Ethical Eats

Brought to you by Oxfam @ Queen's

Yoga, Mindfulness, and Food Ethics

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“Beyond calories and diets, mindful eating takes a more holistic approach that can empower individuals to build positive relationships with food and eating,” said first author Celia Framson, M.P.H., R.D., C.D…former yoga teacher.

I would like to bring to Ethical Eats a spiritual, thoughtful, dimension of ethics and food.  The ethics of food covers a breadth of topics – from issues of environmental protection, to resource use in agriculture, to meat consumption, to the embeddedness of power and poverty in food systems, and so on.  In this now complex, blurred-bordered world, awareness and information for such ethical concerns has been fostered through a range of media channels and social networks (whether it be technologically or organically transferred).  We now have access to innovative and creative tools that guide us on our paths to vegetarianism or veganism.  We have libraries and networks of information that shed light upon the importance of making conscious consumer choices, including local, organic, and fair trade products.  I am supportive of this spark: alternative media, our peers, and our diverse communities can lead us to make enlightened choices in our daily lives.

Still, I get a sort of mental itch in thinking that this is the best that we, as humans, can do.  It is easy and convenient to take on a consumerist mode of attack.  I notice, however, that there exists a superficial barrier in flaunting mindful actions, without intention: without mindfulness itself, really.   Our submission to external cues can only penetrate the outer perimeter of the inner psyche.  This brings about a range of questions: is this true altruism?  Are we making our ‘ethical’ choices in sole response to social pressures?  And, ultimately, what is the consequence for the sustainability of alternate food systems if trend comes to trump intention?

Personally, I see that there exist important linkages between meditation and food ethics, to respond to these questions. In fact, this perspective is grounded in various scientific studies as well.  The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center of Seattle, for example, conducted a study on yoga and weight-loss from the perspective of mind-body-awareness affecting eating behaviours.  Kristal, a yoga enthusiast, sees yoga as a mode of cultivating mindfulness, for example, by holding a physical pose and by observing discomfort in a non-judgmental way…”this ability to be calm and observant during physical discomfort teaches us how to maintain calm in other challenging situations, such as…not eating when you’re not hungry,” he said.  A “mindful eating questionnaire” was developed on the basis of factors like food awareness, and eating due to emotional response, distraction, or external cues.  Mindful eating was concluded as a key determinant of weight maintenance.

For more information, here is an article on the study:

I believe that some important, direct and indirect, philosophical connections can be made between yoga, mindfulness, and food ethics (beyond the weight-loss dimension).  Let us draw them out:

  1. Flexibility
    A common theme to yoga practice is the pushing of oneself to a physical edge…here we observe pain in a thoughtful way, extending, retracting, or adjusting as necessary.  When it comes to food, no individual comes from the same origin, nor will they come to take on the same ethical food profile.  Ethical eating can mean understanding your own cravings and desires, while using and developing inner tools to eventually put them into a wider context (for example, taking genuine consideration for your care for animals, the environment, poverty etc.) and adjusting your food behaviours gradually.  This takes time, but that’s the point.
  2. Balance
    A basic tenet, foundational to meditation and yoga practice, is the idea of focusing our minds and body chemicals in a way that settles our complex rhythms of emotion, egotism, anger, stress, and so forth.  Balance in the way that we eat is an imperative, not only health-wise, but also in terms of adjusting to new forms of ethical eating.  Your ethical food profile isn’t going to be ‘perfect’, but it can start with taking out one type of meat in your diet, for example.  (I took out beef, a couple years ago, both for spiritual, personal reasons, and for the sake of the environment.  You’ll find mountains of literature on this.)
  3. Pausing/Breath/Slowness
    I hate to tell you, but mindful eating means avoiding the tasty lure of over-consuming even the fairest of products (certified and standardized and everything).  Meditation allows you to take a mental pause.  When you make your green or ethical choices, think a little deeper.  Do you really need 50 fair trade chocolate bars?  The force is strong in consumerism, mostly because it acts as a social and mental indicator that we are tangibly doing something ‘good’, and in doing that something, we don’t really have to step too far out of our capitalist-based-comfort-zone.  And, believe me, I am pro-fair trade (shameless, MTF plug), but I recommend keeping in mind the importance of drawing back consumer and ecological footprints first: people tend to lose sight of that element nowadays.  Consider making food purchases based on necessity, in close combination with ethics and fairness.
  4. Mindfulness
    We are not ‘perfect’ beings, but we are gentle beings at the core.  Even the Dalai Lama eats meat occasionally, according to the Times of India.  But, at once, he maintained that “non-vegetarianism was bad for health and against the tenets of Buddhism which taught “karuna” (sympathy) to all living beings…[advocating] against luxuries in life”.  Mindfulness is about realizing that somewhere in all of us, we have the capacity to develop genuine consideration for all life on earth, in addition to the non-living components of earth.

In the end, everyone will come to take on a unique, green-ethical food profile, but first, look within.  Ultimately, mindfulness is what allows food security concerns to penetrate our daily decisions in a genuine way.  “Everyone has a seed of good heart,” His Holiness the Dalai Lama.


– Elephant Journal


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