Wednesday, January 12

"Table for One" : The Art of Eating, Alone

These days, with our busy ever-shifting schedules and jam-packed work days, many of us eat at least one meal a day alone- often two. Many of these meals are eaten in the office or workplace, and some of them are eaten at home or in a restaurant of sorts. Even if we live with others or with families, we often don't eat all of our meals with them, either because we don't feel inclined to or because we are all feeling pulled in different directions by our schedules and obligations. Stop for a moment and consider how often you eat alone, and then ask yourself- how you are using that time?

The temptation when eating alone is to immediately seek distraction in the form of something "to do". Because we can't just sit there, eating, ALONE...right? We'll often look for something to read or flip through, something to entertain us and either engage our brains or shut them off such as email, Facebook, blogs online, magazines, or even paperwork for our jobs. If we're at home, we'll often plop down in front of the TV to distract ourselves with whatever shows are on, zoning out as we chew and swallow. What about when we're eating alone in a restaurant without a TV or computer or book nearby? Out comes the cell phone or PDA for some texting or internet surfing, or we dig around for distract ourselves with. And usually, we gobble down these alone meals fairly quickly, because it's not like it's worth spending any time on a simple old everyday meal just for us, right?

But what are we hiding and rushing away from? Is it that uncomfortable to simply sit, alone, and eat our food? Is it that preposterous to let our meal itself, and the act of enjoying it and receiving it, be all the stimulation we need? Well, yes, it can be that uncomfortable and seem first. That's because we aren't used to it, and we are no longer conditioned to view the art of eating as something intimate, pleasureable, and worthy of our full attention, especially when we are eating alone. Why shouldn't you get just as much enjoyment, pleasure, and relaxation out of a meal eaten alone as you do when dining with others or when celebrating a special occasion? Eating is about nourishment including but not limited to the food itself, and in order to get the most out of your meals both physically and emotionally, you need to honor your meal times as a special time in your day for relaxation, reflection, and pleasure; even when eating alone.

It's a well known fact that rushing through a meal by hastily chewing and gulping down your food results in discomfort, gas, bloating, and acid indigestion. But many people aren't aware that this rushed approach to eating actually hinders your ability to digest your food, assimilate your nutrients, and maintain an efficient metabolism. When we're eating fast, the digestive system does not have time to adequately and effectively process what we are taking in so we miss crucial steps of the digestion and assimilation cycle, meanwhile the body receives the message that we are in a state of stress or emergency and responds by releasing stress hormones that trigger a "fight or flight" response, causing the body to pause the metabolism of energy to focus on the "emergency" at hand. That's right: eating fast--> lack of digestion and assimilation --> stress response --> the shut-down of calorie and fat burning.

When we eat in a distracted state, there is a similar effect: our bodies and minds are so interwoven that when we are mentally focusing on something other than the art of eating what is in front of us, our bodies lose focus on the act of digesting, assimilating, and metabolizing our food. While we may think we are master multi-taskers, the fact is that you can't be working on a report on your computer while absent mindedly munching on a sandwich and getting the same level of benefit from that sandwich in terms of digestion and satisfaction as you would if you were eating it slowly and paying attention to the fact that this is your time to refuel, and that it in and of itself deserves to be a priority. When we don't give ourselves the space and attention to emotionally and mentally engage fully with the act of eating, we miss out on a crucial part of the eating experience both physically and emotionally and thus wind up unsatisfied, tired, groggy, and feeling deprived of true enjoyment of our food, resulting in everything from overeating to cravings for sweets and stimulants to an overall disillusion with the pleasure of eating.

There are two parts to the nourishment picture: the nutrients and energy in our food that are absorbed into our bodies, and the emotional and mental satisfaction that comes from deriving pleasure and sensation from the act of eating. Make no mistake: both parts are equally important and both play an equal role in balancing health, weight, and fitness. In truth, they are two parts of a whole: nourishment is not only physical or emotional/mental; it's both, and you can't ignore one or the other. If you're having trouble losing weight or maintaining your energy or you just don't feel well after you eat, ask yourself how you eat as well as what you eat. Whether you are eating by yourself or in a group, focus on actually eating your food and let yourself pay attention and enjoy it. Don't succumb to the temptation to rush through or distract yourself. You do deserve to take your time, relax, chew and swallow, and derive real pleasure from your meal.... every meal... whether you're eating alone or in the company of others. Not only do you deserve it, but you need it in order to effectively digest your food and feel truly satisfied with your experience of eating.

So how about some tips for how to make meal time sacred, relaxed and enjoyable, even when dining alone?

At home:

- Sit at at the table, not on the couch. This is a real meal like any other, even though you're alone. You don't need the TV or computer for company, you can be your own company.

- Make use of simple things that signify "dining" or "special" or "relaxation", such as a cloth napkin, a fancy glass for water, a lit candle, or some background music that makes you happy or relaxed. You may be thinking how silly it sounds, but trust me: creating the environment makes a big difference.

- Say a word of thanks before your meal. This does not have to be a prayer or anything religious. Simply having a moment of gratitude before you receive a gift to yourself puts you in the prime place for effectively using and appreciating that gift.

- Practice getting to know the food that is in front of you. Notice the sight, taste, texture, smell of your food as you are eating. This awareness is very significant to your enjoyment of and therefore satisfaction from and digestion of the meal. As my husband heard somewhere, "you take the first bite with your eyes". Or your nose, or your fingers. Engage in your eating and you'll get so much more from it!

-Breathe. This is so important. Taking deep breaths instantly slows us down, calms us within, and sends the message to the body that there is no emergency and therefore no need to tense up and pause metabolism, not to mention that adequate oxygen is essential for digestion and all other bodily processes.

In The Office or Workplace:

- If you can, leave your work area and take your meal to a common area like a lounge or even better to a park or bench outside, weather permitting. The idea is to get some separation (mentally and physically) from your work space if possible, so that you can focus on your meal.

- If you have to eat at your desk or in your office, pull a chair over to the window if you have one, or at the very least turn away from your computer and resolve to not check email, answer phones, or look through papers during your meal.

- Set aside a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes to eat your meal, and ask that anyone coming in to talk to you about work matters comes back when you're finished. You may feel uncomfortable requesting this, but think about what you're asking: a small window of time to engage in and enjoy one of the ONLY essential things we all NEED to do every day. In that context, it's not too much to ask.

As someone who works mostly from home and generally eats two of my three meals a day alone, I find that some of my best ideas, introspective insights, and refreshing periods of calm come during my meals alone. I have come to value those mealtimes as much as I do eating out with others or having a special meal with my husband. Eating is about fun, pleasure, joy, and sensuality, and you deserve to experience that regardless of the situation. Yes, it does take practice, and commitment, and there are times when it would be easier or more convenient to just grab and go, but that's not what your body wants or what your soul needs, and it isn't going to allow you to lose weight, increase your energy, feel better in your body, and just enjoy yourself. Think about it....we all love to eat, so why not give it the sweet spotlight, even when you're by yourself?

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