Eating in a Chaste Manner
Rita Madden · May 25, 2011
St. John Chrysostom gives us a rule that can help with portion control in the era of Super Size and the Double Big Gulp. He states that we should “eat just to alleviate your hunger.” This sounds like a very good rule, but how do we apply it to our everyday eating practices? The listener will walk away from this episode with tips on portion control and being satisfied with less. The listener will also learn how this can help with longterm weight and chronic-disease management.
Welcome to another edition of Food, Faith, and Fasting. Last time we met, we were talking about the importance of choosing nutritious foods to fortify the body to allow the physical body to be a helper and an aid to the soul, so as to allow them to both work together to ascend toward God. Today we are going to continue on this concept of spiritually minded eating and returning to allowing the act of eating and drinking to be an act that takes place in our daily lives to glorify God.
Today we are going to focus on the aspect of portion control. How much food does our body really need to be satisfied? In fact, this is interesting, because there is not a single rule that we can give to every person out there.
I am asked this all the time, working as a dietician. “Please, just give me a menu, and tell me how much to eat, and when to eat. And I want this diet to be broken down into portions that my body needs to lose weight.” It is very hard to do that for everyone, because everyone needs a different amount of food intake based on their activity levels.
In fact, we even see St. John of Cassian explaining that the holy fathers have not given us a single rule for fasting or eating, because not everyone is the same strength, age, has the same body type, or even illness, at that moment.
So, based on what is going on in our lives, based on, for example, if I was an Olympic athlete, my body would need a different amount of calories, a different amount of portion consumption, compared to someone who is maybe just doing a 20-minute walk a day. Also, we don’t all have the same sort of illnesses going on. Some people need to eat a certain way based on their illness that they are trying to manage.
So it is very interesting that we see the holy fathers saying that there is not a single rule for fasting and eating. But what they do say, a clear rule that we do see, is that we should stop eating while we are still hungry, and not continue until the point of being completely satisfied.
Essentially, the guidance we have from the holy church fathers is to avoid eating and filling the bellies. So whether you are an Olympic athlete in training or you are a mother of four children who is making dinner for the family and trying to eat to help in wellness and prevention of chronic diseases, whether you are a college student or a carpenter, it does not matter. We should all be practicing this same concept when it comes to portion control. Interesting enough, the saints who paid attention to their needs and wants also shared this common statement: Very little food is needed for satisfaction.
What we are noticing is that if we, in our everyday lives, are living a pretty normal routine, and we are trying to prevent chronic diseases, lose and manage weight in the long-term, to be overall healthy and honor the body with the act of eating and drinking, we need to recognize that our body doesn’t necessarily need a lot of food.
What does our body need? Our body does need the real foods, the foods that we emphasized in the last podcast. Just by choosing the real foods alone, our bodies can actually be satisfied with less because everything we eat will contain nutrients.
We were talking about last episode, that even if we ate desert every once in a while in its proper context (and we will have a whole podcast just on that in the future), and if the desert was made up of real ingredients, of butter and flour and eggs, for instance, it is going to contain some amount of vitamins that our body can utilize, such as vitamin A and selenium which would be found in the eggs. If you have chocolate, there is magnesium in chocolate. It is about returning to real foods and having less.
Another statement that we hear given to us by St. John Chrysostom, is to eat just enough to alleviate your hunger. Well, that sounds great, right? Okay, I wish I could get to that point that I am just eating enough to alleviate hunger, but how do I do that? How do I do that in this day and age with the Supersize and the Double Big Gulp? Pay 10 cents more and you can Supersize your menu.
We even have the act of over-eating almost promoted, right? We see all-you-can-eat buffets, and actually, I heard a little part of a comedy skit by Ellen Degeneres, in which she had a really relevant line that I found quite entertaining and pertinent to this podcast. She said, “What is this all-you-can-eat? We’re not bears. It’s not as if we have to eat all this food and go into hibernation.”
I thought that was a very interesting concept, but again, we are seeing these all-you-can-eat buffets, so how do we really return to eating the amounts of foods that our bodies need, just to maintain health? Again, it has been pointed out to us in the scientific arena too, that really, our bodies do not need a lot of food. They have actually shown that when people decrease the amount of calories they consume they tend to live a longer and healthier life. Less food, better for the body.
Last episode, when I was talking about the idea of a lot of fake foods that we consume being very taxing on the body, we were talking about the concept of how just eating the fake foods alone causes more food cravings, and that alone can possibly cause some chronic diseases.
Another thing we notice from the consumption of fake foods, and essentially over-eating, is that we can almost set our bodies into a state of inflammation, and the medical arena is using this as a buzz word right now. If you have inflammation in the body it could put you at risk for heart disease and other chronic diseases. So we see that there is this role of needing to eat real foods in portion-controlled amounts.
