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Healthy Monday: Jeff Kramer heads to the Empire Buffet for a lesson on mindful eating

Jeff KramerMoments ago I ate a non-fat yogurt too quickly. The contents vanished in seconds. I can‘t even tell you what flavor it was. Probably it was fruit related. On further reflection I‘m not even certain it was yogurt. It might have been a pot roast.

The growing ranks of mindful eating experts scorn such haste. Food is to be experienced slowly and attentively, each bite assessed for flavor, consistency and quality. Eating in this manner, say the experts, aids digestion and weight control by giving the stomach a chance to feel full before one overeats.

The experts are right. Eating more mindfully has helped me shed a lot of weight the past year. But a confession: I still experience brief, occasional flashes -- mainly the hours of 7 a.m. through midnight -- when I miss attacking a seven-layer dip with all the mindfulness of a bear pawing through a trash bin.

Stress contributes to these impulses. I‘ve been busy producing my new play, a comedy, “Reaching for Marsby” -- running through March 18 at the Civic Center. It's more work than I prefer. Sometimes in my agitation I eat. Perhaps I should have titled the play “Reaching for Carbsby.”

Enter Terry Podolak, a nutritionist with Upstate‘s Mindful Eating Program. I enlisted Terry‘s help last month to get re-centered amidst the chaos. We agreed that rather than me going to her office for a consult, we‘d put mindful eating to the test by doing lunch at one of Central New York‘s most challenging venues for overeaters: The Empire Buffet on Syracuse's Erie Boulevard.

The Empire Buffet is one of those feeding stations that could only exist in America. It‘s mainly Asian food, but you also can get everything else, including mac ‘n cheese, soft ice cream and ham. If you‘re prone to overeat, you‘ll overeat here.

Not this time, though. Joining Terry and me was Amy Auciello, a grad student in nutritional science. The three of us filled our plates and sat down. Terry instructed us to appreciate the color and texture of the food and to be thankful for it. Then she told us to commence eating without talking for five minutes. That‘s a long time to eat in silence. Left alone with my thoughts, I entered into a fascinating dialogue with myself.

Self: Is cream cheese in sushi really necessary or desirable?

Self: My beef chop, or whatever it is, looks like the Carolinas.

Self: I hope I can get this lunch reimbursed as a business expense.

It was a long, awkward five minutes, but the overall effect was to force me to focus on the food and slow down my eating. By the time the five minutes was up I was getting full even though more than half my food remained uneaten. As we finished up we chatted about stress management and the need to send out positive energy to combat anxiety in ourselves and others.

Finally we opened our fortune cookies. I made a little joke that mine said, “You will die of a massive coronary this Tuesday.” It made the others laugh. It made me desperately want to leave the Empire Buffet. Just to be on the safe side I sent positive energy signals to my arteries.

Terry and I met again a few days later at a Northside cafe. This time we ordered massive brownie-type objects. But as yummy as they looked, they were on the dry side, a detail I probably would have overlooked a year ago in my rush to wolf it down. As it was, I ended up leaving more than half on my plate, as did Terry. That‘s roughly 200 calories I didn‘t consume because I gave myself time to realize I didn‘t want them.

Mindful eating can be taxing. It‘s similar to the difference between a formal wine tasting v. sitting around with your friends just drinking wine. The former, while enjoyable, requires a conscious effort while the latter does not. But the payoff is real. Try eating more mindfully, and you‘ll discover one of the few diet tips that works long-term: You‘re almost never as hungry as you think.

The Hunger Scale -- the real one, and Jeff Kramer's

Journalist Jeff Kramer writes for the quarterly magazine, "Upstate Health" and for this blog on the first Monday of every month.