Mindful Eating

Several months ago I finished reading the book Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, by Jan Chozen Bays, MD.    I thought that the insights from the book might be of interest to readers of this blog because she does such a good job unpacking the ways in which human biology, social context, and cultural factors converge to impact our relationship with food.  So often as researchers we focus on one or two factors influencing the behavior of the people we study.  This book served to remind me of the complexity factors which shape who we are and what we do.  In short, Bays suggests that through increased self-awareness and use of the techniques outlined in the book, mindful eating enables an individual to be attentive to what their body really needs versus what we are conditioned to think we need.  She proposes that the simple act of being aware of our choices and habits can change our relationship to food and to our bodies.

My purchase of the book was in part inspired by my trip to Japan in the summer last year.  I was away from home for nearly two weeks, and so by necessity I ate restaurant or prepared food for most of my meals.  The trip forced me to become aware of my own habits and preferences around food, as well as the significant cultural variations in what how and when we eat.  I encountered my share of frustration and discomfort along the way!  I missed the pleasure of picking ingredients and preparing a meal, and I realized that I had very strong beliefs around the need to sit down and eat at least one of my meals every day.  And, as I grew tired of fish and seaweed (or on the days that I got lost exploring the streets of Kyoto), I learned what it really means to be hungry, and how much food my body actually needs for fuel.

These topics are not new ones for me (although they are not the typical focus of this blog!).  When I applied to graduate school in Anthropology, I wrote about my family, and the way that my French mother’s food was essential in helping form my identity as a bi-cultural American.  But what came from those experiences in Japan was an increased curiosity about how our relationship to and choices around food are shaped.  Over the course of her book, Bays describes drivers in three major categories – human / evolutionary biology, social and personal factors, and cultural conditions.   She goes on to describe what she calls The Seven Hungers, and provides some guiding exercises to help people become aware of the factors that influence their decisions around food.  I found the book both personally interesting and also thought-provoking as an anthropologist.  I hope my summary below will inspire you as well!

Three Major Factors

Biology and human evolution

Perhaps one of the most powerful passages in the book for me was when Bays described what she calls the holy trio – sugar, fat, and salt.  In the past, these ingredients were hard to find.  Refined sugar is only 150 years old, and in only five or six generations, the average American is consuming three pounds of sugar and other sweeteners every week, totaling around 152 pounds per person per year.  (p.85)  This is ten times the amount of sugar consumed by previous generations!  We require salt for basic cell functions, but certainly not in the dosages that we consume it today.  Like sugar, it was scarce, but we have no organ to store it.  And fat was desirable because it was stored energy – fuel that kept us alive.

Since I read Fast Food Nation and seen the movie Super Size Me (as much of it as I could bear to watch!), none of these statistics were terribly surprising.  However, what was interesting is the fact that as humans we may still have some residual anxiety around the scarcity of those ingredients.  So food (especially fast food) that taps into those deep desires may be tough to resist.  Furthermore the food industry understands those tendencies and exploits them – for example, cold weather tends to make us hungry, and restaurants keep their temperatures low in order to stimulate customers to eat more.

Bays suggests that we may crave warm, liquid, or creamy ingredients for comfort, and that is also deeply bound up in our early experiences with food:
Conditioning around food begins as soon as we are born.  As we drink warm milk we are being cuddled by our mother, skin on warm skin.  Breast milk is surprisingly sweet.  It is not a surprise, then, that when people make a list of comfort foods , many of these foods are white, milky, creamy, rich , or sweet, such as ice cream, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes with butter, a bowl of creamed soup, a latte with whipped cream, hot cocoa, or even a basic glass of warm milk.  When we cry, we are comforted by being picked up and given a nipple to suck on.  Researchers can assess a baby’s distress by measuring their sucking rate.  The more distressed, the more sucks per minute.  …. It is a legitimate way for an adult to relieve stress by ‘nursing’ throughout the day.  A more subtle form of comfort is the never-empty cup of warm coffee or tea carried about throughout the workday.  Our minds and bodies have formed this link: stress + warm drink = comfort (lessening of stress). (p.64)

She goes on to describe what she calls appestat – a word she coined to describe a way of measuring one’s own appetite / thermostat.  She says that until about age 5, children are clear what and how much they want to eat.  Given healthy options, over the course of a week, children will naturally select and balance both the type and the volume of their intake to get what they need for survival.  In fact, research shows that most people in North America over the age of five decide they’ve had enough when their plate is empty (p. 68), so we should respect that awareness in our children.

