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Mindful eating in a foodie culture



The rise of the vegan movement challenges us to reflect ethically on food, and to attend more carefully to how it arrives at our table. Within the broader culture, cafes, pubs and restaurants populate Australia, with many food choices available. These are gathering points for young and old, as baristas, chefs, bar attendants and waitstaff offer hospitality to people throughout the day. We expect a feast of food, coffee and alcohol at celebrations but also at more routine events. Our current approach to food and drink is off-balance and unsustainable.

People dining at restaurant table (Hero Images / Getty)On another level a cultural shift has happened where for many people meals are no longer communal events. Apartment living has spread across our cities, and single-person dwellings are more common. No matter the living situation, comfort eating is sometimes used to assuage the pain when people are lonely, isolated or depressed. We need to encourage people to gather for communal moments when we stop and spend time together. It's sometimes not easy to find our tribe and engage with others, but this is important today.

There is a broader social and ecological milieu for our eating and drinking. When we go to a local cafe or restaurant, enjoying a meal or coffee in the presence of friends and strangers alike, there are those who barely subsist outside the reach of our tables. Furthermore, today our common home cries out for us to care for its fragile ecosystems. It is now clear that our entrenched patterns of consumption need to change in step with our new ecological consciousness. The earth's own liberation needs some reconciliation with our insatiable desire and appetite for more.

Within this context, Saint Ignatius Loyola's guidelines for mindful eating are worth pondering. The founder of the Jesuits was a soldier turned pilgrim who paved a path for integrating spirituality with daily life. Foundational to his approach is holding tensions in balance: being contemplative in the midst of action; working for the common good of the world while being at home in the church; remembering today with gratitude and humility before discerning how to better live tomorrow.

While Ignatius' guidelines for eating and drinking envisage a retreat time of Spiritual Exercises, reflecting on his approach may offer inspiration for how we live each day. Ignatius prompts us to practise reverence in the moment and gratitude for the gifts we are receiving. For an age of food and drink on demand, heeding his prompts could help us to balance our inner and outer lives:

1. When eating alone, try to cultivate a contemplative attitude. I could listen closely to music. I may think on how the food came to be at my table, wondering about pesticides use, harvesting, processing and food miles. I can attend to how the food makes me feel. Christians may imagine Jesus and his apostles at table, imitating him as he eats and drinks, noticing his focus on the senses, and how he eats in time with the conversation. People of all traditions may ask 'Who can I invite to share a meal with me this week?'

2. Plan meals and portions. We have immediate access to an abundance of options, whether we are looking at our fridge, supermarket aisles, cafe menus, or a food delivery app on our phones. Ignatius would counsel discipline: planning what we will eat and keeping to appropriate portions. A balanced amount of nutritious food will support a vibrant inner life and ensure I have what strength and health I need for my outer life.


"Our current approach to food and drink is off-balance and unsustainable."


3. Prioritise nutritional staples. Ignatius invites us to seek out less those foods which are delicacies. He encourages moving towards a greater focus on nutritional staples. For beverages such as beer, soft-drink, coffee or wine, he prompts us to enjoy these in moderation ('what is helpful') and avoid excess ('what is harmful').

4. Savour each meal. When my focus at a meal turns to how I am experiencing the food itself, Ignatius' invitation is to attend to it slowly. Christians could chew on that famous line from scripture 'taste and see the goodness of the Lord' (Psalm 34 verse 8). People of all traditions may savour each bite carefully, enjoying each morsel. 

In time, we might consider further questions. What ingredients make for the best meal? (Company/conversation, vegetable content, spices). How do I cultivate a balanced diet and exercise restraint in a world of fast food and excess? Am I aware of food wastage? What would my bin look like if I composted, recycled or bought from bulk-food stores?

Relationships to food and drink are deeply personal. We know our own capacity for balance in eating and drinking, and we remember times we have been mindless. Ignatius encourages us to be attentive to all dimensions of these relationships.


Friday 1 November is World Vegan Day.



James O'BrienJames O'Brien is a writer from Melbourne.

