Though the vocabulary of mindfulness has permeated many of our conversations about mental and spiritual health in the past couple of years, most of us tend to associate with intangible but essential parts of us – namely, our thoughts, feelings and senses. But mindfulness is also inextricable from the body – how we move through the world and sustain ourselves. In a society alternately obsessed with eating correctly and seeing meals as another part of our constant multitasking, mindful eating is gaining traction as a practice that can help heal our relationship with food.
Stephanie Meyers, MS, RD, LDN is the founder of Families Eating Well, which helps parents coach their kids on how to eat. Nutrition Coordinator at The Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a former instructor for fourteen years in the graduate nutrition program at Boston University.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. On Friday, January 27, Temple Israel of Boston welcomed Stephanie, who is a member of the synagogue, for an interactive discussion with Rabbi Elaine Zecher).Read Transcript
Rabbi Elaine Zecher: Tonight begins a four-part series over the course of this year involving Scientists in Synagogues. Now, if you have come and you’re a scientist, you’re not going to be called out. This is a chance for us to consider how Judaism and science touch and interact. And there is a scene in the movie Inherit the Wind, and that is a play on the Scopes Trial, and the lawyer who loses, but actually wins, with the idea, at the very end, he takes Darwin’s Origin of Species and the Bible, and he goes like this. (slap)
Now, that’s a kind of contact theory. We can’t mush them together, but we can consider how science and Judaism, how science and religion, how they not only touch, but there is a way of complementary understanding. With our seventh graders, we ask them to ask, really, questions – any kind of questions. Questions like, how did the world come into being? Questions like, “Why am I here?” We make it an existential question, as opposed to maybe a more practical question. We ask them to ask all kinds of questions, and we put over there two big circles, as a Venn diagram, and we ask them, “On one circle is religion – Judaism. On one circle is science.” And we ask them to take their question and to place it where they think their question should be. Do you know where most of the questions end up? Right in the middle.
So tonight, we are going to use some scientific thinking to welcome Stephanie Meyers, and she’s going to help us understand a bit on the art of eating, connected to nutrition, connected to life and questions and science. And we are very fortunate that she is a member of our congregation. And she is, right now, the nutrition manager in the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute right across the street there. And she develops and delivers nutrition programming for cancer prevention and survivorship in interactive group formats. She provides compassionate, comprehensive and individually tailored nutrition care of ambulatory care cancer patients. And in this role, she interprets and utilizes pertinent scientific research related to integrative therapies in the care of the oncology population. She presents workshops globally as a cancer nutrition expert and conducts many interviews and has many diabetic interns. Uh, dietetic — they may be diabetic, but they’re dietetic interns. And she is a mentor to many. and we love that she is part of our congregation with her family. And so I invite her to come forward.
So let’s begin by – we’ve had some conversations, you and I, about this topic. And I will say that there is an interactive moment that we are going to be involved in as part of this evening. But before we do, let’s talk about science and the work that you do, and what that means to you.
Stephanie Meyers: Yes. I think the field of nutrition is evidence-based at its core. So every day when I’m meeting with patients and their families, I’m talking to them about what does the science suggest about nutrition and its relationship to cancer? So how can you eat to prevent cancer? And how can people who are going through a cancer journey eat to hopefully prevent their cancer from progressing? Or for people who are in survivorship mode, what can they be doing to help deal with some of the long-term sequelae of being a cancer patient? So we know, for example, that certain patterns of eating are more likely to help people from preventing many types of cancer. And actually, I think quite frankly, where the science of my work can be most helpful, is in helping people separate the myth from the fact and the fiction.
Elaine Zecher: Mm-hmm.
Stephanie Meyers: I think most of my patients, by the time they come to my office, have, after the shock of a diagnosis of cancer, spent some time on Google and have read about sugar and red meat and dairy and organic and vegetarian and keto. And they want – they really need help sorting through all of the information, and quite frankly, a lot of misinformation that’s out there, to get to the bottom of the day in-day out activity of eating.
We all eat, and it’s something we do. I believe we make, yes, 200 decisions a day about food. So it can be very stressful for people when they have the shock of a diagnosis of cancer, and lots of well-intentioned friends and colleagues sending lots of information, to sort of just make a decision about breakfast or lunch or dinner.
So I think the science of my work is quite exciting, but really, the heart of my work is helping people feel like they know how to take care of what’s going on inside of them.
Elaine Zecher: And let’s focus on that taking care, because you have spoken a lot about compassionate care and – I think you said no-judgment eating. Yes.
And what does that mean, No-judgment eating? because I don’t know about you, but there’s lots of times where I say to myself, “I can’t believe you ate that,” right? So what does that mean?