Social and/or personal factors 

Our history and the ways we cope with our experiences affects our relationship with food.  This was a really well written passage in the book, which explained the varied ways that individuals might cope with similar circumstances.  For example, distress at childhood meals could result in grazing, eating at the counter, or overeating to self-sooth.  Anxiety might make you eat more … or eat less.   We can discern old patterns by watching for moments when we engage in idiosyncratic eating, anger, we experience overwhelming desire, or we eat unconsciously.   Chozen-Bays says that the easiest way to break hold habits is to be aware of them and then and then make a conscious choice not to engage in the destructive behavior.  In this way we can gain freedom from automatic behaviors.  We can break old habits by pausing and being aware of choices.  (p.73)

Cultural – especially US aspects

As an anthropologist with an interest in food, one of the themes that I found quite interesting is some of the ways that US culture creates conditions which make it challenging for us to engage in mindful eating.  The three main areas are (1) the need for speed, (2) the insistence on greater and greater volumes, and (3) a scientific approach to food.  I’d like to take each one in turn, since I found this area especially interesting.


One of the passages I found particularly striking was a passage which reflected on the eating behaviors of colonists in New World taverns.  Already at that moment in history Americans were prone to eat quickly and with minimal appreciation for what we were eating.  In the present day “research shows that North Americans spend only eleven minute eating lunch at a fast-food restaurant and eighteen minutes at  a cafeteria in their workplace.” (p. 94)  Our mouth naturally enjoys and appreciates textures, and we experience flavors more fully when we chew our food well.

Furthermore, when we take our time eating, we get more nutrients from the food we eat, and it can be absorbed more easily.  In other words, we get more nutrition out of less food.  In addition, our body gets information about satiety from four sources (a) feeling full (b) from nutrients in the bloodstream, (c) hormones released from small intestine and pancreas as food is absorbed and (d) fat cells, which release chemicals to turn off hunger.  So, if we eat slowly we allow some of these other triggers to tell us we’re full before we’ve eaten too much.  If we have the tendency to eat fast, we are less likely to enable these natural triggers to occur, thereby causing us to overeat.  And unfortunately, we pass those same tendencies on to our children:

At our local elementary school, lunchtime and recess combined are allotted only thirty minutes.  Most children eat in less than ten minutes so they will have some time to play.  This is not unusual.  Researchers who observed students’ behavior in school cafeterias found that kids spent from 7.3 minutes (New York) to 9.5 minutes (Texas) actually eating their lunches.  Different schools allocated a total of fifteen to thirty minutes for lunch. It took students between three and eight minutes to be served and to clean up.  What were they doing with their ‘extra’ few minutes?  In some cases, these five to ten minutes were their only time for recess or exercises.  Some students talked with classmates for a few minutes.  In a few schools that allowed a longer time for lunch and required that students stay in the cafeteria, students spent up to twenty-five minutes socializing, but did not take any more time to relax and enjoy eating. (p.99)


By now I think most Americans have heard about the movie Super Size Me, which documents the experience of a journalist researcher who ate McDonald’s three times a day for a month.  In addition to gaining almost 25 pounds, he experienced all kinds of physiological problems, and it took him over a year to take off the weight he put on.

Although McDonald’s has discontinued the Super Size, the issues continue.  Commercially baked cookies are seven times larger and muffins are three times larger than USDA standard size.  Researchers have learned that we eat more food if we use larger containers or plates.  As I mentioned earlier, until age five children can self-regulate, after that they count on the plate to help them manage their portions.   In Okinawa Japan there is an expression hara no hachi bu, which means stomach eight parts full.  The message here is that the other two parts sustain the doctor.

