard of the concept of mindful eating?

I would say mindful eating isn’t something new, it’s more of a lost art. In our hustle and bustle of life, it can be easy to just sit and watch TV or scroll through Facebook on our phone and not pay attention to what we are eating. But, paying more attention to what we eat, when we are eating, is something that can help in a ton of ways. Mindful eating

  • helps you feel more satiated after a meal
  • allows you to experience all the flavors of a meal
  • improves digestion, reducing symptoms of low stomach acid like GERD, heartburn, and burping after a meal
  • allows you to learn mindfulness practices in other areas of life

I grew up in a family that said grace before every meal. It was a rule that we couldn’t start eating until everyone was sitting at the table together and we had said grace. As children, we used to squirm in our chairs with anticipation as the sight and smells of the food tantalized us. Admittedly, I used to see saying grace, in the words of Mitch Hedberg, as just ‘another step between me and toast’.’ (Or maybe, in my case now, another step between me and steak and veggies). But, I’m starting to realize that saying grace can actually play a hugely important role in priming the body to digest food.

Because I am a nerd and I find biological processes fascinating, I’ve been voraciously reading a book called Digestive Wellness. The author, Dr. Lipski, talks about the importance of being in a state of rest for mealtime. I always assumed digestion began with putting food in our mouths, but it doesn’t: it actually starts in our brain. It starts as we’re preparing our food, as the smells waft up to our nose and entice us, and as we look at our plate and anticipate the different tastes, textures and sensations we are about to experience.

As this happens, our brain begin to sending signals to different parts of our digestive system: “Get ready; food is coming!” Our body then responds, producing the necessary chemicals that we need to break down and absorb the nutrients from our food, like stomach acid and enzymes. But, here’s the trick: we need to be in a state of relaxation, or ‘rest-and-digest mode’, for our body to devote attention to proper digestion. Any amount of stress (standing while eating, eating at the computer, thinking about the worries of the day, eating too quickly) causes the body to be in ‘fight or flight mode’ rather than ‘rest and digest’. In fight or flight mode, your body thinks that it has bigger fish to fry than digesting food, so your brain won’t bother to send those signals to your body, and your digestive system won’t be primed for food. For example, if your stomach doesn’t get the signal to produce more stomach acid, you can experience other ‘downstream’ symptoms like heartburn, bloating (from undigested food particles), constipation: yeah, it gets pretty personal. It’s important to know that our bodies can only do one mode or the other, so if we want to glean the maximum nourishment from our food, we need to put ourselves into a state of mental ‘rest’ when we eat.

So, I had a moment of epiphany when I realized that saying thanks isn’t just a nice traditional ritual before a meal. It’s actually an ideal way to relax your mind so your body can prepare for the food you are going to give it. Even if you don’t believe in saying grace, simply taking thirty seconds or so to sit down, be quiet, and mull over in your mind some things for which you are thankful can be enough to put your body into the right state before you eat. Beyond digestion, thankfulness has a way of centering our busy minds. It allows us to regain perspective on what is truly important.

The next time you are going to have a meal, sit down at the table to eat. Look around at the faces of the people you love, or fill your mind with the thoughts of your loved ones. Pay attention to how your food looks and how it smells. Think about how your food will taste. Close your eyes and think about some things for which you are thankful. As you eat, savor the meal. Take small bites and chew thoroughly. Enjoy the flavors and the textures. Use the time at the meal for good conversation and enjoy the company you are with. After the meal, don’t be afraid to linger and have a cup of tea. Sometimes the best conversations happen there!