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The Power of Simple Food Rituals

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Small gestures can make a big difference in how we experience and appreciate our food — and each other.

Eating is essential to survival — and it is deeply symbolic. Virtually every culture has rituals around food: the fasting and feasting that surround holy days in Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish traditions; the solemnity of the tea ceremony in Japan; or the harvest festivals that occur everywhere from Kenya to Kentucky.

Yet ritual has gone missing from many modern meals. Breakfast is often a smoothie slurped in the car; lunch, a sandwich gobbled over the laptop. Another late meeting and family activities once again relegate dinner to an ad hoc affair — or maybe the ­drive-through.

Eating like this satisfies some basic needs: It fuels our bodies. Still, being fed isn’t the same as being nourished. For that, a few mealtime rituals can go a long way.

Nourishing Our Souls

When finding time for a meal is a challenge, the notion of adopting eating rituals can be especially daunting. “It’s hard to take foreign rituals and make them synthesize with our daily lives,” acknowledges Halé Sofia Schatz, coauthor of If the Buddha Came to Dinner: How to Nourish Your Body to Awaken Your Spirit.

Still, most food rituals are sim­pler than the Japanese tea ceremony. A ritual is just an emotionally significant practice one under­takes routinely, according to family therapist William Doherty, PhD, author of The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties.

A mealtime ritual doesn’t need to be time-consuming, he says. Even the busiest person can bow her head for a moment before drinking her smoothie.

The benefits of doing so are many. For one, rituals heighten our enjoyment of food. Researchers at Harvard and the University of Minnesota discovered that people who engage in small rituals before eating find their food more flavorful. And the action itself seems largely unimportant: One test involved participants knocking on a table before eating baby carrots.

Mealtime practices also draw us into a state of increased awareness, explains Megrette Fletcher, cofounder and president of the Center for Mindful Eating in West Nottingham, N.H. “Rituals can be a way to focus our intention,” she says. They bring us into the present moment.

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Health & Fitness

Small Shifts to the USDA Dietary Guidelines

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The recent updates to the USDA nutrition guidelines recommend lowering sugar and alcohol intake and opting for breastfeeding over infant formula.

Every five years, a government-appointed committee draws up a national healthy-eating menu. Since the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans was issued in 1980, this nutritional advice has been broadly focused on our health, but it also affects food-stamp policies and school-lunch menus.

It influences processed-food formulations for the food-manufacturing industry, as well — and this is where politics and big business enter in.

More than half of the members of the panel formulating the 2020–2025 guide have food-industry ties. And those involved in adding first-ever advice for pregnant mothers and toddlers are all connected to baby-food makers.

“My concern is that these guidelines, heavily influenced by the food and beverage industry, will dictate what kinds of food are offered at schools and set the eating habits of children, particularly Black and brown children, for the rest of their lives,” says pediatrician Yolandra Hancock, MD, an obesity expert at George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health.

Despite her own reservations, Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, has been pleasantly relieved by this panel’s work. “I was concerned about this when the committee was first appointed because so many of the members had worked with companies making products high in sugar, salt, and fat. But the committee surprised me. It stuck to the science and came out with recommendations quite consistent with previous recommendations, but even more restrictive.”

Among the new guidelines:

  • The committee reduced the recommended limit for alcoholic drinks from two to one daily.
  • The panel advised lowering daily consumption of added sugars by 40 percent, cutting intake from 12.5 to 7.5 teaspoons, or a maximum of 120 calories or 30 grams.
  • For the first time, the guidelines recommended breastfeeding versus infant formulas, stating that being breastfed “may reduce” the risk of obesity, type 1 diabetes, and asthma.

For her part, Nestle — who served on the 1995 committee — recommends the dietary guidelines be taken with a grain of salt compared with our own intuitive common sense.

“I always have concerns about the guidelines’ increasing complexity — it’s now 835 pages,” she says. “From my standpoint, [journalist] Michael Pollan’s seven-word mini-haiku takes care of things quite nicely: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’”

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