Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Chocolate beignets and mindful eating

I've written about mindful eating in a previous post, but the concept seems to be gaining some traction these days, as I'm finding more and more articles discussing this philosophy in recent months, so I thought I'd revisit the issue.  I read this article titled Think as you eat to get more from less from the Detroit Free Press, where the mindful eating philosophy is explained in a way that makes it clear that it is a close cousin to Intuitive Eating.

One of the ideas discussed in the article that is also an important principle of intuitive eating is that eating should be pleasurable, and that once you notice that you are no longer deriving pleasure from the eating experience, you should stop.  As the article asks: "Ever notice that the 10th bite of cake never matches the taste of those first few?"  You might not realize this subtle decline in pleasure if you're distracted and not fully present while eating, and you may just keep on eating unconsciously.  Practicing mindful and intuitive eating, however, allows you to stop eating a food you never thought you would be able to put down because you are able to acknowledge the point at which the experience of eating it is no longer satisfying to you.

This reminds me of a mindful/intuitive eating experience I had recently that made me feel really good.  My husband and I were eating at a restaurant in San Francisco called Brenda's French Soul Food, and we ordered some chocolate beignets, which are basically fancy donuts filled with melted chocolate (I'm salivating just thinking about them!).  They arrived warm and doughy, with a slightly crisp exterior.  I bit into one and I swear I saw God.  Okay, maybe that's exaggerating...but it was definitely a party in my mouth!  Seriously, I could hardly speak (and it wasn't just because my mouth was full of chocolatey, doughy goodness!)!

The experience of eating the beignet continued like this until I was about halfway way through finishing it, and then I started to notice that it wasn't doing it for me anymore.  Yes, it was still good, but that initial wave of pleasure that I had felt upon my first few bites was no longer there, and it felt like I was just going through the motions to finish it.  Because I was so present, or mindful, while eating the beignet, I decided to acknowledge this feeling and put it down.  I sort of surprised myself when I did this, and it felt great!  Because of this, rather than remembering how full and sick I felt from indulging in such a rich, heavy food, instead I remember how wonderful each and every bite tasted, and I have only positive memories of the experience.  And I never got to the point of feeling sick or overstuffed, because I put it down before that could ever happen.

I can't say I always eat mindfully, but I've been trying to do it more lately, because it really does feel great.  Can you think of a time when you've eaten mindfully?  Do you think this is something you could do at least most of the time when you eat?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Organic and "clean label" food choices made simple

One question I've often been asked, and something I myself have been figuring out over the past few years, is how big a role organic foods should play in our diets. Because I try to avoid black and white thinking ("this is good for you, this is bad for you"), I try not to let myself be overly concerned or obsessive about eating only organic foods. In fact, this obsession with organic foods or so-called "healthy" foods is considered by some to be an eating disorder in and of itself, called orthorexia (here's an interesting article about orthorexia from the Huffington Post). 

First of all, I should start with a little introduction about what organic means.  When something is stamped "Certified Organic," it means that the USDA has inspected the farm or facility where the food item was produced, and confirmed that it complies with the guidelines necessary for organic certification.  This means a whole list of things, including the fact that synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, genetic engineering, and sewage sludge (umm...eww!) may not be used in the production of the food item.  It's important to note that "organic" and "natural" are not synonymous, so don't be fooled by this tricky labeling tactic!  "Natural", according to the USDA (explained here) means that the product is minimally processed and does not contain artificial ingredients.  However, this only applies to the processing of meat and egg products, so there are no standards or regulations in place for any other type of product that makes this label claim. In other words, a product labeled "natural" may or may not actually mean that it's minimally processed, because there's no regulation of this whatsoever! Those tricky bastards!

When it comes to making food choices, I try to do my best without getting too obsessed with it.  While I feel that it's definitely important to be aware of what you're putting in your body, I also understand that eating small amounts of processed or not-so-organic foods will not kill me, and that stressing about it will probably do more harm than eating them.  One thing I've been trying to do lately is look for foods with "clean labels."  This means checking out the ingredients label and avoiding ones that are excessively long and contain ingredients that are hard to pronounce, sound "chemical-y", or say things like "hydrogenated."  Instead, I look for foods with a short list of ingredients that I can actually recognize as real food items.

Wow! That's a lot of ingredients! And what the heck is sodium stearoyl lactylate?!

This is more like it! Any of these items could potentially be found in your pantry.

Again, I try not to get too obsessed with the whole organic thing, because I realize that eating a few highly-processed, long-ingredient-labelled foods won't immediately make me unhealthy.  Basing your diet heavily on these items (as many Americans seem to be doing these days), however, can certainly be detrimental to your health, as our bodies are much more adept at processing real, whole foods, than they are at breaking down foods with chemicals or ingredients that are modified in a lab.

So, where do you go from here?  I would recommend starting by taking a critical look at the ingredient labels of the foods you buy, avoiding those with crazy long lists of hard-to-pronounce ingredients, and opting for those with ingredients you can actually recognize.  Next, I would start buying the organic versions of foods that are known to be heavily processed or that contain higher amounts of pesticides, including meat and poultry, as well as certain fruits and vegetables.  Buying organic meat and poultry assures that the animals are fed what they should be, aren't given hormones or unnecessary antibiotics, and are treated more humanely.  These products also contain higher amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids and are just generally healthier for you, as well as for the environment.  As for fruits and vegetables, beware of the "Dirty Dozen", which are those known to contain higher amounts of pesticides (and not ones you can wash off!).  Below you'll see the Dirty Dozen list, which are items that you should try to always buy organic, as well as the Clean 15, which are fruits and vegetables that are lowest in pesticides, and therefore not necessary to buy organic.

Making these simple changes-- buying "clean label" foods, opting for organic meat and poultry, and choosing the organic versions of foods on the "Dirty Dozen" list-- can have a real impact on your health.  I also like to think of my organic purchases as a "vote" for retailers to carry more of these types of items-- the more people "vote" for these kinds of foods, the higher the demand will be, and the lower the prices.  Also, buying at local farmer's markets is a great way to get quality produce (sometimes not "certified organic" because it's rather expensive for some small farms to get this certification, but you can ask the farmer directly about the use of pesticides) at reasonable prices, while supporting your local economy at the same time.

The take home message is this: "Healthy" eating, whether you're talking about fat and sugar content, "clean labels", or organic foods, doesn't have to be all or nothing.  Making small changes and trying to make the bulk of your diet come from whole, minimally-processed foods should be the goal, and small amounts of packaged, processed foods can have a place in a well-balanced diet without adversely affecting your health.