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T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies
The Mindful Vegan: Happy, Healthy, Here and Now

Not long ago, I sat down to a meal with a group of friends. Everyone at the table had before them a plate of healthy vegan food – generously provided by the robust buffet at the side of the room. Before I had a chance to take my first bite, one of the people at our table tore into their food in a frenzy – not unlike the ferocity of a lion at their first meal in a week. Shoveling mouthful after mouthful in – well before the previous bite had barely cleared the entrance – I was blindsided by the intensity of this display. I could tell by the glances of others at the table that my reaction was not unique.

My gut response was a complete loss of appetite. As I tend to be reflective in nature, I turned attention inward to get an honest appraisal of the inner experience. With a long – though now distant – history of struggles with food and my weight as I tried one diet regimen after another to get a grip on the problem, the situation resurfaced some of the deep seated scars from my past. I could remember eating meals in this same frenzied fashion. It was always, always associated with a period of restrictive eating, where quantities or types of food – even within my veg guidelines – built up a wall of deprivation-driven tension and obsession with the “free foods” list – the foods that wouldn’t make you fat. And always, always accompanied by painful anxiety – as I measured my plate up against my dietary ideal, preoccupied with the ‘results’ I looked forward to down the road, completely obscuring the pleasure of the present eating moment. So perhaps this person hadn’t had anything decent to eat in a couple of days, and was really hungry? Noting an impulse to judge, I decided to reserve judgment in favor of evaluating eating styles for myself.

As it turned out, the scenario repeated itself at another meal, with the same person, the following day. The introspection this experience inspired gave rise to insights about our collective healthy eating quest – something that I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on until that day.

We seem to be in a perpetual forward lean on our crusade for superior health, a better body, and longevity: the next pound lost, planning the next mile run, the next meal “in compliance.” Yet with all the striving to not die, to live forever – or at least live to 100 – we’re missing the ‘Blue Zone Zeitgeist’: presence, connection, joy, love, and a spaciousness of pleasure around all of it. When it comes to true health, the absence of our real presence – on the walk, at the meal, with others – and ourselves – keeps us from truly experiencing the very satisfaction and happiness we seek. It’s as if meals have become an assembly of items on our healthy-living checklist, as we paddle forward to a perfect-on-the-charts destination.

Yet if we are perpetually on the way to a perfect-health future, when are we going to enjoy it? If we continue to hardwire each eating experience with a ‘food is medicine’ mentality, treating our plate as some sort of pill bottle, it begs the question – why are we so focused on a future? And is there a better way to get healthy results without selling our soul at supper time?

Just as nutrition research has become reductionist – as underscored so brilliantly in Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s Whole – we have done the same thing with health. We’ve become obsessed with the details of diet, spending endless attention to the details of nutrition: whole vs. processed, organic vs. not, low fat vs. not, superfoods and super nutrients, walking vs. running. We figure if we can just get the right combination of elements in place, we’ll have the body, energy, and health we so deeply desire.

Optimal eating and physical activity are not in question here. Rather, attitude and perspective are the elements at which we need to take a closer look. A growing mountain of research tells us that it’s not only what is on our plate and in our exercise plan that makes a difference in health, well-being, and even longevity. It is also the atmosphere within which we engage with these critical tools of healthy living. When we are consciously present with and enjoying our meals, cultivating connection and love in the eating environment and in the bigger picture of our lives, we are far more likely to experience the healthy, happy future toward which we always seem to be striving. The human need for connection, love, and the stress-relieving rewards of being mindfully present are just as strong as our need for sound nutrition and exercise.

Maybe this is not news to you. It’s not as if our need for stress reduction, support, and relationships have not been spoken of before. But maybe now is a good time to open your heart and mind to how these are actually playing themselves out in the context of your life – here, now, today. How many of your meals are you taking in the anticipation of some healthy outcome down the road – yet causing you to miss altogether the full experience and pleasure of eating? How often during the day are you doing something just to get to something else – “when I finish my exercise, then I can…when the dishes are done, then I’ll be able to…after lunch I can…”

6 tips for being healthier, happier, here and now

  1. Spend time in nature. Unequivocally the big healer.
  2. Move your body. Think physical activity rather than exercise, and gain the benefits of movement that are bigger than a stronger body and a healthy heart: a better brain.
  3. Spend time moving your body in nature. Synergy is created when we combine physical activity and a natural environment.
  4. Be present at your next meal. You don’t have to put your fork down between bites, sit at a table with quiet music and nice dishes, or chew each bite 37 times. Simply be present with experience unfolding as you eat. Visually enjoy the colorful plant display in front of you. Ask yourself – what are the colors, textures, aromas? Revel in the joy and peace of eating in a way that doesn’t cause unnecessary harm. Observe any judgments you are making about your food, how much you are tasting it, if you can tell when you are getting close to having enough to eat, and if you are enjoying everything on your plate. Have a sense of appreciation for all it took to get this plate of food to your table or lap. Being present with your eating experience connects you more closely with your hunger and fullness signals, often with the natural outcome of consuming less while enjoying it more. Just be there. Eating.
  5. Bring the joy of eating to the next social or family event. This time of year, it never fails – articles surface about holiday events and family gatherings as “being about the people, not the food.” Who among us really believes it? These occasions are a time for both – connecting with community and also sharing the pure joy of eating. Even if you are the only person at the table with a plant-based preference, it doesn’t mean you can’t embrace the opportunity to celebrate vegan living in the context of holiday gatherings. You win more hearts through smiles and stomachs than finger-pointing, so bring scrumptious plant-based eats to the affair. For more ideas, like how to prepare plant-based eats and party snacks, check out videos on my website.
  6. Media swap: swap out five minutes of time from media engagement – social media, newsfeeds, games, TV – to simply be. Without any distractions, simply be present with your breath and your body. It can seem almost impossible to slow down the frenetic planning and organizing in our brains, but letting go of the runaway thought habit is worth the effort.

Health is not something down the road, a state to reach, a place to get to. Health is a state of attitude and mind that naturally invites skillful choices in the moment and connection with the present. Don’t miss a minute of the delicious meal right in front of you. Practice being healthy and happy, right here for this meal, and the next.

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