Most first responders don’t understand, or even know of, the concept of mindful eating. Most of us eat what we can, when we can. It’s the nature of our work. A meal happens in minutes or less. I’ve personally seen some impressive man-sized helpings shoveled in so fast it would cross the eye of cyclops. I’ve been told Marines eat like this for years. I’m no Marine myself, but I’ve known many (my father included) who have mastered the skill of eating without tasting.
I won’t venture much into how unhealthy this is for our bodies. I think we can probably all agree that it is. Particularly as we grow older (or wiser, for those who take offense to being old), this causes quite a bit of abdominal discomfort. What about the carbo crash to come and nodding off 30 minutes after chow-time?
Enter Mindful Eating
So what is mindful eating? It’s the opposite, basically, of what we’ve been doing all along. Because first responders eat so quickly, the body doesn’t have time to tell your brain or belly (possibly the same place in men), “Okay, that’s enough! You’re full.” So we grossly over eat at almost every sitting in our work settings, not sure of when we will be interrupted or called away. We simply ignore or fail to listen to what our senses are telling us all together.
Taste, smell, touch, audio, visual—the same ones we usually talk about in mindfulness as our moment-to-moment daily living experience. We forget how much pleasure comes with eating. We eat, digest, and, uh, purge. And yet, men especially, tended to spend more time on the purge than we do at the table.
The first step is simply to slow down. This alone can have a huge impact.
Perfect example is a buddy of mine who happens to share my first name (but he misspells it every time). So this dude has always been just a hell of a big man. At well over 6-feet tall, with a large frame, he was lovingly called “Big Shaun.” (I was just plain old “Shawn.”) This guy was not slim, but he wasn’t grossly obese either. Just a house of a fellow. Well Big Shaun changed jobs and within a year or two he was a lot less of a big man. Still had the large frame and all, but he lost his fat. When I asked him what he had been doing to lean out some, he simply replied, “I’ve slowed down.”
So I was like, “Oh ya mean on eating buffets and small children or what?”
“Nope,” he said, “I just slowed down the pace I eat at. That’s it.”
So while he may or may not have known what mindful eating was, he slowed down and it had a life-changing effect. Again, slowing down is the first, crucial step.
There’s a little more to mindful eating than just that, though. You might want to try this simple but healthy way at enjoying your food in a more mindful means. The healthy benefits for your body and mind will follow naturally.
Mindful eating would be:
Allowing yourself to become aware of the nutrition and or opportunities—including food selection and preparation;
Using all the senses in choosing foods that will both satisfy you and best nourish the body;
Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes, or neutral) without predetermined judgement (i.e., things you didn’t enjoy as a child you may enjoy as adult); and
Becoming more aware of the physical sensations of hunger, satisfaction, and so forth, to guide you in decision-making of when to start and stop eating.
Following are some of the intentions to bring to your mindful eating practice.
There is no right way or wrong way to eat, but noticeably varying degrees of awareness surrounding the experience of eating or food in general;
Accept that eating experiences are just as unique as other experiences in life;
Choose to direct or focus your attention to eating on a moment-to-moment basis;
Gain awareness in making choices that will support health and well-being; and
Acknowledge the multitude of connections that impact our choices and availability in food and enjoyment in nourishment, including farms, farmers, agricultural and cultural practices, the animals, fish, and critters we harvest for meat.
As you eat, ask yourself this question: How will this food help me become more aware of “this experience” and consciously appreciate the nourishment the oceans, rivers, and plants provide?
Writing down and saving your first attempts at mindful eating will help you keep track of your progress. You’ll be surprised at how well your body responds and the multitude of feedback you’ve previously ignored. Kids are an inspiration when it comes to this. Their minds are wide open and thirsty.
When you’re thirsty—drink water. The evidence is clear: Many of us are chronically dehydrated. I attribute that in large part to inattention to our body’s cues. Have water around you always. I am particularly concerned about this given the prevalence of so-called energy drinks (dehydrating) I see in our ranks. Water is life! And the peer-reviewed scientific literature substantiates this: hydration kills headaches, back pain, arthritis, bladder cancer, irritability, and more.
Eating is one of life’s great pleasures. Or it should be. I know the challenges of being a first responder. I also know how bad habits learned on the job bleed over into our personal lives. The results can be deadly.
Slow down. Take note. Enjoy.
You’ll be better for it.