Want to cut calories without cutting out all your favorites? Learn to pay attention – real attention – to food
A few years ago, I was working on my laptop, developing a new workshop program, when one of my favorite series of all time came on TV — Pride and Prejudice (the one starring Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, although let’s be frank: Is there any other?). So I nestled into the couch, preparing to divide the next six hours between my work and Jane Austen’s most absorbing hero (the only man for whom I might consider giving up chocolate, if he asked me — but Darcy wouldn’t do that).
Unfortunately, writing the outline turned out to be so hard, it grabbed all my attention. Instead of diving into the Regency saga that virtually invented sexual tension, I ended up slogging my way through reams of research. By the time Lizzy Bennet was riding off in her carriage as Mrs Darcy, my workshop was as well-planned as D-day, but I felt as if I’d been cheated. I’d had the world’s most romantic story right in front of me, and I’d missed it.
This is the way most of us eat every day. The food is right there, but because we’re busy doing other things, we miss it. We chew, we swallow, but we don’t experience the taste of the food, the delight of it. And then, because we missed the best parts, we go back for more. And more.
People tell me all the time that they love food. They love the taste, the smell, the feeling in their mouths. But the truth is, when you love something, you pay attention to it. When you love something, you take time with it. And most of us don’t pay attention to our food.
Think about all the ways you miss the pleasures of food because you’re multitasking or otherwise distracting yourself: eating while you’re cooking, reading, watching TV, or standing at the refrigerator door deciding what you want to have; sampling the kids’ leftovers, the interesting tidbits on your partner’s plate, the broken cookies on the counter at work (no, it is not true that once cookies are broken, all the calories escape).
And then there’s eating while pretending to do something else. You walk by a cake. You see that some thoughtless person has taken a crooked slice. Now it’s up to you to even things out. You edge one side and eat the thin, leftover shaving. Then you see that the other side is crooked too. Conscious of your responsibility to cake aesthetics, you edge that side and eat the shaving. Before long, half the cake is gone. But you never really decided to cut yourself a slice, so it doesn’t count as eating.
This is no way to treat cake. If you dearly love food, why do you rob yourself of all the delight and satisfaction it brings you by not paying attention to how it tastes and feels? Why do you doom yourself to want more, more, more of something when you could have been pleased with less, if only you’d been present for it?
In my workshops, we do an exercise on paying real attention to food. Everyone gets a small cup containing two raisins, a corn chip, and a small piece of chocolate. Everyone looks at the cup. They look at me. They look back at the cup. “One corn chip? Are you kidding? I ate more than this when I was 2 days old,” said a woman at one workshop.
Giggles and snickers.
“OK,” I say, “I know this is a very small amount of food, but let me ask you: Do you remember the last time you actually tasted one raisin?”
One woman says, “I’ve never eaten just one raisin. Raisins are meant to be eaten in bulk.”
Everyone nods their heads. Then we proceed with the exercise.
First they pick up the corn chip. They smell it. They look at it closely. They take a small bite and notice what the chip feels like in their mouths. Then I ask them to comment on their experiences.
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