From Mindless to Mindful Eating

I spoke with a friend earlier regarding his transformation from an unhealthy, overweight, and sedentary individual to just the opposite several years later. And he’s never looked back. It’s interesting to probe people’s psyches in the context of their health and wellness pursuits; I find myself on a perpetual search for the why’s and the how’s. What drives a person’s change in behavior? Often, a sentinel event triggers the transformation, a stroke or a heart attack, for example, but not with Brian. He recalls seeing the “specter of aging” one morning – 38 years into his life – as he looked into the mirror. And it stared straight back at him. I’d heard the why story many times before, albeit with less eloquence [Brian has an encyclopedic command of the English language as a Latin major in college.] and, quite frankly, was more interested in how he made the necessary lifestyle changes. In other words, what major steps had he taken to improve his health?

What he said resonated: “I just became conscious of what I was eating.” Conscious? As if people eat in a state of unconsciousness. Well, they do. And it underpins the obesity epidemic in this country. You see, most people give little thought to what they put in their mouths. They instinctually scour menus for foods with the highest potential to spike dopamine in the brain. It’s pleasure-seeking behavior. It’s emotional. It’s the product of disordered thought, noisiness, or brain “entropy” (randomness), as Csikszentmihalyi termed it in his bestseller, Flow. And that’s what Brian was describing. It wasn’t that he was unaware that his food choices were unhealthy. He just allowed the foods to dictate his behavior – drug addicts will kill for their next line of cocaine, right? – instead of the other way around. Eating was “unconscious,” therefore, like a habit. Brian was unconscientious of it.

Enter Csikszentmihalyi again. In Flow, he speaks of being present or conscious during your life as a prescriptive method of deriving happiness from all situations. Of creating happiness, in good times and in bad, and using all our senses to do this, including taste. Contextually, this is portrayed as an appreciation of fine foods. Of the pursuit of the gustatory experience as one of the many conscious means to find happiness. Csikszentmihalyi points out that most of us fail to appreciate this – and our potential for joy – as we do the sound of classical music or the robust interplay of colors in a Rembrandt. And what about way silence “sounds”? It’s meditative and happy. It’s the 5 AM stillness at a lake house that most of us don’t acknowledge…

But Brian did. He brought food into consciousness and became conscientious of his food not in the appreciatory manner that Csikszentmihalyi describes but regarding his choice of food. He became less enticed by the idea of the imminent dopamine surge – what humans perceive as pleasure – and more enchanted by the macronutrient signaling of a broccoli floret. Well, not really. He just knew that broccoli was good for him and asked more probing, science-minded questions later. His food choices became motivated by the downrange goal of health, not by emotion. They were no longer mindless. Ordered were his thoughts. Less entropic was his brain. This is the flow state described by Csikszentmihaly. It’s a meditative mindset, not one derailed by the smell of a Burger King cheeseburger, a play to our emotional centers. The “new” Brian walks right by the storefront, unfazed by the wafting order and the all-too-familiar red and orange BK logo. These are just temporary distractions now, mere noise amidst the gustatory flow signal, designed to entice the unconscious public.

So, wake up.