How many times were we told as children to “slow down and chew your food.” Occasionally, we would listen. Subsequently, we would then marvel at how our tummies didn’t get upset when we stopped shoving our faces and actually took the time to taste each bite of food. As adults, most of us dismiss that saying and instead practice bad habits like eating on the run or while commuting. Not only do you end up staining your favorite clothes, but rushed eating also leads to digestive stress and malabsorption!
First, let’s dig in to why calmness during mealtimes is key to optimal health. It all stems from our autonomic nervous system being split into two parts, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.
Oftentimes, the sympathetic nervous system is referred to as “fight or flight,” or the “stress response,” because adrenaline (or epinephrine) and cortisol are running the show. When stressed, our brain reacts by telling the pituitary gland to release ACTH (adrenocortisotrophin hormone), which then triggers the adrenals to release various stress-related hormones. The end goal is to provide our bodies with enough energy to escape immediate danger by either defending ourselves or fleeing. Physically, our pupils dilate, our heart beat quickens, we start sweating, our breathing becomes shallow and our blood shunts away from our core out to our extremities so that our muscles are equipped with enough nutrients to run from that charging bear (caveman example) or to get though a HIIT cardio class, dodge an oncoming cab, or finish our work deadline (modern day examples).
On the flip side, there is the parasympathetic nervous system, affectionately coined as your “rest and digest” mode. In direct opposition to being hyped up, a parasympathetic state will slow your heartbeat, constrict your pupils, allow for deeper breathing, and the majority of your blood will concentrate in and around your core, rather than your extremities. This is what you experience during yoga, meditation, sleep and even deep breathing exercises.
The increased focus in parasympathetic activity stimulates production and release of salivary, pancreatic and other digestive enzymes, as well as gallbladder contractions and intestinal smooth muscle movements. Relaxation is essential to properly break down your food, fully digest and maximally absorb nutrients, as well as move waste products through your GI system.
When you eat on the run or while stressed, you are losing out on not only the communal experience of food, but are also messing up the natural progression of digestion and absorption. And what is the result... gas, bloating, belching, acid reflux (GERD), indigestion, diarrhea, constipation and malabsorption!
So at your next meal, make sure you set aside time to enjoy it:
§ Don’t rush – schedule time in your day to eat… your brain craves the break.
§ Sit down – your car or the train does not count.
§ Take smaller bites - packing away food in your cheeks like a squirrel isn't a cute look.
§ Chew - 21 times is the optimal number.
§ Enjoy meals with family and friends – don’t wait for a special occasion.
§ "Eat like a European"– Enjoy lengthy meals with family, friends and co-workers.
§ Practice gratitude for the company, the tastes, the smells and the communion.
§ Appreciate the nutrients in your food and how they are going to benefit your health.
So let us raise our forks for a "toast" to Mindful Eating in 2018. Happy Eating, Everyone!