Do me a favor real quick. I want you to hold up your fist, and I want to you look at that fist, and examine that fist, and I want you to shock yourselves when you listen to this statement. Believe it or not, that is the average size of your stomach. Look at that and realize, “Well, it doesn’t really look like we need a lot of food.” Again, we don’t need a lot of food, we need the real foods. And a little bit of stomach distention will be normal when we eat. We are simplifying this process a lot.
But what I want to bring you back to is the fact that if we look at that example we start to recognize, really, our bodies do not need a lot of food. So we want to try to listen to the guidance of the saints and look at this holy Orthodox tradition of eating that has been passed down, and listen to their wisdom, with this clear rule that we see resonating with the saints’ teachings: Stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied. Avoid over-eating and filling the belly.
In the Philokalia we see some writings by Saint Gregory of Sinai and we hear this same message resonating with other saints that have also contributed to the book. Saint Gregory describes that eating in a way that is glorifying God can have three components that we need to look at. Let me review those and we will tie this all together.
First, we have abstinence, remaining a little hungry after eating. Adequacy is when we are leaving the meal feeling neither hungry or weighed down by food, that over-the-edge bite, feeling, “Oh, my goodness, I ate too much.”
Satiety is another area that he focuses on. He says, “Eating beyond this point, or eating beyond the point of being satisfied, or being overly satisfied, this is when we are opening up the door to gluttony.” We are actually being cautioned by Saint Gregory of Sinai to try not to eat beyond the point of being overly satisfied, otherwise we open up the door to gluttony, and essentially we give fire to a lot of other passions and sins to be ignited.
He is teaching us that, through eating in a way to glorify God, this can benefit us in other aspects of our lives. Sinful passions can be controlled, can be handled. The best way to put it is that it can be tool to help us in these other aspects of life.
So we look at all these things that the saints have said, from eating just enough to alleviate hunger, and to stop eating before we are overly satisfied, and we are now sitting here with out modern-day way of eating and living, and have to figure out a solution of how to try to practice that. You can drive through the drive-through and buy something and be four bites into it before the light turns green.
Food is everywhere and we eat in the more obscure places anymore. We are eating as we are walking to the bus stop. We are eating in our cars. We are eating at our desks in the four seconds we have for our lunch break. What we need to recognize is that eating and mealtime can be a time to commune with the Divine. We need to honor that. We need to recognize that. It is a break in the day. We need to focus on making this time be a time to spend with God and glorify God. Based on that, we need to slow down our eating pace.
It is interesting that you can touch something hot and pull your fingers away in milliseconds because your pain receptors send a message to your brain in milliseconds and say, “Ouch, that’s hot!” In milliseconds you are able to remove your fingers from the hot plate to prevent a major burn. But it takes about 15 to 20 minutes for your stomach to release different gastric juices and cholecystokinin and biochemicals to send a message up to your brain to tell you that you are satisfied, that you have had enough to eat.
I think that is such a beautiful thing, it is almost as if we were created to take our time and to enjoy our food. If you will remember, in the last session we mentioned how Mother [s/l Effrysinia], a cook in a monastery, was mentioning that we do make meals tasty, because that does provide some sort of satisfaction to mealtime.
There is nothing wrong with food. It is man’s distortion of food that has made it a problem. Anything that God created is good. Any good thing is from above. But with man’s distortion of God’s creation we get into a sticky situation. That is exactly what has happened with our food consumption.
Food isn’t bad. Eating isn’t bad. Eating in the wrong context, eating for the wrong reasons, is what makes it bad. I have actually seen people who have had gastric reflux get off their medication, or if they were on medication, notice their symptoms subside just by slowing down their eating and drinking pace. Just by returning to allow mealtime to be an honored time, to take that 15 to 20 minutes with their food, to allow their stomach to send a message up to their brain that they were satisfied.
I guess I’ve always been interested in this whole eating concept. Thank God, bless my mom, she was always in the kitchen, cooking away and making the best dishes. Her kitchen is the best place to eat on the planet, and so I spent a lot of time with her in the kitchen, and early on I’ve always had this interest.
But when I was younger, I always tended to think there were these little people in my body, and I would eat the food and these little people would take it down to my stomach because everyone always told me when you eat the food goes to your stomach. And then they would start knocking on my belly when I didn’t have to eat anymore, when I was reaching that point of being satisfied.
Now I understand that I don’t necessarily feel full in my stomach, or satisfied in my stomach, I feel it in my brain, and that process takes 15 to 20 minutes. I know I’ve said that quite a few times, but the reason I have said it is because it is a major point. And the reality of it is, we look at our daily lives right now, and we are eating our lunches in about five-and-a-half minutes.
