Strawberries, chocolate or crisps? This was the choice I was given when I attended an ‘Introduction to Mindful Eating’ class at The Mindfulness Project, a new organisation dedicated to teaching secular mindfulness practices to as many Londoners as possible.

In the UK, we’re not great at eating mindfully. A 2012 survey found that 26% of adults in England are obese, and the National Obesity Forum say a recent prediction that half the UK population will be obese by 2050 ‘underestimates the scale of the problem’. King’s College London and the UCL Institute of Child Health found that the number of people being diagnosed with eating disorders increased by 15% between 2000 and 2009.

Something has gone really wrong. Or rather, several things have gone wrong. The most popular solutions focus on changing  what we eat. We are told to eat less sugar, caffeine, gluten and saturated fats, eat more healthy fats, more fruit and veg, drink less alcohol and so on. It’s very common to open a mainstream newspaper or magazine and receive advice on what we should and shouldn’t be eating. It’s pretty rare to find advice on how we should be eating, or why the popular solutions don’t really work for a lot of people. We’re told that we must improve our diets, but we’re not really taught exactly how we should carry this out in practice.

This is a real shame because, as Dr. Cinzia Pezzolesi taught us on Tuesday night in the beautiful second floor studio at 6 Fitzroy Square, learning how to eat mindfully can revolutionise your entire relationship with food. Once you learn how to really engage all your senses when you eat, and tune into the feedback your body gives you about your appetite, it becomes much easier to make good food choices, and to know when your body has had enough.

Six Fitzroy Square Studio

Six Fitzroy Square Studio

Instead of immediately reacting to the stimulus of a real (or misinterpreted) hunger cue, we can mindfully sit with the sensation of hunger and make a conscious decision about how best to respond to that stimulus. Mindfulness puts us back in the driving seat, and enables us to identify and become familiar with what is often an underlying emotional trigger that presents itself as a hunger cue. It also forces us to stop multi-tasking: by slowing down and bringing our full awareness to our food we can notice the enormous difference between a nourishing meal and an empty snack.

Dr. Pezzolesi also reminded us to be really conscious of our inner monologue when it comes to food and body image. Most people are way too hard on themselves when it comes to making bad food choices. We should develop a more compassionate approach to our eating habits, underpinned by an appreciation of how our food choices don’t happen in isolation, rather they are woven into: a) our practical daily lives with limitations such as availability of healthy food, restrictions on the time and space needed to eat mindfully, the temptation of ‘bad’ food choices, ingrained habits, etc. and b) our emotional lives – the ebb and flow of our emotions can draw us towards good and bad food choices in a way that is quite separate from physical hunger.

Dr. Pezzolesi also described something called the ‘abstinence violation effect’  – a key issue in overeating. If we tell ourselves that we must not eat something (i.e. impose abstinence), the temptation to eat it becomes greater. We are then likely to violate this rule, feel like a failure for doing so, and then potentially go on to eat more of the ‘forbidden food’ than we would have if we had not tried to impose a rule in the first place. A lose-lose situation!

In contrast, mindful eating is win-win. You can eat any food you like, providing you do so with complete awareness, and an attitude of self-compassion. Once you start eating more mindfully, the desire to eat unhealthy food starts to diminish, as you become more in touch with what your body really needs. So you make better choices, and you gain more pleasure from eating, therefore it’s a win-win!

In addition to Dr. Pezzolesi’s talk we did a short mindful breathing exercise, and a mindful eating exercise. As I mentioned, I decided to pick the strawberry option. The chocolate did look tempting, but I’d already had a nice piece of carrot cake that day 🙂

The Mindfulness Project are running a range of classes and courses throughout April and May, including some free taster sessions and movie screenings. I’d definitely recommend trying one of the taster sessions and having a chat to the project’s founders Autumn and Alexandra – they are very approachable ladies and super passionate and knowledgeable about mindfulness. I’m sure they’d be delighted to advise you on the best class for you!

Fruit salad by Uma Maheswari

Fruit salad by Uma Maheswari