The first step toward changing your eating habits is to become aware of what and why you eat. Then your plate, like your life, can be delightfully full. By Lynn Ginsburg and Mary Taylor
The muesli is in the bowl, the banana is sliced, and the first bite is at your lips when you realise that you’re not hungry. So why did you pour milk on those oats? Habit, of course.
We’re all creatures of habit, taking the same route to work each day, going to the same yoga class each week, slipping into the same routine of dinner, dishes, bed each evening. The trouble is, we’re often acting without awareness, at odds with the most basic teaching of yoga: life is infinitely richer when we tap into a conscious awareness of the present moment.
To recognise the unconscious influences on your behavior, it helps to understand the yogic notion of samskara. The Sanskrit word has many translations, but you can think of samskaras as patterns that are reinforced by repetition, the well-worn grooves of thought and behaviour that give rise to habits.
Some of the strongest samskaras are formed around food. Because you eat several times a day, you’ve had countless opportunities to deepen the patterns that determine what, when, where and how much you eat. You may have even consciously trained yourself to see certain foods as good (wholegrain bread) and others as bad (biscuits). By examining your samskaras, you can stop eating out of habit and start recognising what you’re truly hungry for.
Wake Up and Smell the Present
The Buddhist master Nagarjuna called samskaras “the traces of deeds done in the past”. The deepest samskaras are created by acting or thinking in the same ways over and over again. So, for example, if every time you argue with your partner, you drown your sorrows in a pint of ice cream, you’re strengthening the samskara of using food to soothe emotional distress. The more often you do it, the more automatic the behavior becomes. After a while, your hand will reach for the ice cream even if you’re too upset to eat.
A food’s flavour, texture and aroma can provoke intense emotional, physical and mental responses.
A food’s flavour, texture and aroma can provoke intense emotional, physical and mental responses, and unconsciously dictate your behaviour. Walking past a bakery whose yeasty loaves have just come out of the oven can make you salivate at the thought of a thick, warm slice of bread slathered with butter and then cause you anxiety as you consider how quickly that smear of butter goes to your hips.
In an instant, you’ve cycled from joy to dread. Rather than being awake to the vivid reality of the food in front of you, and of your hunger in any moment, you instead evaluate the food according to your own fears or society’s abstract notions about carbs or fats.
No More Food Fights
The way to overcome negative food samskaras is to create positive ones, patterns that lead to freedom and eventually replace or reconstruct the patterns that lead to suffering. This is different from the traditional approach of creating a “good” habit to annihilate the “bad” habit. Using that approach, you’d replace the post-argument ice cream binge with a celery binge. Sure, you’d no longer be filling up on fat and sugar, but you’d still be mindlessly turning to food in a time of crisis instead of being present with the argument and your response.
Your new celery habit might spare you some kilojoules, but if it doesn’t promote the ultimate goal of yoga—moksha, freedom from conditioned existence—it’s still considered a negative samskara. In the yogic approach, you react to old eating patterns with the insight of the present moment. You can banish even the most dreaded of your habits—mindless midnight munching, losing control at the sight of sweets, eating an entire bag of potato chips—with positive samskaras.
Take Time Out
Anything in your day—a happy or a painful event, the smell of an alluring food, even the dinner bell ringing—can trigger a food samskara, and an urgent feeling of must eat now. When it does, hit the pause button and take a moment to consider your habitual response. Say it’s the smell of doughnuts wafting from the conference room. Instead of answering their siren song, wait five minutes. Tune in to your breath to centre yourself. Then scan your body for physical signs of hunger: is your stomach grumbling? Are you really hungry, or just stressed? Or are you feeling the urge to eat strictly out of reflex? By becoming aware of what’s going on with you right in that moment, you won’t respond habitually.