Next we are going to discuss the assignment for the week. This little assignment that you need to take back into your day is going to allow you to start to practice some of these concepts that the holy fathers and the holy Orthodox tradition has laid out for us, centuries upon centuries ago. What we need to recognize is that we need to slow down our eating pace.
What I want you to do, at your next meal, and at your future meals to come, is to focus on taking at least 15 to 20 minutes with your food. If you are eating with children in your home environment, make those kids the food police. Make them call out when mommy and daddy are eating too fast. See who can be the last one done at the table. I can guarantee that if you get the kids to be involved in being the food police, you are going to be there way longer than 20 minutes.
Here are some assignments that I want you to do. We are starting here with trying to start to control portion size. We know that eating pace is related to that, and we will focus on that in a few more minutes, but I also want you to remember that the saints have given us guidance that very little food is needed for satisfaction. Remember to focus on eating the real foods. If you have to review the past podcast that we posted, go ahead and do that. That is the reminder of how to choose real foods.
I want you to start by serving yourself less than you usually serve yourself, or less food than you usually eat, and your mom was right. Good old mom was right. Our eyes are always bigger than our stomachs. When you are really, really hungry, that is probably the hardest time to implement the strategy of serving yourself less than you usually tend to eat. But I want you to start there. Just make a mental note of it.
So much of eating is psychological. If you are serving yourself on monstrous-sized plates, and some of these plates are like the size of swimming pools these days, and you try to put less on that plate than you usually eat, you may look at it and think, “Oh my goodness, I feel like I am eating like a bird.” Then what are you going to do? You are just naturally going to start putting more food on that plate.
You can start by serving yourself in smaller bowls, plates and cups. So start there. Start by serving yourself in smaller bowls. If you are serving yourself in a smaller bowl, you just can’t put as much food in it as you usually do, because there is only so much that can go in that smaller container. Then I want you to focus on our magical minute numbers, 15 to 20 minutes with your food.
Here are some strategies, some assignments, some exercises that I want you to practice after this podcast to try to implement these concepts of allowing yourself to slow down the eating pace so that you can see when that next bite is going to be the over-the-edge bite, to allow you to not enter into the form of abusing food, and enter the realm of eating too much, but just eating to the point that you feel neither hungry nor weighed down. That is the adequacy area that Saint Gregory of Sinai was talking about.
Try eating with your nondominant hand. If you are left-handed, get out that right hand and try to eat with it. I know it seems kind of funny, and what an interesting exercise, but it is something to bring to the awareness the concept of what we are trying to do. We are trying to slow down that eating pace. If you do not usually eat with chopsticks, try to start eating your meals with chopsticks. Try to even, perhaps, sit in front of a mirror and watch yourself while you eat.
Take a bite, enjoy that bite. Taste it. Taste your food. Give thanks for where that food came from, the different spices that God has created, the herbs that are adding flavor to this wonderful dish. Allow yourself to taste that food.
And try to take, perhaps use this as a guide, three seconds between bites. You have a bite, you are enjoying the taste of it, you are setting down your fork, you are picking it up again, and you are enjoying the next bite. Try to have conversation at the table. Tell the person that you are eating with the same story three times if you are noticing that you are eating too fast.
And if you notice that you enter the meal and you take that first few bites really, really quickly, right there create a pause. Perhaps talk to someone, or have a brief moment of prayer. Just sit there for a second. Remind yourself, even say out loud, “Oh well, I am eating pretty fast,” and just get yourself back into the concept and the routine of eating a bit slower. Try to take that 15 to 20 minutes with your food. See how you feel. At the end of the meal do a little assessment. Give it 5 minutes.
It just really blows my mind that we have these teachings that are so ancient, that are so relevant to our health today. The reason the saints are giving us this lesson, this guidance, to remain a little hungry after eating is that if you give it five minutes, if you just sit after you’ve completed a meal, and you allow your stomach to work with your brain to send that message up that you are satisfied, usually people realize, “Wow, yes, I’m good. That’s the perfect amount of food.”
People start to recognize when they eat less, they actually feel more energized. That takes us back to what the saints say. Don’t allow yourself to become weighed down with foods. When you are weighed down with foods, it makes prayer, and your daily routine that you need to do, taxed. It makes it more difficult.
This idea of slowing down the eating pace is going to help us in focusing on utilizing the wisdom and the guidance of the Church’s and the saints’ teachings to eat just enough to alleviate hunger, and it allows us to prevent chronic diseases and manage weight and health by controlling the amount of the real foods that we consume.
Until we meet again on another Food, Faith, and Fasting, remember to just slow down your eating pace. This is time with the Lord. Remember how we said in past podcasts, begin and end your meal with a prayer. Carve out this part of your day to be time well spent with glorifying God with the actions of eating and drinking.
Until next time, take your time, and enjoy your meals.