Toby Zerner

Mindful Eating: Lessons From a Month Without Flavour

Flavourless February has come to an end, and it’s time to look back in reflection.

For the month, I gave up flavour aiming to better understand my relationship with food and see how I deal with letting go. I was allowed to eat plain boiled potatoes, boiled chicken, oats, steamed/raw veggies, egg whites, and milk. I ate everything separately and sequentially. I also allowed myself to have one planned exception meal per week so I wouldn’t be a complete social outcast.

So… how did I go?

Accountability is Key

For the most part, I stuck to the rules! More so than pure brute discipline, I think I can largely attribute this to the exposure I gave the challenge by writing about it and posting on Facebook. Every time I thought about giving up, I was saved by the thought of embarrassment and going back on my word. So really, this is your success — well done!

That said, I hate to disappoint, but I (we?) did slip up a few times. Most of them were hard to avoid due to logistics (instances where I didn’t have much control over what I ate), but one or two of them were shameful moments of weakness. Additionally, whenever I did have a planned exception, I really went all out and ate as much as I could. While this was technically not against the rules, I think it subtly worked against the philosophy of the experiment.

Flavour is Rewarding

There’s no doubt that high-reward foods make me want to eat. Without them, I found I would put off eating and continue whatever I was doing — even when I was painfully hungry. Initially, sometimes I even dreaded having to eat, like it was a chore. It got easier, but over the month, I still ended up shedding a few kilos off of my already-slim figure. Oops.

Flavour is Relative

Letting go was difficult at times. The most painful situations were those featuring a lot of people consuming high-reward foods around me (i.e. pretty much any social event). What I was depriving myself of was right in front of me, and it took quite a bit of mental energy to deal with it.

On the other hand, when a high-reward reference point wasn’t immediately present, I struggled much less and actually found some enjoyment in my meals — simply by taking a moment to be mindful. Rather than watching a TV show or reading a book while eating, I would sit down in silence and immerse myself in the activity of “eating”. I could appreciate the vibrant orange glow of carrot sticks and their satisfying crunch under my teeth. Observe the warm nuttiness of a spoonful of oats. Focus on the food, right from the moment it sat on my plate, as it swirled around in my mouth, and then disappeared into my oesophagus.

So it turns out that there is quite a lot of flavour to be found in these “boring” foods. You just have to open yourself up to it. Maybe sometimes it’s good to slow down and appreciate the simple things in life. Maybe I will have a “boring” meal every so often as a reminder of this.

Flavour Makes Memories

I noticed that I didn’t want to do some activities that I would normally love to do, simply because I had strongly associated them with rewarding foods. For example, often when I go to the beach with friends, we will get a box of hot cinnamon donuts and smother it in chocolate topping and sprinkles. It is diabetes in a box, but I have very fond memories of it. So it probably comes as no surprise that I didn’t really feel much like going to the beach this month. I don’t think this kind of association is necessarily a bad thing, but I think it is something that’s good to be aware of.

Overall, I feel like I have gained some more awareness and control with regards to food, and motivation to be more mindful in other areas of my life too. If you have any further thoughts about flavour and food reward, I would love to hear them!

TL;DR: I completed the challenge, and I think being accountable really helped. It was difficult at times and sucked a fair bit of mental energy out of me at social events. But by the end of the month, when I was not immediately surrounded by temptation, I got used to it and was quite happy eating what I was. When I was mindful, I found more enjoyment in the boring food and had an easier time letting go. Still, I lacked my usual motivation to eat, and lost a few kilograms.

Next Up: Sleep Hygiene

In January I gave up sleeping in, but I didn’t manage to keep that up in February. I got shin splints, couldn’t run, and lost my motivation to get up. As a result, I have noticed my mornings become very slow and inefficient — even if I do stop myself from falling back asleep, I will spend an eternity lying there, scrolling through social media crap on my phone.

So my next challenge is to correct my “sleep hygiene” and stop doing this. It basically means my bed is for sleeping, and nothing else. I will keep my phone over the other side of the room so I have to get out of bed to turn off the alarm. And I will aim to cease any screen time at least half an hour before a consistent bed time. I am interested to see how this will affect my sleep quality, ease of waking up, and morning productivity.