Reinventing the Iconography of Eating
There are sobering realizations that you cannot, unfortunately, unthink. Here’s one such realization that I had a few years back: Health, unlike illness, produces no revenue. That’s right: In economic terms, you are far more valuable sick than healthy. Healthy bodies with healthy minds make for poor consumers in a corporate society. They mind their own business and live their lives of quiet satisfaction. The ill, however, are understandably busy looking for either direct or symbolic answers to their suffering. That makes them excellent consumers. Illness is a repeat business. Health, sales-wise, is a cold lead. It’s easy to dismiss this perspective as depressing or unnecessarily cynical. But I encourage you to not rush to brush this off as a disillusioning rant by some weirdo. Granted, I might be a weirdo, but as for disillusionment, it’s always a good thing. Disillusionment is literally a loss of illusion, and is therefore an opportunity to see reality as it is. It’s an opportunity for clarity—an opportunity for change.
Mindfulness Is the Missing Ingredient
Let us start with a brief review before I make my point: Eating changes both body and mind, the totality of who we are. What we eat and how much we eat changes who we are physiologically. Why we eat and how we eat changes who we are psychologically.
Mindlessness Is Blindness
When we eat mindlessly, the body expands (to the extent that mindless eating leads to overeating) and the mind “shrinks” (to the extent that mindless eating denies us the experience of eating). After all, being mindless means just that: being of less mind. Mindlessness hides reality and robs us of experience. I’m sure you’re familiar with this experience of having no experience: You get into the car, start driving, and half an hour later arrive at your destination. But as you look back, you don’t remember the actual experience of driving. We’ve learned not to be puzzled by that. “Highway hypnosis,” we think and move on. It’s the same with eating—a kitchen-table hypnosis of sorts. You shop, you cook, you set up the meal, you turn on the TV, and several mindless minutes later you’re done. Your stomach is full but your mind is empty, and you’re craving seconds just so you can have the experience of eating you missed the first time around.
Mindfulness Is Vision
When we eat mindfully, the body shrinks (to the extent that mindful eating reduces mindless overeating) and the mind “expands.” After all, being mindful means just that: having a full mind. Mindfulness is vision. Mindfulness reveals the reality of what is, in all its nuanced, complex, and unique suchness. The tradition of saying grace to infuse a moment of spiritual gratitude into a meal; the Zen tradition of oryoki, which facilitates here-and-now presence through meditative eating; the veganism movement, with its attempt to manifest the ethics of compassion through eating—these and many other food-related traditions all reflect that eating can serve as an invaluable existential platform for awakening the zombie in us. Whereas mindless eating robs us of the eating moments of our lives, mindful eating allows us to reclaim those experiences. According to the website of the Center for Mindful Eating (2011), “Mindful eating has the powerful potential to transform people’s relationship to food and eating [and] to improve overall health, body image, relationships, and self-esteem.” Recent years have witnessed the emergence of self-help and clinical literature on mindfulness-based counseling for overeating and binge-eating. The conclusion that has become increasingly clear is simply this: Mindful eating is an essential part of healthy eating.
An Icon of the Past
For years, the USDA food pyramid was a cultural icon. It was designed to guide our eating behavior, yet mindful eating was conspicuously absent. As a case in point, the final version of the food pyramid featured a human figure flying up a set of stairs to indicate the importance of exercise. Great idea, except…the runner’s head was disconnected from its body, just like so much of our eating behavior is disconnected from our mind’s conscious intent. In a 2009 post in my Huffington Post blog, I called on the USDA to update the food pyramid. At that time I proposed that, at a minimum, we’d do well to connect the runner’s mind to his or her body by adding a neck to unite the parts of the human whole. But I didn’t stop there. I also suggested that we crown the pyramid with a symbol of mindfulness—namely, an eye symbol like that on the back of a dollar bill. My thinking was that this addition would cue people to the importance of eating with both short- and long-term vision: with here-and-now tactical awareness of the process of eating and with strategic vision about how one’s eating behavior fits with one’s overall philosophy about how to live.
The symbol of the all-seeing eye at the top of a pyramid, by the way, traces its origin back to ancient Egypt and indicates “that the dead god is entombed in the underworld but is still watchful. The open eye is his soul that is still alive, so he knows what is happening in the world” (Forty 2003, 11). Because this symbol appears on the dollar bill and has become largely accepted as a legitimate part of American iconography, I felt it had been sufficiently secularized that it might also appear atop the food pyramid.
The Icon of the Present
The food pyramid was, in fact, changed. But not in the manner I had petitioned for. As you probably know, the food pyramid has been bulldozed down for good. The new USDA visual guide to healthful eating is a colorful plate of fruits, veggies, protein, and grain on what looks like a cafeteria-style food tray, with a side of dairy. This is a genuine improvement over the food pyramid. First of all, a plate of food on a tray is far more intuitive and face valid than a food pyramid.
Furthermore, the USDA plate (2011) doesn’t just tell us what to eat and how much to eat (“eat less”), it also gives us a glimpse of how to eat. To the left of the plate, there is a fork. I guess we are being asked to use utensils rather than eat with our hands. Okay, I’m being snarky. The old issue remains: there is no visual cue for mindful eating. Admittedly, the text that goes with the plate advocates that you “enjoy your food.” But it seems most of us are already quite adept at this. If that’s USDA-speak for conscious eating, I think it’s a bit too cryptic. In my view, this ostensibly fresh, new USDA icon is already outdated. Perhaps they are still climbing that ancient pyramid of learning.
Therefore, my proposal remains the same: We need to add an explicit visual icon for mindfulness—perhaps a pair of glasses in which one lens reads “mindful” and the other reads “eating,” or a lotus flower with the inscription “Eating is yoga.” Seriously though, I’m not a graphic designer and this isn’t an fine arts dissertation. It’s a platform for posing a rhetorical question to the USDA think-tank: Don’t you see that as an (over)eating civilization we need some kind of visual cue for the idea that mindlessness is blindness and mindfulness is vision?
A Do-It-Yourself Project
Eating is physiologically inevitable, but mindfulness isn’t. Associating eating with mindfulness, one meal at a time, can not only help us manage weight (by reducing mindless overeating), it can also nourish and enrich the mind. Of course, you don’t have to wait for the USDA to update the iconography of recommended eating. You can do it yourself. Just add the missing ingredient of mindfulness to round out your meals.
In this day and age of nationwide emphasis on battling the epidemic of obesity, reconfiguring the USDA’s food-related iconography to reflect the importance of mindfulness in eating would seem to be a pretty simple and obvious step. But I guess nothing is too simple for the government heads that are largely disconnected from the body politic. For the time being, mindful eating remains a do-it-yourself project. This is fine. All breakthroughs of the spirit and mind are, ultimately, self-governed endeavors anyway. The time to start is now. As for the iconography of eating, hopefully the imagery of the future will one day reflect (rather than solely advise) the eating psychology of a conscious nation.
Adapted from Reinventing the Meal: How Mindfulness Can Help You Slow Down, Savor the Moment and Reconnect With the Ritual of Eating (Somov, September 2012)
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Happy food face photo available from Shutterstock
Somov, P. (2012). Reinventing the Iconography of Eating. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 28, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/mindful-living/2012/09/reinventing-the-iconography-of-eating/