What was also amazing to me is that over 90% of Americans decide that they are full when their plate is empty.  Therefore, in order to moderate food intake, Chozen Bays recommends an exercise.  She says that before you put food on your plate, assess how much you would need to be two-thirds full, and only serve yourself that much.  And if you feel the need to take seconds, reflect on why.  “I am taking this second portion to benefit ____.”


One of the other interesting passages in the book was the one about Mind Hunger (I’ll review all seven hungers below).  In that section she says that mind hunger is influenced by what we see and read, for example the slew of dieting fads that come and go. She says “What was good to eat one year becomes evil a decade later.  The no-citrus diet (“bad for your joints”) was followed by the grapefruit diet.  The pasta diet was followed by the no-carbohydrates diet.  The all-the-vegetables-you-can-eat diet turned around and became the high-quality-protein-only diet.” (p.45) She goes on to talk about the shifts in thinking about corn oil versus butter, coconut oil, eggs, and more.  Later in the chapter she also talks about research which stated that humans need sixty-four ounces of water a day.  The finding served in part to spawn the massive bottled-water industry, even though most or all of that liquid could come from food.  In the end, she surmises that the “Buddhist principle of the middle way emerges as a very sane way to live.” (p.46)

The Seven Hungers

Although the author refers to the Hungers throughout, Chapter 2 describes the Seven Hungers in detail, and provides suggestions for ways to gain awareness of the Hungers’ influence on our food choices.  The underlying lesson is that we need to stay in touch with all our senses and their role in shaping our feelings of hunger and what we desire to eat.

Eye Hunger.  Even when we are not hunger, a beautiful display of desserts (or really good advertising) may well entice us to eat something in spite of the fact that our stomach is already full.  “People generally decide how much of a given food they will eat based upon feedback from the eyes.”  You may have read about studies that tested a bottomless soup bowl, which refilled continuously.  People continued to eat (73% more!) without realizing what they were doing.  We can turn this to advantage by selecting smaller dishes and utensils.  In another interesting twist on this, Bays suggests that we may experience eye hunger because we have beauty missing from our lives in some way.  Therefore, it is possible to feed eye hunger through beauty … but without eating.  In addition, consistent with the mindful theme, she says “This habit, of not really looking, of skimming our eyes over the surfaces of things, leaves us hungry and lonely in a fundamental way. When we stop and look with awareness, we connect.  A brief connection like this can lift our mood, feeding our heart for hours.” (p.24)

Nose Hunger.  Humans can distinguish over ten thousand smells, and that plays a significant role in influencing our food cravings and choices.

Mouth Hunger. Our ability to distinguish tastes is limited to five “flavors” – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and amino acids.  The only other major characteristic of food that we can distinguish with our mouths is texture.  Family history and culture also have a role in how we experience food in the mouth.  Bays describes the ways in which the US food industry has made our snacks more salty, more sweet, more fatty … which is quite different from snack foods in places like Japan, which are much more mild.  She said that “[t]raditional Japanese food has so little fat that you don’t need dishwashing soap.  You can wash dishes in plain water.” (p.31)  Her recommendation (again, back to the mindfulness theme) is as follows:

To truly experience “a party in the mouth,” we don’t need stronger flavoring but the presence of awareness.  To satisfy the mouth’s hunger for sensation, it isn’t enough to put food into the mouth, chew it, and swallow it.  If we want to feel satisfied as we eat, the mind has to be aware of what is occurring in the mouth.  In other words, if you want to have a party in the mouth, the mind has to be invited. (p.31)

In other words, the antedote to the extreme-ism of the food industry is to be more attentive, not to pass the salt!  She goes on to say that “If we are not aware of what is happening in the mouth, the mouth feels chronically deprived and convinces the hand to keep feeding it more.”  (p.33)

Stomach Hunger.  People experience hunger in different ways.  For some it’s a feeling of emptiness, for others it’s a constriction. Either way, the feelings are not pleasant!  But in fact, the stomach’s growling is not an indication of hunger, but it simply the stomach communicating when it is expecting food.  For example, people that don’t eat breakfast don’t experience their stomach grumbling in the morning.  And after three days of fasting, the stomach is also quiet.

