• Mindful eating can be adapted for faith-based eating guidelines, believes nutritionist Fiona Sutherland. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Happy Mindful Eating Day. This annual event, held on 26 January, is observed by people around the world who want to create a positive relationship between their food and bodies.
Elizabeth Sutherland

24 Jan 2017 - 1:54 PM  UPDATED 27 Jan 2017 - 8:59 AM

'Mindful' is one of the nutrition buzzwords of this decade.

It’s easy to see why, when many people in wealthy countries like Australia are dealing with the seemingly paradoxical situation of abundant fast food and increasing pressure to take personal responsibility for our health through nutritional choices.

On top of this, concerns about animal rights, the environment, working conditions and even cultural appropriation are sparking a new focus on food ethics.

Yet, cooking shows, farmer’s markets, salted caramel cronuts and organic cold brew coffee are booming, as Australians show no signs of letting go of our foodie obsessions. If anything defines the current discourse about food, nutrition and health, it’s probably confusion.

On 26 January, Mindful Eating Day, an annual event organised by the US-based Centre for Mindful Eating, will be observed by people around the world who are looking for inspirational ways to have a positive relationship with food and their bodies.

One solution to the mixed messages and confusing trends is the mindful eating approach.

On 26 January, Mindful Eating Day, an annual event organised by the US-based Centre for Mindful Eating, will be observed by people around the world who are looking for inspirational ways to have a positive relationship with food and their bodies.

Some nutritionists who use a non-diet approach will be participating through social media groups and discussions. Proponents of mindful eating such as the Moderation Movement advise that we let go of externally imposed rules in favour of listening to the cues our bodies give us about what we are eating.

While religious dietary laws might seem outdated to many, there are moves to make them more relevant to the modern world.

For some, the philosophy is related to a Buddhist notion of staying in the present moment. Engaging the senses in the experience of eating is important for mindfulness; eating in front of the TV, while driving, or when too focused on negative emotions is discouraged.

It’s easy to see how this could be a very useful approach for wellbeing, as the tendency to over-indulge in drive-thru snacks on a long commute or to eat past fullness whilst distracted by screens are habits that could leave us feeling bloated and disconnected with ourselves. On the other hand, paying attention to hunger and satiety and selecting foods for enjoyment could mean that more meals are prepared at home and savoured slowly.

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Mindfulness is not something that works as an approach if you are trying to use it to change your body or if it just becomes another set of restrictive rules, though, says nutritionist Fiona Sutherland of Body Positive Australia.

“Mindful eating, which can also be called intuitive eating or body-led eating, is almost the polar opposite of a weight loss diet, with a diet you are asked to count or monitor. Mindful eating invites people to pay attention to body-led cues,” Sutherland says.

It’s a compassionate approach to eating, which can help people to heal from eating disorders develop confidence in their capacity to nourish their own bodies in a healthy way and to enjoy the pleasures of eating with family and friends.

increase our capacity to eat mindfully

However, perhaps some of us feel we need rules and regulations in our lives, and it could be that seeking the perfect diet regime is part of that. One nutritionist, Kerry Beake, writes that “food has now become the new religion. We have seen people abandon organised religion in the last few decades and yet it appears that people are still hungry for something they can belong to, a place that offers rituals and rules they can follow.”

But not all of us have abandoned religion - and plenty of religions come with built-in rules about how to live and also, how to eat. Is it possible to eat mindfully and also practise a religious tradition? Sutherland says that it is, so long as you avoid an overly dogmatic approach, and try not to focus on fasting and restrictions so heavily that it is a risk to your physical or psychological health.

“Mindful eating can certainly be adapted for faith-based eating guidelines,” Sutherland says. “Some of my clients have had really positive experiences working with their faith leaders to find ways that they can honour both their faith and honour the individual needs of their body."

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In my home, we choose to observe some of the laws of Kosher as part of our Jewish practice. Jews around the world vary greatly in their adherence to Kosher - from those who eat only Glatt Kosher food (a term that’s come to mean very strict adherence to religious dietary laws) to those who’d think nothing of eating a cheeseburger -- so it’s very hard to give a useful definition of kosher.

However, like Halal, avoiding pork is the central food rule. Many Jews also avoid shellfish and don’t mix meat and milk at the same meal.

Additionally, there are dietary rules during the festival of Pesach and there is a 25-hour fast on Yom Kippur. As with the Muslim fast of Ramadan and the Christian period of Lent, there are a range of levels of observance and different rules and exemptions. Basically, religious dietary laws can be complicated and they can make shopping, cooking, eating out and sharing food with friends trickier.

They can, though, increase our capacity to eat mindfully. In many religions, expressing gratitude for food is an important part of any meal. Pausing  to relish just how lucky I am to have food readily available and to honour the origins of what I eat is both a religious practice and a mindful eating habit.

Religious dietary laws can seem restrictive and even arbitrary, but they are also illuminating and comforting. Food is such an important cultural expression and choosing to eat in particular ways can stimulate a feeling of belonging and togetherness. The frantically cheerful queue at the Kosher baker on a Friday afternoon when everyone is trying to get their challah loaves before closing is certainly a communal experience!

Is it possible to eat mindfully and also practise a religious tradition? 

While religious dietary laws might seem outdated to many, there are moves to make them more relevant to the modern world.

Eco-Kosher is a new movement, embraced by Jews from a religious as well as secular position, which promotes the idea that we should be responsible to the environment and be mindful of what we consume.

The laws of Kosher helped ancient rural peoples feel connected to the earth and to eat safely and communally. Eco-kosher principles are designed to update that idea; to consider how we use precious resources such as fossil fuels and water to produce food, and to consider the welfare of animals and workers as part of a broader commitment to ethical living.

Whether mindful eating is a religious or ethical pursuit, or one based on striving for individual wellbeing, it can be a useful answer to the confusing messages about eating.

The fact is that in countries like Australia, many of us are blessed by abundance.

To acknowledge that abundance with gratitude, and to honour our own bodies with food that makes us feel alive and energised, comforted and nourished, is one way to make the most of that privilege, so that we can get on with the work of sharing it.

Elizabeth Sutherland is a Melbourne writer and teacher. Follow her at @MsElizabethEDU

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