Updated: Nov 23, 2021
There is no doubt that what we eat is important. Food is fuel, and we want to make sure we are filling the tank with high quality ingredients. But sometimes, we can get so caught up in what to eat, that we can overlook an equally important aspect of diet—how we eat.
How we eat matters because our internal stress response impacts our digestive process. In brain retraining, you may remember learning the importance of encouraging our nervous system to move from sympathetic state, known as “fight, flight, freeze” to the parasympathetic state, often called “rest, digest, and heal.” When the sympathetic nervous system is activated by our body’s perception of a stressful or dangerous event, stress hormones are released to prepare the body to face the threat or run to safety. In this state, digestion slows or even stops so that the body can divert all its internal energy to facing the perceived threat.
We want to encourage our nervous system to be in the "rest, digest, and heal" state when we eat, to ensure our bodies take in all the nutrients of whatever we may eat. This leads me to Principles 3:
Principle #3: How you eat is as important as what you eat.
This principle is all about creating the right type on environment to encourage digestion. This means considering our external environment such as distractions, stressors, etc. It also means examining our internal environment such as our thoughts and emotions. The bottom line is that no matter what you choose to eat, you can support your health by choosing to eat in a way that calms your nervous system and aids digestion.
Tips and tricks to help you get into that “rest, digest, and heal” state at mealtime:
Before you eat…
Pause before eating to say grace, express gratitude, or take a few deep belly breaths.
Check in with your thoughts and feelings and see if anything needs tending to before the meal.
Be thoughtful about your surroundings. How can you create the right type of environment to encourage calm and relaxation?
While you eat…
Take a dedicated mealtime when possible instead of multitasking.
Put down your fork in between bites to chew your food.
Engage all your senses in the experience of eating. Notice the appearance, texture, taste, and smell of your food.
Take time to notice your surroundings, perhaps a lovely view out your window or the face of your meal companion.
Notice your thoughts while you are eating. Do your best to catch unhelpful or stress-producing thoughts and redirect. Remember that you are nourishing your mind, body, and soul through this meal.
Share the calm vibes…
Encourage your family, coworkers or friends to join you in creating more time for meals.
If you are at work or school, encourage coworkers or classmates to take time for lunch together.
If you are home during mealtime, try setting up a phone lunch date to connect with a loved one or consider taking a meal out to your local park or courtyard.
You don't need to implement all these changes to bring mindfulness and calm into mealtime. If one or two ideas feel exciting to you, start with those and see how they feel!
Your thoughts are part of how you eat
The thoughts we entertain about what we are eating are an important part of how we eat. Have you ever found yourself taking a bite and simultaneously thinking “I shouldn’t do this!” Or maybe you thought about how the food makes you feel bad or considered how you might regret it later. We know from brain retraining that our thoughts matter! All the guilt, shame, and judgments we make about what we are eating are considered stressors by the brain, and result in such messages being relayed to the body. We can’t control every thought, but we can redirect and choose supportive thoughts to keep our head and heart in the right place as we eat.
It takes awareness and introspection to parse through our thoughts and align them with our actions. When it is time to eat, a wonderful question to ask is “What am I nourishing?” This question engages our curious observer, which brings us back into our prefrontal cortex where higher level thinking takes place. It gives us a chance to check in and understand our motivation. Remember, we humans eat for many reasons. While we primarily eat to fuel our bodies, we also eat to be social, to celebrate, to enjoy yummy flavors, and bring comfort.
When we identify what we are nourishing, we can make a thoughtful decision and commit to that choice fully. Perhaps we are choosing to nourish our physical body with a healthy smoothie. Perhaps we are nourishing a friendship with a shared meal, cocktail, or dessert. Asking what you are nourishing might mean you pass on the glass of wine, but choose to enjoy sharing a slice of cake at a friend’s birthday dinner. Or maybe you decide to join all parts of the festivities and enjoy a little of everything! There is no single right choice. It is the value of the inquiry that brings peace of mind and refocuses our energy on that which we are nourishing. You can refocus on how happy you are to be celebrating your parents anniversary or how thoughtful your Aunt Edna was to make your favorite cheesecake. Knowing you are taking aligned action and focusing on what feels right is what makes it right.
Be mindful about how you abstain too
In considering how we eat, it is important to also consider how we abstain. We want to be careful to choose a mindset that focuses on a choice in the moment instead of labeling the food or our body good or bad, strong or weak.
The importance of how we abstain became clear to me as I started to consider training around wheat. As I mentioned in my last post, before I could start reintroducing wheat into my diet, my mindset needed a makeover. I had to let go of beliefs about the food being bad or my body having limitations. I had to develop a mindset that set me up for success.
“I’m not eating X because…
Old Thoughts … it makes me sick!” … my body cannot tolerate it.” ... I've been told this food is bad for me." New Thoughts ... I'm supporting my body while my brain rewires." … it is not in my training zone right now.” … I’m choosing something that will feel more nourishing right now.”
In reviewing the reasons in the box above, notice how different it feels reading the old thoughts versus the new. The 'old thoughts' create stress and limiting beliefs, hardwiring negative associations that will make it more difficult to rewire down the line. The 'new thoughts' create a sense of choice that is supportive and health-affirming. These thoughts encourage aligned choices, while still leaving future choices open.
In this series “For the Love of Food,” we have covered three principles for rewiring our relationship to food.
Listen to what your body wants. If we can move past avoidance and fear, we can begin to listen to the body’s messages of what nourishes us, energizes us, and brings us joy.
Replace rules with guidelines where practical. Guidelines help us let go of unnecessarily rigid restrictions to create more flexibility and freedom in our choices.
How you eat is as important as what you eat. Creating a calm supportive environment i