Chef Gloria Craft slips the blindfold over my eyes and guides me to a chair. "Once I start feeding you, I'm not going to speak until we're done," she says. Silence. Darkness. My senses reach for anything. A soft breeze against my face. The swoosh and scrape of utensils against containers. Craft's rustling stops, and it feels as if she and the table in front of me have vanished. Then it comes. The first scent slides down my nasal passages and explodes in the back of my throat.
I lean forward and take a deep whiff. A bitter tang followed by something earthy and full. My tongue swells with it. And then, much to my surprise, strains of sweetness.
Garlic. My old friend. I never knew. Awakening the senses, whether through intentional exercises or a moment of silence and a slow breath before meals, can lead to healthier eating habits, experts say. "We become sated when we slow down and our senses get their just reward," says Craft, who teaches conscious-cooking workshops
This concept may sound too good to be true, but there's data to back it up. On a cognitive level, our senses play an important role in our feeling satisfied when we eat, which may lead to eating less, says Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., a food psychologist and sensory researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. At the start of a meal, Pelchat explains, paying attention to flavor can trigger the appetite, but as we continue to eat, the reverse becomes true: Slowing down to smell the nutty ferment of warm barley or noticing the cool juice of a ripe pear helps you realize that you've had enough.
But daily life rarely lends itself to such moments. In the bustle of a typical day, it's easy to eat mindlessly. When we don't pay attention to how our food tastes or smells, the body can be full and yet not feel satisfied, explains Pelchat. As a result, we go looking for more.
Below are two ways to eat more mindfully, followed by exercises that will re-engage your senses to help you enjoy food more, while eating less of it.
1. Wake up the Tastebuds: Craft's first order of business is to reawaken her clients' sense of taste. Enter the blindfold. Sight crowds out the other senses. "Shutting off the visual allows your senses of smell and taste to be awakened," she says. During the exercise, Craft follows the opening aroma of garlic with a cleansing whiff of vinegar and then begins feeding me small bites of food in what amounts to a culinary adventure. There's agave nectar, sweet and wet, then a piece of umeboshi, a Japanese pickled plum that rings both salty and sour as it squishes into my tongue. The foods aren't exotic -- I cook with many of them -- but removed from their usual backdrop (children squealing, phone ringing, NPR playing), their flavors, textures, and smells come alive. "It creates more of an imprint, more of a memory if you just give over," says Craft. At one point, I feel almost dizzy with sensation.
2. Pre-Meal Pause: Craft recommends bringing your body to a complete stop in order to shift to a more peaceful, appreciative energy. Sit for a few moments with your eyes closed and your food in front of you, she says. Let the smells rise up. Take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to be grateful.
This conscious pause goes a long way toward preventing "automatic eating," says Alison Shore Gaines, a yoga teacher and nutrition consultant who leads mindful-eating retreats at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, and other sites across the country. During a meal, she recommends tuning in to the smells, colors, tastes, and textures of the foods on your plate, like it's your first time trying them. When you take a bite of avocado, say, concentrate on the way it slides against your teeth, and feel how your mouth reacts. Then chew slowly and thoroughly. And take in the sensory stimuli around you -- the breeze through your kitchen window, the flicker of candlelight, the rise and fall of conversation.
by Celina Ottaway
Exercise 1: Tasting for Two
With a partner, try this exercise adapted from Gloria Craft's work.
1. Choose 5-10 organic foods of varying flavors and textures, such as agave nectar, pitted olives, chipotle-lime chips, avocado, chocolate, and orange pieces.
2. Decide who will be the feeder and who will be the taster. The taster leaves the room. The feeder lines up food samples in small containers on a table, along with a glass of spring water, a clove of peeled garlic speared on a toothpick, and a capful of raw, apple-cider vinegar.
3. The feeder blindfolds the taster, leads her into the room, and helps her sit in front of the table. Without speaking, the feeder waves the garlic under the taster's nose for about 10 seconds, gives her a sip of water, waves the vinegar under her nose, and gives another drink.
4. The feeder places the first bit of food on the taster's lips, allowing her to experience it for 10 seconds, and then gives the taster a sip of water. The feeder alternates samples and water, allowing plenty of time between tastes.
5. Switch roles, and begin again.
Exercise 2: Sensory Meditation
This meditation was adapted from conscious-eating expert Allison Shore Gaines.
1. Arrange a plate with two pear slices, two almonds, two cashews, and a pile of raisins. Sit down and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths, imaging you're filling your lungs from the bottom to the top. As you exhale, note what you're feeling (including your level of hunger) and relax into it.
2. Tune in to your senses. What do you smell and hear? How does the seat feel underneath you? Open your eyes and note the colors on the plate. Then pick up the plate and smell each food. Set down the plate and breathe.
3. Pick up the food that most appeals to you. Note how it feels in your hand. Take a small bite. Note how it tastes when it touches your mouth. How does the taste change as you chew? Chew thoroughly. Then swallow and pick a different food. Continue, slowly, until you've tasted all the foods.