Craving a doughnut? Listen closely to your body to see if you’re really hungry—or stressed.If it’s stress you’re feeling, you’ll probably be more satisfied and fulfilled if you deal with what’s causing the stress than if you eat a doughnut. In fact, eating one might cause you more stress. But let’s say you are hungry. Are you hungry for doughnuts or for something else? Listen closely to your body to see if you can tell what nutrients it craves. Maybe you’d prefer protein, or you need to quench your desire for a little fat, or you want something sweet but not a doughnut.
Of course, after you’ve put the doughnut on hold for five minutes, you may discover you still want it. If you do, eat it with awareness; at every bite, bring your attention to the flavours and to your physical state so you know exactly when your urge has been satisfied and how the doughnut has made you feel. By pausing and bringing consciousness to your physiological hunger and examining the source of your desire rather than eating impulsively, you’ll be on your way to creating a new, positive samskara.
Look Before You Leap
Before exterminating old habits, it’s good to know what they are. To find out, you need to observe them impartially. Don’t try to intervene, just observe. You may discover that your habit of reading while eating distracts you, so you eat long after you’re full. Or you may find that you’re conflicted about whether it’s OK to eat more pasta. Don’t stop yourself, but observe your thoughts: your judgments about how bad carbohydrates are, the nagging feeling that your hunger won’t be satisfied if you don’t have more, your deep gratification as you twirl the last few strands of spaghetti on your fork. You’re pulling old patterns out of the shadows so you can respond with awareness.
Through regular observation, you’ll start to recognise which foods make you feel healthy and satisfied. If more pasta makes you feel heavy and sleepy, you’ll discover you want to eat less of it. If you notice that an extra serving leaves you feeling balanced and happy, then your consciousness has taught you to trust yourself to know when enough is enough.
Eat What You Want
If you have any preconceptions about food, they will most certainly get in the way of creating new patterns. For instance, if you go to extremes to avoid all high-fat foods because you think all fats are unhealthy, you’re reinforcing the negative samskara of habitually categorising foods. If you crave olives, say, but refuse to eat them because of a fear of fats, you’re not honouring what your body needs; you’re just reacting out of habit. Instead, the next time you crave an olive, enjoy it in good conscience, and good consciousness! The feeling of satisfaction that comes from working with your internal guidance system, instead of against it, reinforces the positive samskara.
With a shift in perspective, you can create remarkable changes in your eating, health, and well-being and be on the road to freedom. Let the recipes on the next page challenge your automatic responses and point the way to conscious eating.
Lynn Ginsburg and Mary Taylor are the co-authors of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food, and Spirituality.
Makes 10 slices
If, in your mind, zucchini is always used for savoury meals, this sweet but healthy snack may challenge your assumptions.
3/4 cup plain flour
3/4 cup wholemeal flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
2 medium zucchinis, grated
3/4 cup walnuts
1/3 cup dried cranberries
1. Grease and flour loaf pan. Heat oven to 160°C.
2. Sift together flours, salt, baking soda and cinnamon.
3. In large bowl beat together eggs, oil, sugar and vanilla.
4. Add dry ingredients and beat until well combined.
5. Stir in zucchini, walnuts and cranberries. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 45–60 minutes or until skewer inserted into centre of loaf, comes out clean.
Moroccan Fruit and Vegetable Soup
Fruit in a soup? That’s right. This spicy soup’s flavour is enhanced by banana and pineapple, both standard accompaniments to curry dishes.
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 tsp curry powder
1 tsp cumin
1 parsnip, peeled and diced
1 large sweet potato, peeled
2 carrots, sliced
2 celery stalks, sliced
1/2 ripe fresh pineapple, cut into 2cm cubes
2 ripe bananas, sliced
5 cups vegetable stock
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
chives to garnish
1. In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat. Saute onion and garlic. Add curry powder and cumin and stir for 1 minute. Add vegetables and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften.
2. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer covered, stirring often, until all vegetables are very soft, about 30 minutes.
3. Puree soup and garnish with chives. Serve hot.
Recipes by Julie Hughes