‘Tis the season to be jolly! But that doesn’t mean that we need to sample each one of the cookies on Aunt Margaret’s dessert platter. When everything looks and smells so tasty, how do we forgo the festive feeding frenzy? How do we avoid the level of overeating that hurtles us into physical pain and self flagellation? And what do good eating habits have to do with personal finance?
Mindful Eating, or Lack Thereof
A few weeks ago I found myself grazing at the snack drawer at work just hours after I devoured not one, not two, but two and a half donuts. I was aware of what I was doing, but seemingly had no power to stop it. After lugging the greasy blob in my stomach home under the cloud of a shameful temper tantrum, I decided I wanted to understand the reason for my snack drawer debacle. I knew there was a mindful eating course on the 10% Happier App, so I asked Mr. Grumby if he would join me in giving it a listen. Dr. Judson Brewer‘s conversations with Dan Harris about the peculiarities of human eating habits were interesting and entertaining. And I came away feeling better-prepared for my next encounter with the snack drawer. Good thing, because it’s right next to my desk!
What is Mindful Eating, Anyway?
Mindful eating is best described as eating with attention and curiosity. It’s the practice of taking yourself off of autopilot before you put something in your mouth. When you eat mindfully, you gain awareness of why you eat, how you eat, what you eat, and how to gracefully recover when you screw up.
Why We Eat
Hunger is just one of the many, numerous reasons why people eat. What I realized during the Brewer/Harris mindful eating course is that most often I eat for a variety of other reasons. In fact, usually the only time I eat because I’m hungry is in the morning, after a 12-13 hour fast.
Here are some of the reasons I’m driven to the snack drawer:
- The sound of the snack drawer opening (remember, it’s RIGHT next to my desk)
- The sound of peanut M&Ms clattering against each other as a co-worker dips the little scoop into the 3 pound 14 oz container
- Conversations about how much everyone likes the peanut butter-filled pretzels
- Exclamations about the new caramel-filled dark chocolates
So, how does this knowledge help me? Well, often times simple awareness of what is actually happening is just what you need to initiate behavior change. The sound of the snack drawer opening is just the sound of a drawer opening. If it triggers stomach gurgling and mouth watering, those are just conditioned responses. Since I’m not Pavlov’s Dog, I can sit back and be the entertained observer. Maybe even take mental or actual notes.
How We Eat
Another influence on what we choose to eat, and how much, is how we eat. If I were to follow the guidelines for the ideal mindful meal I might:
- Choose real food that has been recently prepared (ideally by myself)
- Before I eat, express gratitude (silently or not) for all those involved in making my meal possible
- Sit at a table with my food and with zero distractions (phones, computers, reading materials, etc.)
- Eat one bite at a time, putting utensils down between each bite
- Chew my food and enjoy the flavors of the individual ingredients
- Maybe enjoy some light conversation, but without losing focus on the task at hand (eating)
When I’m at home, I follow some of these guidelines, but here’s what happens when I’m at work:
- I eat at my desk
- Usually while working on a project
- I often have the next bite in my hand or on my fork before I even start chewing the current bite
- I don’t take time to properly chew or taste the food I’m eating because my attention is elsewhere
- And then I end up mindlessly grazing at the snack drawer a few minutes after a full meal …
Mindful Munchies: Curious Awareness
Well … I end up mindlessly grazing at the snack drawer UNLESS … I take time to stop and pay attention to what I’m doing. If I recall what happened the last time, I’ll remember the physical discomfort and subsequent feelings of shame and failure. And I can say to myself, “Jeez, that didn’t feel very good. Do I really want to do that again?” And maybe I might ask myself, “Waitaminute … am I even hungry? Do I really need to eat again after I just finished lunch 3 and a half minutes ago?”
After these fascinating conversations with myself, which hopefully are happening in silence, I have the unfettered freedom to engage in curious observation. Humans are strange and fascinating creatures, myself included. What I might see is that my craving for peanut M&Ms and caramel-filled dark chocolates is just a series of interesting physical sensations. If, for whatever reason, I decide that I truly am still hungry, I can calmly walk to the drawer, open it slowly, and take out a handful of raw almonds. Unlike Lays potato chips, it’s possible to eat just a few raw almonds and be done.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just don’t have the patience or the discipline to mindfully sidestep cravings for unhealthy snacks. When this happens, I know I’ll likely feel bloated, lethargic and grumpy (a Grumpy Grumby!). But, after I go through the cycle I don’t have to beat myself up. It’s best to say, “Whoopsidaisies!”, and move on.
What’s important when we fall down is that we get back up gracefully and that we learn something from our blunders. When possible, maybe we can even laugh at our foibles.
Mindful Consumption is a Versatile Discipline
So, what does all this nonsense about snack drawers and Aunt Margaret’s dessert platter have to do with personal finance? Consider, if you will, some of the ways in which we consume. We:
- put foodstuffs and beverages in our mouths
- buy things
- watch TV
- read books and other printed media
- surrender our brains to a variety of computer screens
- absorb the energy of the people we spend time with
When we pay attention to any of these processes of consumption, we activate our ability to make choices. If we detect decisions and behaviors that are not helpful, every moment offers an opportunity to change course. We might, for example:
- eat a healthful meal and enjoy a modest dessert afterward
- spend less money on instant gratification and save more money so we can retire early
- eliminate screen time that fosters fear, anxiety, and fruitless outrage
- read books, blogs, etc. that inspire and build actionable knowledge
- spend time with people who are kind and positive
Good Habits Beget Good Habits
The more time we dedicate to developing good habits through curious observation and follow-up behavior adjustments, the more likely we are to gravitate toward even more ways to improve our lives and become better people.
What Are Your Tips and Tricks for Forgoing the Festive Feeding Frenzy?
When you have an abundance of unhealthy snacks within easy reach, how do you make sure to enjoy them in moderation?