How Enjoying Your Food Makes You Healthier
Jack was on a detox program for 6 weeks. During this time, he was counseled to stop eating at a local fast-food restaurant. He didn’t think that was possible because of his schedule. You see, he had two jobs and he would finish one and go straight to the other, stopping for a hamburger on the way. He said he liked his hamburgers; it was the only food he enjoyed all day.
The nutritionist then recommended that he stop and take some time to enjoy the food. The challenge was to not eat it while he was driving. He decided he could do this, so he picked up the hamburger and drove to a quiet spot nearby and focused on the food. As he ate it, he realized that he didn’t even like the hamburger! It was not an enjoyable experience, so he quit eating hamburgers altogether and finished the detox program with great results! An interesting result is that he no longer eats fast-food at all. Jack takes time to eat, enjoying every bite, and has found that healthy food is much more enjoyable for him.
Food is so much more than nutrition. Food is taste. Food is texture. Food is pleasure. Food enlivens not just the body, but the soul. Food is life!
The last few decades has proven there is plenty of food for all. In fact, there is too much that we don’t appreciate all the wonders of food. Those of us who never feel real hunger don’t know how wonderful food can be. We eat to be filled…and then eat more for taste. We mostly only consider food to be for taste, texture, or to fill our need. There are a lot of good reasons for us to stop and enjoy our food, take pleasure from every bite and focus on what we are eating.
How the Nervous and Digestion Systems Work Together
Many people feel stress in their “stomach.” When they are stressed or anxious, they get stomach aches, bloating, gas, acid reflux, and irritable bowel syndrome. These symptoms indicate the digestion is not working properly. Stress not only causes upset digestive symptoms, but stress negatively affects our health by:
- Decreasing nutrient absorption
- Causing cravings
- Causing obesity, diabetes, and cancer
- Allowing “bad” bacteria to grow in the colon which can lead to depression and anxiety
The autonomic nervous system controls everything in the body, such as temperature, circulation, digestion, immunity, and so forth. But we have two opposing sides of the autonomic nervous systems in our bodies:
- Sympathetic (the source where worry, fear, and stress lie in wait)
- Parasympathetic (produces the calm that allows your body to repair itself)
Digestion of food can vary widely depending on which side of your nervous system is active. If we eat under stress, whether emotional, mental, or physical, then our digestion is poor. The sympathetic nervous system directs blood away from our digestive tract, which slows down digestion. The body may react to this with constipation, diarrhea, or bloating.
However, when we have an active parasympathetic system, it increases the blood flow directly to our digest system. Your salivary glad is stimulated, increasing the enzymes that aid in the initial chemical process of digestion. As a result, we get more nutrients, and have fewer digestive problems. Eating in a relaxed state is essential to food and nutrient absorption.
How your nervous system affects your digestive system can be summarized with the following.
Sympathetic digestion (stressed and anxious)
- Slow intestines cause indigestion, gas, bloating, and irritable bowel syndrome
- Low acid makes it difficult to digest proteins causing indigestion
- Valves don’t work, causing acid reflux
- Insulin resistance causes poor sugar use and leads to diabetes
- Poor fat energy causes obesity
- Carbohydrate craving cause obesity and fatigue
Parasympathetic digestion (relaxed and happy)
- Food moves through the intestines normally helping absorption of nutrients
- Digestive acid and enzymes improve digestion
- The intestines clean out after a meal preventing gas and bloating
- Energy production is normal allowing the body to use fat and sugar for energy
The bottom line is: if you are eating while overloaded with stimuli and under stress, your body doesn’t know that it’s supposed to be digesting. So if we aren’t paying attention to food before we begin to eat, if we are not fully aware of what and when we are eating, it stands to reason that we are not provoking the full beneficial digestive response.
Full Sensory Enjoyment of Food
Many years ago, my girlfriend and I travelled to London to visit her family. She was from Iran and they continued to eat their traditional way, so it was different than any food I was accustomed to eating. They had a tray with food in the middle of the table and there was no silverware. They explained that where they come from food is a complete sensory experience. They use their fingers to form the food into a ball and then eat it. They see it, hear it, smell it, touch it, and taste it. They take plenty of time to enjoy the meal and the company. The food isn’t just incidental to the dinner conversation but is an integral part where all share the same food.
In this same way you can take pleasure in your food. Making your meals into a sensory experience allows you to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Mindful eating improves digestion and absorption, as well as prevent many intestinal problems such as indigestion and acid reflux.
For example, I thought I wouldn’t enjoy drinking green smoothies. But when I took the time to sit down and slowly drink my smoothie, I discovered a couple of things. The bitter taste was gone after a few sips and I could begin to taste the different ingredients, and appreciate the flavors as they blended together. I don’t just plug my nose and gulp it down anymore. I take time to taste it, “chew” it, and feel the smoothie going down. I make more saliva, and I’m sure to get more nutrition out of it! But, most of all, I enjoy it; it’s something I look forward to eating.
When you take time to experience your food through all your senses; taste, smell, sight, sound and touch and the feel of the food, you are likely to be truly nourished.
Why Focus on Food
In a society that values multi-tasking, we easily get distracted by other things while we eat. Because we can eat mindlessly, we often do. We eat while we talk at parties. We cook TV dinners and eat while watching a show. We eat at the sports arenas. We eat at movie theaters. We eat while driving. All these other activities prevent us from being mindful of our food. The food is almost secondary but ends up creating problems. When we eat mindlessly, we don’t remember what we eat, nor do we keep track of how much we eat.
When we focus on food, we eat better food, and need less of it. In one study, those who ate mindfully: