How do you typically eat? Do you sit down at a place setting in a calm environment, take in the sight and scent of your food before carefully placing it in your mouth, and slowly chew it, noting the changes to the taste and texture with each bite? Do you wait until your mouthful is fully chewed up and swallowed before taking another bite, taking your time with your meal so that it takes at least 20-30 minutes to eat?
Or. . .
Do you rush through your meal, possibly standing up or on-the-go, chewing each bite maybe a few times, and taking another bite before the previous has been properly processed? Do you multitask while you eat, maybe doing some work, checking your phone, driving, and maybe multiple things all at once? Do you calm yourself from the stressors of the day before you start eating, or are you all worked up and stressed when you bite into your meal?
Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced society, the second scenario is far too common. Do you see yourself described in it? Most people I have worked with would say so.
Eating while stressed
The problem is, when we rush to eat, when we are stressed out, and focused on too many things while eating, the nervous system is more likely to be in its sympathetic stress response, instead of the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response. It is this parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) response that triggers optimal blood flow and nerve conduction to the digestive system.
When we are stressed, busy, and distracted, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is active. Traditionally, this part of the nervous system is designed to prime us for self-protection, hence why it is called “fight or flight” mode.
Blood flow is shunted towards large muscles, the heart, and the lungs so that we can run away or fight back. So when SNS is activated, digestive activity is not optimal; we don’t need to be putting energy towards digestion when we are in the midst of fighting for our lives!
What does this mean for you if you eat when you are stressed, busy, and distracted? It means your digestion isn’t going to be optimal, and you might end up with some digestive troubles. Some examples include indigestion, heartburn, abdominal bloating, diarrhea or constipation. Digestive troubles over time can contribute to the development of inflammation, pain, immune issues, and more.
When you are stressed, busy, & distracted, your sympathetic nervous system is active. This means your digestive system is not primed for optimal digestion, which can lead to digestive troubles, inflammation, & more
When PNS is activated, the digestive system is primed to function optimally. An optimally functional digestive system produces adequate amounts of digestive enzymes and stomach acid in order to properly break down food into small particles that can be absorbed in the intestinal tract, and used by the body.
When we don’t produce enzymes and acid in adequate quantities, this can impair the body’s ability to properly break down the food, and hence the body’s ability to properly absorb the nutrients contained within that food.
It is important to eat nutritious food, but if your digestive system cannot digest or absorb the nutrients from this food, you are not going to experience the full benefits you are looking for from your food choices!
In addition, it takes at least 20 minutes for your stomach to communicate to your brain that you have eaten enough food. Therefore, if you eat your food quickly, you risk the chance of eating more than you need. If the signal to your brain can’t keep up with the speed at which you eat, you will overeat. Simple as that.
Besides eating when in a state of stress and rushing to eat, we can often use food and eating as a way to manage stress and emotions; a tendency called emotional eating. More often than not, this is an unconscious response, rather than a rational choice.
Unfortunately, food choices during times of emotional eating are likely to be nutrient-poor, and rich in ultra-processed and refined items that can contribute to hormone imbalances, inflammation, diabetes, and more.
Emotional eating will be discussed in greater detail in a future post and courses. For now, I will mention that the best approach to addressing emotional eating, and any unproductive habit, is awareness. The more you can become aware of what you are doing in the moment, the better equipped you will be to be able to make a different choice.
The more you can become aware of what you are doing in the moment, the better equipped you will be to be able to make a different choice.
As you can see, how you eat, including your emotional state, your speed of eating, and where you eat can all have an impact on how you digest the food that you consume. Eating wholesome, nutritious food is only part of the picture. Eating it slowly, and with a calm and focused state of mind will also impact the digestibility and absorption of the nutrients contained in your meal.
The practice of mindful eating is a great approach to improve how you eat. Having awareness not only of WHAT you are eating, but HOW you are eating and WHY can help support optimized digestion, and prevent unwanted wellness issues from developing, like weight gain, diabetes, inflammation, and so much more.
6 Steps for mindful eating
It can take some practice to master mindful eating. For most, this is not an intuitive practice. Start with small, gradual changes, and incorporate them into your daily eating practice. If it is easier, start with just one meal, and practice these habits with this one meal every day. Try one habit until you get the hang of it, then incorporate another. The key is to keep on doing it, so work at a pace that works for you. The more you practice, the easier it becomes, until it eventually starts to become automatic.
Start with One
Eating mindfully isn’t something you just pick up overnight. It takes time and practice, just like any other practice. The experiences become greater over time, and then you form habits. Undoubtedly you’ll form better eating habits with more nutritional value than before.
The object is to start with one. One meal, once a day. If you fall off track, pick right back up where you left off and get back in there. Increase the mindful eating meals as you feel comfortable. This isn’t a race, but a gradual process to become healthier and eat more purposefully.
By no means is this an extensive list of ways to eat mindfully. You have to start somewhere though, and these suggestions will help you do just that. The hardest part of forming any worthwhile habit is getting started.
Eating mindfully is a personal experience and unique to each individual. What works for one may not be feasible or applicable to another. Don’t be afraid to experiment. In time, you’ll find the ways of mindful eating that work best for you and your overall wellness.
Which mindful eating practice will you start with?