Main image credit: Hero Images / Getty

Topic tags: James O'Brien, Ignatius Loyola, veganism



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Existing comments

A sobering reminder of what we have done to our world. The meal is no longer the celebration that it once was but yet another example of "this is about me and what I want". Such a shame to see the demise of grace before meals and the slaying of conversation by the TV set and the mobile phone and that favourites are not prepared by Mum but come in a prepacked plastic box filled with chemicals to ensure a longer market shelf life. As a boy (and at my own family dinners with my children) we always said grace, something which once earned me a good clip in the ear from my father when I fulfilled my delegated obligation with, Bless the food and bless the cook an bless the bloke who killed the chook.

john frawley | 31 October 2019  

I agree entirely that we need to change our eating habits. In May of this year by pure chance, I started fasting until after receiving communion. Since I am blessed to attend Holy Mass on a daily basis, I was without knowing it practicing intermittent fasting. Since I needed a bit more discipline in my life I chose to eat more fruits and vegetables and not have any sugars, chocolate, cakes, white flour.... in short less carbohydrate. The interesting result is, I have lost 15 kgs in 20 weeks, without wanting to lose weight. In May I weighed 90 kgs, now I am at my ideal weight of 75 kgs. I have more energy, I thrive on 6 hrs sleep and because of a Bi Polar condition I used to succomb to porn watching . I needed discipline now, the porn watching is gone, the gambling addiction is gone, the mood swings are gone. I now have a choice to eat some ice cream, a piece of chocolate cake or enjoy a glass of wine every so often. I guess 5 months ago I was given the Grace of choosing right.

Andre Adolphe | 01 November 2019  

A thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, James. Mindfulness is important in all facets of our life, but meal times provide an excellent opportunity to take time out for reflection and contemplation.

Paul Power | 01 November 2019  

Thank You James. I am going to share this with the Faith Ecology Network(FEN) FB Page as we can learn much from other faith traditions too! Would you be happy if we link your article on the FEN Blog on our website? https://www.faithecology.net.au/

Anne Lanyon | 01 November 2019  

James, St Ignatius died aged 64 and practised a life of severe asceticism. He didnt much care for food. He also killed a Moor in a duel and before he became a monk was a skilled swordsman, a rich dandy and a womaniser. Then he had that epiphany after he was recovering from having his leg shot with a cannonball during battle. I suppose why our approach to food is off balance and unsustainable is because of the plethora of cooking shows. From Iron Chef to Rick Stein. From River Cottage to Jamie Oliver. I especially love Rick Stein as he travels though India, Greece and Turkey. Muchof the food is simple and cheap, straight from the markets. Veganism products are very expensive. Lifestyle shows permit the viewer to live vicariously through the imagination of the narrator as the travalogue unfolds. "Ignatius died in Rome on 31 July 1556, as a result of the Roman Fever, a severe case of malaria that recurred in Rome, Italy, at different points in history. An autopsy revealed that he also had several kidney and bladder stones, a probable cause of the abdominal pains he suffered from later in life." Wikipedia.

francis Armstrong | 02 November 2019  

Francis, I think some qualifiers on aspects of St Ignatius Loyola's life you raise are necessary: "extreme asceticism" was an excessive phase of his early conversion enthusiasm, which, with experience, he curbed and directed followers like Francis Borgia to avoid. Nor was he or any member of the Society of Jesus he founded a "monk": in the interests of flexibility and availability for the Church's mission he parted ways with conventional practices of established monastic orders such as praying the office in choir, initially drawing suspicion on the orthodoxy of his intent and vision for serving the Church. No doubt, too, that as a youthful courtier he pursued the art of courtly love as was customary with those aspiring to the chivalric code - by Ignatius's day well established in the courts of Europe - but this is not to be confused with being a "womaniser" as currently understood. Regarding food, I imagine his counseI would have been to apply consistency with his "fundamental principle: to use things insofar as they assist in achieving our purpose as God's creatures on earth and avoid them insofar as they hinder it. I feel the questioning of the Jesuits' service to the Church in some quarters today makes accuracy on their founder's life and legacy especially important.

John RD | 04 November 2019