Zen and the Art of Mindful Eating

This is a raisin. Examine it closely. Inhale its scent.

Linda Buckley, registered dietitian with Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, N.J., guides the participants of a mindful eating workshop to slowly put the dried grape in their mouths. “Just hold it there and take one bite, and notice what one bite tastes and feels like. Notice what the tongue is doing,” she says.

Next, the participants are told to chew, very slowly and attentively. This quiet, simple exercise teaching clients how to eat a morsel of food — using all of their senses and being fully present — is the essence of mindful eating, a discipline that is growing in popularity among nutrition professionals around the country. Mindfulness has its roots in the 2,500-year-old teachings of Buddha, in which mastering the right state of mind is the seventh step along the eight-fold path to enlightenment. Being mindful is an active state of releasing all judgment and worried thoughts, freeing oneself to fully perceive the moment.

In recent years, psychologists, doctors and nutritionists are finding these ancient practices to be a useful antidote to a modern, hurried lifestyle — and helpful in treating disordered eating and obesity,  supported by research indicating mindfulness helps decrease disinhibition and reactivity. In fact, many nutritionists may already be using aspects of mindfulness in their practice, unaware of its connection to Buddhism.

“A lot of dietitians said they’ve been doing it since the 1970s, but that we finally gave them a name for something they’ve been trying to do,” said Megrette Fletcher, MEd, RD, CDE, LD, co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating, a forum to help the public and health professionals understand that how you eat is as important as what you eat. “Instinctively they’ve been trying to teach clients how to respond to hunger, to just be present and connect with the direct experience of eating.”

At the Zen Garden spiritual center in Airmont, N.Y., students are taught to practice mindfulness in all of their activities. “Zen is the realization that the sacred is in each and every moment of life — in the most ordinary actions like eating, sleeping, even sweeping the floors,” says Roshi Paul Genki Kahn, the founder and spiritual director of the center.

During their meditative dining ritual Oryoki — which means “just enough”— participants seated on floor pillows eat from a set of small lacquer bowls while chanting prayers of gratitude. At the end of each meal, they pour water into the bowls, drink a small amount of the liquid and sprinkle the remainder outside on plants. “Nothing is wasted,” says Kahn. “We end as we begin.”

But health professionals needn’t become Zen scholars to incorporate these concepts into their practice, and drawing too much attention to spiritual roots may alienate some clients, says Fletcher. “Really what I’m trying to get at is being present in the moment, and that’s accessible to all people. Mindfulness is available in all religions,” says Fletcher, who started meditating 15 years ago. “Buddha did not corner that market.”

Pausing for a moment before a meal to say grace and to give thanks is a practice that transcends all cultures and religions. “Paying attention to the fact that we’re sitting together, that there’s a higher power, a God, a cook and people who grew the food, is a mindfulness practice,” says Buckley, MS, RD, CDE, a longtime practitioner of yoga and meditation. For people who struggle with a cycle of guilt around eating and achieving perfection, the mindful process helps turn off that inner critic. Buckley recently had a client who was eating for comfort and then feeling guilty about it. She worked with the woman to bring attention to her behavior and to simply accept it without negative thoughts. “I told her ‘you don’t have to be perfect,’” says Buckley. “‘It’s okay to comfort yourself with food, to be conscious of what you’re doing and that you have alternatives.’”

After undergoing training in mindful meditation, Santa Barbara, Calif.-based nutritionist Chantal Gariepy, RD, CDE, brought these skills into her professional practice cautiously. “I was nervous at the beginning,” she says. “It’s so different from our traditional training, [in which] nutrition is often a concrete protocol that we follow. [Mindfulness] is an art, not a science.” So rather than introducing the concept in one-on-one consultations, Gariepy held a workshop. To start, she led participants through an eating exercise similar to Buckley’s raisin session, having them focus on the process of tasting a simple morsel of food.

Afterwards, participants were invited to share the details of the experience. Gariepy emphasizes that facilitators should not pressure clients to expect an epiphany. “It’s a very personal experience, and some people will have a different experience and it doesn’t mean they’re not learning from it,” she says.

As for integrating these skills back into their daily lives, clients are not expected to follow this ritual for every meal. “I tell them to choose one meal a day to go through this process,” says Gariepy. “It’s a way of approaching the experience of eating that needs to be learned and practiced.” Gariepy advises colleagues who are interested in adopting mindful eating practices to first take an introductory class. “It’s worthless if the practitioner doesn’t have direct experience with it,” says Gariepy. “It’s not a concept you can teach intellectually.”

Sachi Fujimori
Sachi Fujimori is a New Jersey-based journalist who writes about religion, health, aging, food, art and breaking news.