Stephanie Meyers: That is one of the big pieces of work that I do with people, because there can be a lot, many people have an inner narrative of guilt or shame, a feeling that if only they had eaten better, they wouldn’t be in this situation. Or, they have a festive meal, a wonderful meal, and they feel afraid or worried that what they have eaten will somehow compromise their health at a time where they’re feeling exceptionally vulnerable. So “no judgment” is a very big piece of my work. And also I think for a lot of people, it’s pretty intimidating. They come to meet with me, and they have this feeling, or this impression, that there’s some sort of perfect eating that I do, which I think is kind of comical. And I try to let them know right off the bat, like, we have ice cream in my house, we have treats, we have sweets –
Elaine Zecher: Let’s just verify that. Is that true? Just wanted to make sure.
Stephanie Meyers: Probably not as many flavors as you would like, but – so I think it really is about, food is meant to be enjoyed. Food is meant to be pleasurable. Food is, is something that is, is really well. And that’s where we can come to the intersectionality of the science, right. And the joy, the delight, the connection that we all find in food and in community with one another while we’re eating. Those are not things – when I teach my graduate students or my interns, I tell them that being a dietician is not about telling people what to eat. That is not our job. Our job is helping people identify where, what are the barriers or challenges, and what are the foods that really resonate with you? You know, certainly we can make modifications or substitutions here and there, but it’s really about this piece we’ve spoken together about a lot and really enjoyed our conversations about.
Food is meant to nourish us on a very deep level.
Elaine Zecher: So when we offer the healing prayer, if you want to look in your prayer book, on page 253 in the middle, you’ll see that when we speak of the healing prayer, we speak of the healing of the body and the healing of the soul. And what do you think the work that you do has to do with the soul?
Stephanie Meyers: Mmm, so much, so much. So one of my areas of training is in mindful eating. So mindful eating, for those of you who have never had an experience of mindful eating, is very much about having the sensory experience of food and your awareness of it as it’s happening. So as you’re eating, using both your eyes, your nose, your mouth, your hands, just feeling that sensory experience through your whole being and being present for it. So that’s one of the ways where we can – when I teach this to parents, actually, I have them put their hands up like this by their eyebrows. And I should back up and say that when I’m working with parents, it’s oftentimes because they wish their kid was eating a little differently than their kid is eating. And so they ask me things like, “How can I get my kid to eat more vegetables?” And I prefer that they don’t sneak them and hide them, because that’s really not going to be an effective long-term strategy. I ask them when they do that, what is your exit strategy? To eventually tell your kid you like Brussels sprouts all along, you just didn’t know they were in there.
So what we’re trying to do here is build a lifelong skill of healthy eating. But what that means is that, when you’re eating something, to get out of the thinking mind. So I have them put their hands up to their eyebrows, because all the good stuff that happens when you’re eating is happening below your eyebrows, right? When you look at food, when you smell food, when your mouth begins to have a reaction to food – just when you walk by food, you start to have a reaction. So all of the good stuff, all of the sensory parts of eating that we can really be present for in a mindful way, they’re happening below the eyebrow line.
So when I teach people about mindful eating, we use that exercise of – and you don’t even need food in front of you to do it, right? You can imagine a food, you can imagine, a favorite meal of yours. You can do this right now – a favorite thing that maybe you ate growing up. You can almost get this sense of it and smell. This is where the soul piece comes in, right? Mm-hmm. It’s not just about the recipe, but it’s also about your lived experience of it. Like, and how do those two things come together?
So that’s another big piece of eating, is finding that kind of joy on a personal level, meal to meal, as many times as you can remember it in the midst of a meal.
Elaine Zecher: So Moses Maimonides talked a lot about how we eat, actually, in Mishneh Torah, and I just happen to have a text here which I just want to look at with you, because Moses Maimonides recognized that we all have these different traits. We’re not always angry or always humble or always – and so we can find ourselves that we’re going to various extremes. And the idea is sort of to find that place in the middle. And I hope we have another slide. Okay. So let’s look at the next slide. And I just want to point out that Moses Maimonides says, you know, that you should take care to eat and drink only in order to be healthy and body and limb. And “don’t eat all that’s on the plate that the pallet desires, like a dog or a donkey.” Rather, one should eat what is beneficial for the body, whether it’s bitter or sweet. Now, he had some particular ideas about how much you eat, and what you eat, and what’s sweet and eating of honey. And he had, I guess, a concoction of endive juice. “It’s gonna be big,” at least he thought in the 12th century.
