For all our obsessing about what we eat, we pay comparatively little attention to how we eat. And that’s too bad, because our unconscious, stressed, rushed, lonely, and compulsive approach to eating is probably doing more damage to our collective health than our Cinnabon, Krispy Kreme, and Cronut obsessions combined.
First, some science: Just as the nutrients you put into your body create a certain biochemical reality, so do the mindset, attitude, and physical posture you hold while eating.
This is a physiological fact — if you eat while you are hurried, hunched, anxious, and not breathing deeply, your body is going to respond by releasing a cascade of chemicals characteristic of the stress response.
Research shows that stress is inherently antithetical to good digestion and nutrient assimilation. It disrupts metabolism and promotes inflammatory responses throughout the body.
Plus, if you rush, worry, multitask, or zone out while you’re eating, you’re going to be much less likely to fully see, taste, smell, chew, and enjoy your food. That can have a big impact on not just on how well you assimilate your nutrients but whether or not your brain registers your eating experience as a nourishing and satisfying one.
Setting the sheer pleasure of eating aside for moment (don’t worry, we’ll come back to it), let’s focus on the importance of the see-smell-chew-taste process in how your body regulates food intake.
Digestion begins in the mouth, where the brain engages a complex sensory system to assess the biochemical makeup of the food passing under your nose, across your tongue, and past your esophagus.
Your body then releases digestive enzymes, adjusts metabolic gears, and begins sending signals of satiety (fullness or satisfaction) based on what it registers coming across that transom.
But when you gobble your food, or swallow it without having put much conscious attention on it, that complex and sensitive system doesn’t have a chance to fully engage.
As a result, your body is less capable of accurately tracking and optimally processing both the energetic value (i.e., calories) and the nutritional content of the food you are eating.
This means you’re going to have a tendency to eat more. It also means your body is going to be less capable of extracting the full nutritive value of whatever you ingest.
In keeping with the dictates of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, your body will respond very differently — digestively, hormonally, and metabolically — to food eaten in a panicked fight-or-flight mode than it will to food eaten in a mellow, rest-and-digest mode.
Thanks in part to the actions of hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, insulin, and ghrelin, food eaten in a rushed or stressed state is far more likely to a) cause indigestion, b) be stored as fat, and c) leave you feeling hungry again much sooner. If you want to understand the many reasons why, see “Revolutionary Resources,” below.
Meanwhile, if you need still more reason to take your food-savoring more seriously, consider this: When meals are taken as relaxing, socially satisfying breaks from hyperintense, task-driven parts of our day, they serve as “ultradian-rhythm breaks.” (For more on how these fascinating, oscillating energy patterns work, listen to the “Pause” episode of The Living Experiment podcast, available on iTunes.)
But when we eat at our desks, on the go, or while distracted by other efforts and concerns, our sympathetic nervous systems never get a break. This always-on state contributes to elevated levels of stress hormones, negatively affecting our blood sugar and insulin levels.
That means that as the day wears on, you’re going to be increasingly inclined to eat more of the things that stressed bodies crave, like refined carbohydrates and sweets.
Alternatively, if you are one of those people who respond to stress by losing their appetite or forgetting to eat, you’re that much more likely to wind up in a low-blood-sugar situation where, by the time you do eat, you’re famished or desperate enough that you hardly care what you put in your mouth.
Given all of this, it’s odd that we don’t more highly value conscious eating as an essential healthy-living skill. And it’s dismaying how little energy and attention our culture puts on creating sane, well-paced, and pleasurable eating.
Goodness knows, most of the food-consuming experiences our children are having are not preparing them for a future of conscious eating. And as adults, most of us aren’t winning any awards for modeling ideal eating behaviors, either.
So, what can you do to improve your own approach to eating, and perhaps encourage others to join you? Here are my top suggestions:
Eliminate all screens from your eating environment. That means no TV, no computer, no smartphone, no iPad. I’d skip books, magazines, and newspapers, too. Forget multitasking entirely. Research suggests that you’ll be more productive if you take mealtime breaks than if you work through them. And you’ll eat and digest better, too.
2. Slow down.
If you’re like most people, in the moments leading up to your meal, you’ve probably been moving at lightning speed, so slowing your pace might take conscious effort at first. That’s OK. Chill. Relax. Tell yourself you are not in a hurry. Put your fork down between bites.
3. Sit tall and still.
The physical posture you take sends your nervous system (and thus your digestive system) powerful messages. So avoid eating in “Go!” position (upper body hunched forward, head low over your food, the plate just inches from your mouth). Instead, strive to eat in a semiregal yet relaxed “still” position: Butt fully on the chair; both feet flat on the floor; body erect; the back of your tongue and the center of your throat lined up directly above your shoulders. Notice how this creates a nice gravity-driven path for your swallowed food to follow, and how it introduces a sense of calm.
Many people unconsciously hold their breath while eating, and this fuels the body’s stress response. Instead, take some deep breaths before you begin your meal, then continue to breathe deeply through your nose while you chew. Focus on taking three or more slow, deep breaths (in and out) per bite.
5. Take small bites.
Aim for bites no bigger than the top segment of your thumb. Taking too-huge bites inhibits your chewing and inclines you to swallow larger quantities of food without fully tasting them.
Chew more than you think you need to. Then keep on chewing until your food is in a smooth, liquid state. You might be amazed how much this improves your digestion and decreases your tendency to overeat.
Savor the experience of the aroma, appearance, flavor, and texture of your food. Rather than just letting each bite race past your senses in a big blur, reach for subtle flavors. Above all, eat with love and appreciation — for your food, yourself, and your dining companions.
If it helps, keep this list with you, or make a list of your own to review before mealtimes. If you integrate even one of these practices at each meal, you’ll soon notice you’re not only tasting more, and eating more wisely, but you’re experiencing the how of eating in a whole new way.