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Eating With a Beginner's Mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki

In our culture we spend a lot of time talking about WHAT to eat, and not as much focus on the HOW of eating. Watch a baby try new foods for the first time and you can learn so much about eating with a beginner's mind. A beginner's mind is something we are born with and later on rediscover on a more conscious level. It is the mind that lets the knowing self fall back and a more curious and willing self emerge. Here are some insights of the last three weeks introducing new foods to Olive.

Variety is instinctual

Olive is like any other baby in that she fixes her attention on color, which is why I try to prepare foods different in color from one another. One day her spoon has red from beets and the next day there's green from spinach. I've noticed she tires of something after I've given it to her three to four times in a row. Instinctually, we like variety on our plate. Most of us don't live in the wild Amazon with exotic plants all around us to forage. In our industrialized world we tend to eat the same thing day after day, missing out on a variety of fruits and vegetables that provides vital nutrition. Variety in the diet has beneficial upstream effects. For example, the Harvard-based Nurses Health Study, one of the largest and longest studies to date, showed eating a variety of fruits and vegetables can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke (1). To improve the variety in your diet, try this exercise (I just took part in this with a nutrition practice group): see if you can eat 50 different foods in one week. If you have a smoothie every morning, that's fine, but you can only count the ingredients in it once.

Forget the spoon and fork

A baby's first utensils are their forefinger and thumb as they develop their "pincer" grasp, learning to shovel food into their mouth. Eating for them is a full on sensory experience. The hands according to Vedic tradition are the most precious organs of action, with each finger representing one of the five elements. Nerve endings at the fingertips are known to stimulate digestion. Using your fingers is a way of signaling to your stomach that you are about to eat. And what better way to practice portion control. Research has shown that you can manage how much you eat by using your hands.

Eat with curiosity

Babies are curious to discover every new food they come in contact with. They sit waiting for the next bite or play with a piece of food in between their fingers. As we age, our senses can dull if we are not in the moment as we eat. We may look for more salt, sugar or fat to peek our interest. In my classes and workshops, it's not uncommon for me to give students a sensory exercise with food. I might have them wear blindfolds and guess what they are eating. Taking away one sense allows another one to become more sensitive. You can simply close your eyes the next time you eat; notice how that changes your sense of taste. Another good exercise is to chew an almond or raisin until it's completely liquid. It may seem like the first time you've ever tasted an almond or raisin.

Practice Hara Hachi Bu

In his bestselling book, The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner writes about lifestyle factors that have promoted the happiest and longest-living populations in the world. Hara Hachi Bu, or the practice of eating until 80% full, is a way of eating that is characteristic of the Okinawan, one of the areas of the world with the greatest centenarians. An instinctive practice of calorie restriction by these people of Japan, babies often exhibit this as well. Olive lets me know she's getting full by looking the other way, putting her fingers in her mouth, or sucking on her tray. If you're not accustomed to stopping before your 80% full, try to remember to take more chews per mouthful; pay attention to your breathing in order to slow your meal down; put your fork down between bites.

Like so many activities we've done over and over again in life, eating is an easy thing to take for granted three times a day (maybe more for some), 365 days a year. The sheer presence babies have with food is enough to remind us that eating can be as nourishing of an experience as we give to it.

1. Hung, H.C., et al., Fruit and vegetable intake and risk of major chronic disease. J Natl Cancer Inst, 2004. 96(21): p. 1577-84.

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