The phrase “feast or famine” describes how I used to relate to food. As a kid, on the special occasions I was treated to my favorite dishes, I would compulsively eat it like it was my last meal on earth. If no one was watching me, I would eat the entire family sized amount all by myself. I would eat until I was so full, I couldn’t move and felt like I could die from bursting.
My entire life, I have had an irrational fear of running out of food. In hindsight, I suspect this fear and these compulsive eating tendencies could be linked to my family escaping from Vietnam when I was about six months old. I starved for several days when our boat ran out of food and experienced a long period of malnutrition during the one and a half years we lived in refugee camps in Indonesia before we were resettled in the United States.
As I grew older, I developed more self-control and realized my favorite foods were not disappearing. Being surrounded by an abundance of food meant that I did not have to gorge on them like there was no tomorrow. Furthermore, getting sick from overeating enough times forced me to learn the capacity of my stomach.
However, all these lessons flew out the window during the holidays. Something about the combination of holiday music and decorations, cold weather and snow, the rareness of gathering so many loved ones together, the specialness of holiday foods, having over-indulgence be socially sanctioned, and not wanting to waste any food would lead me to eat double, triple, or quadruple my normal meal size.
Learning mindfulness changed everything by helping me understand the difference between eating mindlessly and eating mindfully. See table below.
The key to mindful eating is to be able to observe when my mindless eating habits start to kick in and then consciously choose to come back to the mindful eating practice. If while eating, I start to multi-task — meaning watching TV, doing work, or thinking about something else — my autopilot will naturally take over the process of eating, activating hardwired eating habits so my mind can do something else. The only way to not eat on autopilot is to actually pay attention and be present for every step of the eating process.
Mindful eating helps us develop our capacity for interoception, which can be broadly defined as the ability to sense signals originating within the body and also interpret them. Basically, interoception enables us to answer the question “How do I feel?” The interoceptive system is made of special nerve receptors that enable us to sense and assess our physiological condition by tuning in to internal vital signs, such as respiration, heart rate, hunger, thirst, and the need to use the bathroom, as well as our energy levels and emotional state.