Can you learn to eat more mindfully?
Come with us now on a journey through time and space… to the world of mindfulness.
While readers out there may not be familiar with the cult UK comedy series: the Mighty Boosh (if you are scratching your head, that headline is the opening title), most of you have probably heard the term ‘mindfulness’. The concept of mindfulness continues to expand into the popular arena and has reportedly been used to provide stress relief, improve concentration, immune function and healthy eating. In this article, I’d like to define mindfulness, explore its origins, how mindful eating applies to triathlon nutrition and how we can all be a little more mindful.
It may be easier to define what isn’t mindful: being unmindful. Un-mindfulness is what a lot of us do every day – we go through the motions, tick off the training, find the most convenient thing to eat and rush through the day to get everything done. We don’t think about what we are doing in the moment, nor what we are experiencing. We may be thinking about the past, going over our never-ending to-do list or thinking about the future. Mindfulness teaches us to live right now, in the moment and not to judge ourselves for what we have or haven’t done, will or will not do – rather, to experience the present through our senses.
The concept of mindfulness is suggested to have been derived from a form of Buddhist meditation, where a person is aware, attentive and in the present moment (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006). Mindful awareness isn’t confined to meditation or mindfulness practice; it may also occur during yoga, tai chi and religious contemplation. One of the early pioneers of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, describes it as “intentionally focusing on the moment-to-moment experience without judgement”. Jon’s early work used mindfulness meditation techniques in research on hospital patients in an attempt to reduce stress, improve health and wellbeing.
As the concept of mindfulness gained traction, an increasing number of researchers have sought to apply it to a range of situations. Most commonly, mindfulness has been used by psychologists in Mindful Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (MCBT) or Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to address anxiety, depression and other conditions (Davis & Hayes, 2011). A recent meta-analysis examining meditation programs for stress and well-being found moderate improvements in anxiety, depression and pain (Goyal et al., 2014). Mindfulness has also been used to improve emotion regulation, decrease reactivity to a situation, and assist new neural pathways development, thus supporting behavioural change (Davis & Hayes, 2011). The practice of mindfulness does take time and repetition to master.
More recently, some dietitians have been using mindfulness techniques to foster a healthier relationship with food. In so doing, taking the rules and negative thoughts out of eating and appreciating and enjoying food for what it is. I see mindful eating as a two-pronged fork: the first prong is the notion that we should slow down and take the time to enjoy, experience and savour our food. While the second prong is understanding that it is okay if we make different choices, choose something different, skip a snack if we are full and eat two snacks if we are hungry. I know, you have a meal plan, and you need to stick with it to get the results, right? Meal plans are important, particularly in the short term, to give you an idea of carbohydrate portions, recovery options, fuelling strategies, etc.. Though there is always scope for trialling different foods within that framework and not berating yourself when you happen to have chocolate for afternoon tea instead of the suggested yoghurt. Mindful eating teaches us to slow down and enjoy that chocolate (or yoghurt, or anything we eat).
Mindfulness: Adopting a healthier relationship with food allows us to slow down and even enjoy that occasional chocolate!
One suggestion to get into this frame of mind is to sit, quietly before you eat and take five breaths, or 15 or 30 as there is no right or wrong way to do this. Focus on nothing but your breathing – how deep is it, are you making a sound, do you feel any tension in your chest? Other thoughts may pop into your head, and this is normal. Acknowledge these thoughts, smile, and then discard them before again focussing on your breathing. In this way, you are grounding yourself through mindful breathing (usually a starting point for mindful meditation), so you are ready to begin mindful eating. Eat each bite slowly – think about what the food looks like, how it feels when picked up with your hand/fork/spoon, its smell, taste, texture, the sound it makes when you chew, how it feels in your mouth, going down your oesophagus, then think about how your stomach feels. Mindful eating also teaches us to pay attention to our body’s cues of hunger and satiation. Ask yourself: are you hungry? Have another mouthful, think about the same sensations and ask yourself the same question. Maybe your hunger is satisfied, or maybe it isn’t. If it isn’t, have some more. There is no right or wrong answer as we are experiencing our eating sensations without judgement.
This may not be for everyone, though I do think everyone should try mindfulness, to have a better appreciation of the sensations experienced when eating.
With a view to seeing food more as nourishment rather than a necessity. Often we overeat or eat mindlessly because of a conditioned behaviour or due to emotional reasons. For example, every night you sit down in the same chair after you’ve put the kids to sleep to watch your 30 minutes of TV and have your two or three, or four Tim Tams out of habit. If you have often thought: I don’t know why I eat those Tim Tams? Then why not apply mindfulness to this situation. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with Tim Tams; merely this is a fantastic situation to attempt mindful eating. So, sit or stand in a different location (without the screen) and take a minute to centre yourself by focusing on those five breaths. It would be difficult to be mindful while concentrating on the TV. Furthermore, the act of sitting in that same chair may be firing the same neural pathways that suggest Tim Tam consumption. Using the earlier suggestions, eat your first Tim Tam mindfully. Did you enjoy it? Do you still feel hungry? If so, is there something else you would like to experience for your next choice? If we don’t stop to think about what we are doing, we may not be aware if we are even enjoying what we are doing.
Competition nutrition: Listen to your body and be mindful of cues such as thirst, stomach feel, energy levels and taste.
The two-pronged fork notion could also be applied to training and competition nutrition. While we know that a consistent nutritional intake is important for endurance performance in a triathlon, sometimes we are so focussed on the activity and external factors that we forget to think about our eating and hydration. Thoughts such as: what gear am I in, I hope that swimmer in front doesn’t kick me in the head and gee, that bloke’s tri suit is revealing, crowd our mind. I have often heard athletes say after an event that they forgot to eat or didn’t have time to eat. Where in reality, they needed to make time to consider the type and timing of their nutrition. One suggestion is every 10-15 minutes (using your watch or Garmin), centre yourself and think about how you are feeling and what you need to do nutritionally to complete this event to the best of your ability. Then have a drink or something to eat if you choose. I know this is technically incorporating judgement, though it is also being mindful of the requirements for a good performance. You can also be mindful of other body cues such as thirst, stomach feel, energy levels, and taste. Do you feel like eating a bar or a gel? Do you feel thirsty? How is your stomach feeling?
By listening to your body, you may pick up an extra drink because you are feeling thirsty or low on energy or choose to go with a different food option for your next choice.
Incorporating some of these ideas in your racing, training and everyday environment can be quite enlightening.
As the more you can be aware of the sensations you are experiencing in the moment and thinking about what your body wants for best performance, the more time you will have to ensure adequate training and event nutrition.
As suggested earlier, to really experience mindfulness takes time and practice. I would recommend accessing a TED or YouTube talk from any of the researchers mentioned in this article. Mindfulness may not only be useful for triathlon nutrition, but also during exercise, and through everyday life. So, give mindfulness a go when eating your next meal or snack, and experience the sensations and awareness of being present, in the moment. Food for thought? In this case – thought for food.
I would like to thank Ali Patterson (Advanced Sports Dietitian) for her suggestions on finding resources for this article, as well as videos I accessed from Fiona Sutherland (Advanced Sports Dietitian).
Davis, D. M., & Hayes, J. A. (2011). What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research. Psychotherapy (Chic), 48(2), 198-208. doi: 10.1037/a0022062
Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., . . . Haythornthwaite, J. A. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med, 174(3), 357-368. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018
Walsh, R., & Shapiro, S. L. (2006). The meeting of meditative disciplines and Western psychology: a mutually enriching dialogue. Am Psychol, 61(3), 227-239. doi: 10.1037/0003-066x.61.3.227