Think of your favourite food. Picture the way it looks, the different smells that come to mind. Imagine the way it feels as you take your first bite and the flavours that overwhelm your senses. Is your mouth watering or your stomach rumbling? That feeling is called the ‘Cephalic Phase Response’ – the chemical response from your brain that begins the digestion process. If metabolic activity can be stimulated by just thinking about delicious food, just imagine the effect of being completely focused while eating it.
Receptors in the mouth and nose stimulate digestion when food is smelt, tasted and chewed. Being fully aware of this process increases production of digestive enzymes and increases blood flow to the stomach and gut tract to prepare for break down of the food. An overwhelming 30-40% of metabolic activity comes from this Cephalic Phase Response. So directing attention away from the eating processing by watching TV or talking the phone as your eat reduces metabolic efficiency to 60%.
This is essentially mindful eating. Mindfulness is a bit of a buzz-word at the moment. The practice of focusing on the present and being completely in the moment is nothing new – buddhist monks have been reaping it’s benefits for hundreds of years. I’ve written about mindfulness eating in previous posts, but I thought it was time to reiterate how incredibly powerful this tool can be.
New scientific research into the cephalic phase response further emphasis how focusing attention on a meal can completely alter the digestive mechanisms in your body. In one study, participants were given a mineral drink and the level of nutrient absorption in the small intestine was monitored. Some were asked to simply sit after drinking while others were asked to concentrate on two conversations at a time, one speaking about time travel and the other speaking about economics. Those who were relaxed digested the drink at 100%. Those who listened to the two conversations took an hour longer to metabolise the whole drink. This just shows how attending to things unrelated to your meal can use up valuable cognitive resources and decrease your metabolic rate. Each time you eat while sending emails at work or watching TV, you are assimilating your food at the minimal level.
For the brain and body to fully digest optimally, they must be aware of exactly what is being eaten. Have you ever wolfed down some food only to feel completely unsatisfied and like you could eat it all over again. This happens because the brain doesn’t register the food, so doesn’t adjust hunger signals in an appropriate way. So the brain still thinks you’re hungry and causes you to carry on eating more than you intended or needed. It’s been argued that food addiction or over eating isn’t a willpower disorder, but an issue of awareness that hinders the cephalic phase response from doing what it’s supposed to. This is where mindfulness comes into play – being fully focused on your tasks decreases hunger and improved metabolic rate. But being mindful doesn’t just improve digestion, it enhances the entire food experience.
Given these potential benefits, I challenge you to take a leap into mindful eating, starting with the raisin experiment. It really demonstrates how much we are missing when you scoff down a meal in a matter of seconds whilst sending a snapchat, watching house of cards and chatting to our housemates at the same time. This is one of the first practices they teach when learning mindfulness. It encourages you to mindfully eat a single raisin by really focusing on all the sensory experiences your body is undergoing.
- Grab a raisin – just one – or a similar dried fruit, if raisins aren’t your thing.
- Sit comfortably.
- It’s time to wrap your senses round your raisin. Look at it. Really see it. What do you notice? Can you see its texture? What about the bumps and lumps? Is it shiny?
- Have a sniff. What does it smell like? Let your fingertips really feel the shape and texture. Allow yourself to become fully absorbed in the experience.
- If your mind wanders during this experience, just allow it to be gently guided back to your raisin.
- After a few minutes, pop the raisin in your mouth – but it’s not time to chew yet! Spend a little while focussing on what it feels like in your mouth, with your tongue and your teeth.
- Then, when you’re ready, take a bite. Have a good chew. Notice the full experience of the raisin’s flavour – how it builds in your mouth. How incredibly sweet it is.
- When you have swallowed the raisin, you’ll notice you can still taste it for a while.
The creator of this experiment and general mindfulness guru, Mark Williams, spoke at a panel organised by Meeting of Minds – a committee I help to run to encourage students to talk about mental health. He described mindfulness as ‘life point 2’ and I couldn’t agree more. Although used as a therapeutic technique, mindfulness isn’t just a self-help tool but a way to genuinely enhance your everyday experiences.Have a go and try something new… it’ll probably be the best raisin you’ve ever had!
Here’s a recipe for cauliflower tots – a healthier version of potato tots you can MINDFULLY snack on or serve as a great canapés.
1 cup breadcrumbs
Handful chopped parsley
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (optional)