This idea, though, that leads to not eating until one’s stomach is full. And I know the Japanese also have a statement about that, and probably many other cultures have that idea about that that desire, that we eat, and that we go to the extreme. He was talking about traits and finding the middle path. Have you studied with me? You know, I really love Maimonides and the middle path. And how do we find that. How do we find that middle path? How do we find that – not eating until our stomach is full? What is it in terms of – how does that make our body more healthy?
Stephanie Meyers: Okay, I didn’t know we were going to do this. This is fun. Okay. I want to ask the audience, in your own experience, how do you know when you’re hungry? Does anybody want to share? Like, how do you know when you’re hungry in your body? Where’s that information coming from? Stomach? What else? Brain, mouth. Maybe you feel – hangry. Oh yeah. Fogginess.
Now, how do you know when you’re full? Plate’s empty?
Elaine Zecher: (laughs) My plate’s empty. She said “the plate’s empty.”
Stephanie Meyers: How do we know when we’re full? You feel heavy? Yeah. What else?
Elaine Zecher: Regretful.
Stephanie Meyers: We’re out of the thinking mind, Rabbi Zecher. Remember we’re down here below the eyebrows. (laughs) Bloating – there’s a physiologic reaction.
Now, here’s something fascinating. This is not my work. It’s the work of Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician on the West Coast, who also happens to be a Zen master – so, another combination of science and mindfulness. There are nine types of hunger physiologically in the body, and there are nine types of fullness. We can feel fullness in our eyes. You know, when you’re, when you’re eating something, it’s like, so amazing, so delicious. And the first few bites are just like, incredible. And then a little later on, it doesn’t look as exciting as it did in the beginning. You can actually train on eye hunger and eye fullness. Same with nose hunger, nose fullness. Mouth hunger, mindfulness. So when I’m teaching a mindful eating class, I am training participants to look at their food. Very just – they’re not sitting like this. They’re just looking at the food before them and asking a simple question, “How hungry are my eyes for this food?” And it can be helpful to use a 0 to 10 scale to start. “How hungry are my eyes for this food?”
I’m actually going to tell a story about my daughter now that I wasn’t planning to tell. I make this one particular lentil dish. It usually looks great, tastes pretty good. Most of the people in my family like it. But one particular week I made it and it just didn’t look anything like it normally does. Same recipe, same ingredients. I don’t know, it just looked really not appealing. My daughter came to the table and she sat down and she looked really uncomfortable, like “Hmm, what’s for dinner?” And I was like, “It’s the lentil dish.” And she was like, “Okay, my eyes are not very hungry for this food.”
Which is, you’ve had this experience where you look at something and maybe it tastes, maybe your mouth hunger for it is quite high, but your eye hunger is quite low, or vice-versa. So how would I encourage you to explore this notion of hunger and fullness with a new perspective that there are different – all the parts of your sensory experience of food are places where you can feel both hunger and fullness. And , there are actually a lot of mindful eating tools that can help people tune in a little bit more to when they feel full that have nothing to do with portion control and willpower and those kinds of things.
Elaine Zecher: Beautiful. And, you know, so often we become thieves of our own food, because we might have a plate that’s really a full of food. And then you look at it what seems like a minute later and it’s gone, as if somebody came and stole it, but we’ve actually stolen it, right? So we wanted to do an exercise with all of us here. So I’m just going to ask those in the back – there are some trays of food, of challah. So I apologize if you cannot eat challah; there is some fruit that you can go back and get instead. But what I’m going to ask you to do is – this has been untouched by hands that aren’t in gloves. So just come around, if you can just help distribute this – just take a piece.
Stephanie Meyers: And you can already start to notice, those of you who love challah – I love challah. What are you already noticing in your body as you see the tray? Some people are starting to salivate already. So there’s eye hunger, nose hunger, mouth hunger going on. Maybe there’s more than maybe you have, and you don’t need it yet. Maybe there’s stomach hunger going on. Heart hunger is another type of hunger. Heart Hunger.
Elaine Zecher: You know, the Hebrew word for “heart,” lev, is the same word for “mind.” So when we say, “Love God with all your heart, your soul, your mind,” is that actually, the word “love” means “heart and mind.” That’s different than your brain.
So there’s brain hunger probably, and heart and mind hunger. That is very different, right? Still do not eat it. You can just hold it. As I want to ask, as we’re waiting, um, as this goes around, if anybody has a question for Stephanie, or if you wanted to ask a question –
Audience member: A lot of literature, not scientific literature, but popular literature about food is around dieting and limitations, and a lot of it has to do with appearances or the physical body, and less about mindfulness, about how to feel things in your body, but more about controlling your body so that it looks a certain way. This is especially true for women. Does that come up in your work? And if so, like how, how do you, like – I don’t know, redirect people towards a healthier – because it’s not a sustainable or healthy way to think about food or your body or anything?