Sometime anxiety can cause “our stomach to growl or grind.  If we mistaken anxiety for stomach hunger, we may eat … [which] can start another vicious cycle.  That is, when we are worried about something, our stomach signals distress, which we mistake for hunger, which leads us to eat.” (p.36)

As a result of these and other factors, it may be hard to assess stomach hunger.

Cellular Hunger.  Children instinctively know when and what kind of food they need.  Bays shared a story about a young child that was brought to the hospital by his parents. They had been giving him distilled water, but due to the extreme heat he was not eating and was therefore lethargic.  She brought him a bag of potato chips, which he began eating immediately – he was salt depleted from the distilled water.  However, as we grow into adulthood and we are barraged by advertising and other influencers, we lose this awareness.  The author says that learning to “listen to cellular hunger is the primary skill of mindful eating.” (p.39)  We need to take the time to sit and be aware of what we are hungry for – not just when we sit down but throughout our meal.

Mind Hunger.  Earlier I described how the prevalence of food science in the US popular press has affected how we think about our relationship to food.  Mind hunger is based upon thoughts, many of them influenced by external factors like advertising, cookbooks, popular magazines.  It often operates in absolutes or opposites, and it is the mind (not the nose or eye) that generates our anxiety around food.   One piece of guidance is to be aware of situations when we say that we “should” or “should not” do something, as that is likely Mind Hunger at work. Bays says that “The mind is truly content only when it becomes quiet.  When the many and contradictory voices around eating are still, when the awareness function is dominant over the thinking function, then we can be fully present as we eat.  When we are filled with awareness, we become filled with satisfaction.” (p.31)

Heart Hunger. Although I found that the description of the other six hungers resonated, this one was the most powerful for me. I don’t think I could really do it justice, so here is my favorite passage:

Many people are aware that they eat in an attempt to fill a hole, not in the stomach but in the heart.  We eat when we are lonely.  We eat when a relationship ends.  We eat when someone dies, taking food to the home of those who are grieving.  These are the ways we try to take care of ourselves and others, but we must understand that food put into the stomach will never ease the emptiness, the ache in a heart. (p.53)

My Takeaways

I read this book several months ago, but I have returned to and reflected on it over and over again.  These were  some of the most compelling takeaways for me:
  • Our stomach growls due to it’s anticipation of food at a certain time of day, not for hunger.  In essence, we train our stomach how to feel hunger based on when we feed it.
  • It is almost impossible to be attentive to food and do something else – read, talk, etc.  “[T]he mind has two distinct functions, thinking and awareness.  When the thinking function is turned up, the awareness function is turned down.” (p.7)
  • We all deal with our own history in different ways, but we should be aware that much dysfunction around food is related to Heart Hunger.
  • Desires make us feel alive, but they pass.
  • Allow the feeling of being empty, and be clear about where the dissatisfaction comes from.

Every atom in our body is composed of emptiness (more than 99 percent) inhabited by tiny bits of whizzing energy (less than 1 percent). In addition to our very real physical emptiness, we are empty in another way. We are empty of independent existence. We could not exist with out all other beings also existing. … Fundamentally, we are made up of our interactions with all other beings. (p.146)

While I valued the spiritual aspects of this book at a personal level, I also found it very powerful to be reminded of the many ways that our desires – and not just for food – are influenced by social, cultural, and biological factors, as well as our own senses. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey as much as I did!

2 Comments on “Mindful Eating”

  1. Pingback: Ingrained | Natalie Hanson, PhD

  2. Pingback: Ingrained | Natalie Hanson

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