Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Mindful eating

Ghada Abdel-Kader discovers how to adopt mindful eating habits for a healthy relationship with food

Al-Ahram Weekly

Like people in many other cultures, Egyptians often connect happy moments or memories with food, programming them in certain patterns. “When you are happy, you eat. We need to change this habit,” comments Asmaa Azab, a life coach, however.  

According to Azab, the alternative, mindful eating, is eating with the intention of caring for yourself and at the same time eating with the attention necessary for observing and enjoying the food that is having an effect on your body.

Chocolate, for instance, is the key for happiness and joy for many people, but in fact it creates a false sense of happiness. Though eating chocolate releases certain chemicals like dopamine in the brain that have positive effects on mood, it is an addiction and not a true source of joy and happiness, Azab explains.

“The person is simply ignoring his feelings and pressing and pushing inside. In the end he feels unhappy and lost,” she adds. “A mindful way of eating aims to teach people how they can be more attentive, more aware, and in a clearer state of mind in the present moment.”

“I have a busy schedule that prevents me from doing regular exercise or even walking. I sit for almost eight hours a day, and as a result I have become overweight. My size has increased an average of two sizes and my body shape looks weird,” said Sherine Mohsen, 38, who has been working for the Ministry of Finance for eight years.

She had not previously traced her relationship with food, her intention was to try to look good and to reshape her body. “My goal was to feel better when I looked in the mirror,” she said.

“To be mindful, you have to concentrate on the present moment. We’re often either imagining the life we want to live in the future or regretting the past and feeling angry,” Azab comments, adding that in both cases it can be easy to lose the feeling of the present moment and eat without thinking to get rid of negative energy.

“I am an anti-diet person because I love eating food as well as seeking pleasure from eating. When I am under stress I eat enormous packs of puffed cornmeal snacks or potato chips,” Mohsen said.

For Azab, she is a clear case of the benefits of mindfulness because when a person is attentive and in a clear state of mind this can help her decide when to eat without reaching the point of feeling ravenous or overeating.  

Mohsen has now succeeded in changing some of her bad habits by attending mindful eating sessions. “I replaced white sugar with honey, and I drink coffee without sugar and more water and fresh juice. I have also substituted crackers with salads, fresh vegetables and fruit,” she said.

When a person is in a state of “mindless” eating, she or he often does not pay enough attention to the quality or quantity of what is eaten, or the time of meals, Azab says, sometimes not even chewing the food properly before swallowing it. “In the end, such a person will eat too much, and his or her body will store more fat,” she adds.

Some people may develop fears of eating or eating disorders like anorexia which have negative effects on physical or mental health.

“Some people starve themselves because they have a strong desire to be thin, especially teenagers,” notes Azab.  

“After the age of 40, I started to look for new ways to maintain my weight,” said Mona Nagi, now 41 and someone who easily gains weight. She has tried various diets throughout her life, and her favourite food is carbohydrates. Nagi was also a fat child until she was a teenager when she succeeded in losing weight. But after getting married and giving birth to her first child she gained more kilos. She later lost them because she preferred being in good shape.

“Mindful eating helps us to become aware of ‘who is hungry’ in our body — the heart, the body or the mind. It asks us to think about the best way of nourishing that person,” Azab says.

Emotional eaters try to fill their emotional needs through eating rather than feeling physical hunger, she says. “Though food contains chemicals that can make you feel happy like carbohydrates and sugar, walking, painting, sports, meditation or doing something you love can give you the feeling of relaxation and joy as well,” she adds.

Mohsen tried to solve her problems by attending courses about energy and self-development. “I have been trying hard to figure out my real passion in life, the one that gives meaning and joy to my life and that I can’t live without,” she said.

Regular meditation can raise awareness, correct negative stereotypes regarding relationships with food, and produce a deep state of relaxation, Azab comments. A tranquil mind can also help individuals to live better lives and improve the capacity to deal with pressure and stress, she adds.

Mohsen has not always worried about her weight. “I rarely check my weight even today. But my size was one size smaller after two months of doing meditation,” she said.

For Al-Ahram Weekly readers, Azab has provided a formula that can help them gauge their hunger level and only eat when they are truly hungry. This formula is called the STOP formula. ‘S’ stands for stop, ‘T’ for think and take a breath, ‘O’ for observe your body and measure your hunger level, and ‘P’ for perceive awareness.

The first step is to close your eyes, Azab says. Put your hands on your stomach and take three or four deep breaths. The second step is to ask yourself what you are hungry for. The third step is to continue breathing and to measure your hunger and fullness. Rate your hunger on a scale from one to 10 (one is starving and 10 is extremely hungry).

Starting from eight, you are totally full and even overstuffed, Azab says.

For those under stress or having negative energy, Azab recommends meditation. Start the day with 10 minutes of meditation practice, or schedule it into the day, she says. Try to find a place where you will not be interrupted and avoid external distractions. Play soft music, sit in a comfortable position without crossings your legs, close your eyes, and try to focus by taking deep breaths for 10 minutes.

The meditation time can be increased gradually depending upon ability.

Changing eating habits

Mindful eating expert Asmaa Azab gives advice on changing eating habits:

- Observe the types of food you are eating and make sure that your plate has many colours on it, as “rainbow colours are what your body needs.” 

- Avoid eating processed food and artificial ingredients.

- Walk one hour a day, especially when you are under stress.

- Drink large amounts of water during the day and particularly at night. This can make you feel full, though the precise amount of water you drink will depend on your state of health.

- Don’t eat after 7pm. If you still feel hungry, eat a very light snack.

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