Stephanie Meyers: So I couldn’t agree more. And unfortunately, you’ve said it best. We really live in a sort of toxic diet-culture environment, and moving through that with messaging that begins from really, really young ages. It’s really difficult. I think part of what I’m so passionate about in this work, and what was really exciting for me about being invited to talk about this tonight, is that food is so much more than stuff we can measure. Even as passionate as I am about the science of my field, food is more than protein and macros and stuff we can count. And our bodies, they’re wondrous machines. The physicality of our body is how we fuel ourself. I mean, I’m a “health at every size” person. This is about taking care of who you are on the inside. And so to your point, it’s a challenge. I think that having that conversation, it’s really inner work, you know? And my hope is that,
Elaine Zecher: Soul work. it’s soul work.
Stephanie Meyers: Yeah! But, also for people who go to a practitioner who doesn’t share that sort of philosophy or approach, it’s about advocating for yourself and being like, “this isn’t goin to be the fit for me. This isn’t the match for me.” Do you know what I mean? Like, I have a lot of people that I think are afraid to come to see a nutritionist, dietician, just for that very thing. They’re gonna be given a pyramid and food models. And so to your point, what you’re saying really resonates with me.
Elaine Zecher: So, as we have talked about eating and the beauty of all of the different ways that we can think about healing of our body and healing of our soul, let’s use this moment as a sacred moment to consider, “What does it mean to be a mindful eater?” and to help us understand what mindful eating is all about.
Stephanie Meyer: I would love to, I’ve never done this with challah. So here we go. If you can hold your challah in your palm like this, and we’re going to use our eye hunger first, or just our eye attention. I want to have us really think about awareness, so bringing your eyes to your challah and turning it around a little in your hand – like, really get to know this little wedge of challah. What do you notice about its shape, its color, its texture? And now, if you’re comfortable with this, close your eyes just for a moment and bring this challah up to your nose and just use your sense of smell. So sniff it and just get a real sense of “what are you getting here from this?” Yeast. Yeah. What else? Sweet. You can even smell right where you can smell the sweetness, perhaps.
If you’re comfortable keeping your eyes closed, you can, because it can help a little bit. You can open your eyes as well, if you’d rather, and put this in your mouth please. And I’m just going to keep talking, but don’t chew or swallow. Just let this little piece of challah make its way onto your tongue, and see now if your eyes are closed, and even if they’re not, if you can feel the weight of this challah on your tongue. And take one moment to notice the sensory changes that are happening in your mouth. And then go ahead and begin to chew the challah, and really stay present for the experiences happening in your mouth right now – the changes literally bite to bite. Maybe you’ve already swallowed the challah, but if you haven’t yet, try to be mindful when you swallow the challah as it moves up over the back edge of your tongue and down your throat. Keep your eyes closed if they’re closed, swallow the challah when you’re ready, and then still be here in your seat. Drop your shoulders away from your ears, and take just one moment to imagine, or perhaps even to feel, where that challah is right now. Let’s just take a breath in and exhale. If your eyes are closed, you can open them. Just in your own mind, what did you notice?
“That I want more? Great. Something about it was compelling, drawing more of a desire for more. Yeah. Anybody else have an observation?
Audience member: I felt more how it’s disintegrating in my mouth.
Stephanie Meyers: Yeah, you felt that disintegration. You know, absorption of our food actually begins in our mouth. People often don’t realize that, that the salivary amylase, which is one of the enzymes our mouth produces just when we see challah, that actually that begins that process of absorption. So it’s a beautiful way to think about something that we do in Judaism, which is the rich tradition around blessing our food, the ritual of that, and how just even very small changes you can make – not eating a whole meal or even a whole slice of challah in the way we just did, but maybe one bite, maybe the first bite of your meal, maybe the first sip of your tea. You can really bring your senses, you can let yourself really align with your senses and feel that experience for your body as it happens.
Elaine Zecher: And let us all say amen. Thank you for helping us see how our bodies and the food that enters and how we can experience it in a much deeper, inner nurturing level than just the specific kinds of food, and how much science and the spirit is interconnected. And you’ve helped us do that. And I apologize to those online who have watched people eating challah (laughter), but I hope whatever you have in your house or wherever you are, that you’ll engage in this exercise we can do with any piece of food, and to be able to just take that in, in all the different ways. So thank you so much, and so happy to have you here.