Mind Over Meal

Restrictive diets and food fads are not the way to good nutrition. A healthy dose of attention is what’s called for instead.

Illustration by Getty Images/Gillian Blease

How much do we love food? A lot, right? And not surprising, since we are quite simply designed to find pleasure from it. But we can get to liking it so much that we eat way more than we need, or we might get bored with it and not pay attention anymore. Newspaper in hand, spoon in mouth; one hand on steering wheel, the other holding a muffin; laptop revved up, Facebook at the ready, sandwich mid-air—is there anything that illustrates mindless behavior more than our habits around eating?

Instead of so often eating with our mind somewhere else, why not flip things around and use everything surrounding food as an opportunity to expand mindfulness? Most of us find that if we’re asked to go on a short fast, perhaps before having a medical test, we can pull it off. In a moment, without all that much stress, our nutritional habits drop away. We have no choice: I’m hungry, but I’m going to wait. It’s uncomfortable, and challenging, but doable—proof that it is really, really hard to change how and when we eat, but not impossible.

That’s mindfulness in a nutshell. Aware of annoyance or stress, we accept what’s unpleasant. We choose to refrain. And then when it’s time to end the fast, we eat, and suddenly we notice, enjoy, and savor every bite as if it matters.

“It’s uncomfortable, and challenging, but doable—proof that it is really, really hard to change how and when we eat, but not impossible.”

Decades of nutrition research come down to one consistent suggestion: The healthiest path is to follow the principles that underlie the traditional Mediterranean Diet, which emphasizes vegetables (not fried) and olive oil (over butter) and moderate consumption of protein (and seafood more than meat). As Michael Pollan, author of Food Rules, says, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Not that radical, only different from what’s normal in many people’s lives. If you and your family and your social circle have deeply held preferences (a bacon cheeseburger followed by German chocolate cake, say), changing eating habits may seem insurmountable, but even little steps matter. And with children, a well-rounded diet from the start is a whole lot easier than trying to break entrenched eating habits later.

Restrictive dieting has more and more been shown ineffective. For all the argument over whether fat or sugar or gluten or anything at all matters more than anything else, the answer is most likely none of the above. Methodically revised, mindful habits—more than dieting—may represent the most sustainable path to nutritional health.

Instead of focusing on everything all at once, consider one pattern to adjust. Label it “habit,” and then set an intention for something different. It might be personal: Instead of fries, I’ll order salads. It may relate to emotion: I always crave cookies when I’m upset; I’ll skip them next time. It could be for your family: I think I’ll stop keeping chips around the house. Start small, and expand gradually.

Pause—take a few breaths, drink some water, or whatever else interrupts the momentum—before making food choices. Try putting down your utensil between bites and consciously deciding when to take another one. Stay aware when you’re cooking, rather than being absorbed in worries and plans. And skip giving yourself a hard time. Instead, use the everyday experiences of preparing food and eating to build your capacity for giving life the full attention it deserves.