How we feel while eating impacts the body’s ability to metabolize food.
The ancient poet Rumi once said: “The satiated man and the hungry man do not see the same thing when they upon a loaf of bread.” Although in today’s world that loaf of bread may be gluten free or sprouted, the truth of that quote still rings true: our perception of food varies depending on our relationship with it.
Consider this: A dinner plate with chicken, salad and rice can be something very different depending on who it is placed in front of. A dieter may see the meal’s total calorie content, an athlete may see a plate of fuel in the form of grams of protein, a vegetarian might look upon the slaughter of a chicken, and a scientist may gaze at a collection of chemicals and molecules. What is remarkable about that dinner plate is that each of those individual’s bodies would metabolize and react to that same meal in different ways based on how each of them relates to it because one of the most essential components of metabolism isn’t a vitamin, a chemical, or a molecule, it is your psychological relationship with food; meaning, how you think and feel about what you eat impacts how your body digests it.
Food for Thought
According to food psychology (the study of the mental processes behind how and why we eat), the thoughts and feelings you have when you eat play a role in how you metabolize food. If you are feeling guilt or shame about eating extra calories, you trigger a stress response that can slow digestion and even increase fat storage. The same goes if you are having negative thoughts about a healthy meal, (“Ugh, chicken and broccoli again?”). Here is how it works: the negative neural signals initiate an inhibitory response in the digestive organs, preventing the body from the fully metabolizing your food. This inhibitory response also affects hormones, such as insulin and cortisol, which can lower the calorie burning efficiency of your body and cause you to store more of your food as fat.
Your Brain and Body on Food
Your emotional connection with food is largely responsible for the way your body responds to it on a physiological level. When you eat, your brain releases powerful chemicals such as endorphins (that make you feel good) and dopamine (which can motivate you to keep munching). For example, decadent treats such cookies or ice cream can release more endorphins that eating something naturally sweet and potentially healthier, such as fruit. Although both of these foods contain sugar, they are different types of sugar that affect the body very differently.
Our relationship with food began on a basic emotional level when we were babies (when food = survival), and this relationship became more and more complicated through endless amount of advertising, dieting, eating when we’re sad, lonely, happy, bored, at parties, or going out, and on dates. The result of this is that food is no longer just something that is integral to survival – it has become a symbol of comfort, enjoyment, happiness, celebration and prosperity.
Because your brain is always creating associations how you feel when you eat impacts your body’s relationship with that food. For example, who hasn’t reached for a tub of ice cream after a break-up, or zipped into a drive-thru after a bad day? If you eat when you feel sad and then you feel better, you strengthen the association in your brain that that food makes you feel better. The next time you feel sad your brain will tell you to eat that food because it knows you will feel better (even if just for the short term). Knowing this, it is important to be mindful of what you eat when you are in emotionally heightened situations so that your brain doesn’t link unhealthy food choices as a way to pacify emotionally challenging moments.
DID YOU KNOW?
Not only do our serving dishes affect how much we eat, the variety of food we have matters too. Research has found that simply increasing the perceived variety of food in front of us can increase consumption. In an iconic study where participants were presented with a bowl with an assortment of 300 m&m candies with either 7 or 10 colors (the taste of all candies were identical), participants who were given the bowl with 10 colors ate 43% more (91 versus 64 candies) over the course of an hour.
Eating: A Full Sensory Experience
We tend to think that the amount of food we eat is a result of how hungry we are. It is a factor; however, it is not the only one. We are also affected by the smell, sounds and look of food as well as the size of plates, serving spoons, packets, and more.
“Because your brain is always creating associations how you feel when you eat impacts your body’s relationship with that food.”
Research from Cornell University found that the average person eats 94% of the food on their plate, regardless of size, yet they report feeling equally full from both smaller and larger plates. The same study also found that people are more likely to over-eat food that comes in a wide container as compared to a tall one.
TRY THESE TIPS TO ENCOURAGE MINDFUL EATING
ONE: Slow Down – Eating is not a race, so take time to chew your food slowly. Savour and enjoy the flavours in every bite.
TWO: Unplug – Make mealtime a tech-free time. Turn off all electronic devices and distractions before you sit down to eat.
THREE: Connect – When you sit down to eat, ask yourself, where did your food come from? Knowing your food sources as well as how it went from the farm to your table will allow you to have a deeper appreciation for what you are eating.
Maximizing Your Nutritional Success
Studies have shown that people eat more when they are distracted (such as eating while watching TV or talking with friends). The next time you sit down to eat a meal be sure to not just go through the motions, make a conscious effort to eat mindfully. Mindful eating can not only enhance the experience of the meal, but it can also help you to learn to eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and control cravings.
You can also step up your environment for nutritional success. At home, try to make the only food visible on the counter a bowl of fruit or healthy food, because individuals who leave junk food in plain sight are more likely or over-eat and weigh more. In the workplace, avoid eating at your computer, as those who do not only eat more, but can’t effectively recall what they ate even as little as 30 minutes after a meal. Finally, when you are grocery shopping, your mind wants to see a full shopping cart and you are more likely to keep filling your cart if it doesn’t look full. Try to fill the front of the cart (the part you can see) first, and fill it with healthy choices. You can also consider chewing gum while shopping (gum chewers tend to buy about 7% less junk food when they shop).
YWCA Fitness on 25th is a coed facility providing a range of fitness experiences in a welcoming environment to achieve your individual health and fitness goals. Watch for the next WYCA wellness article on our website blog and social media channels.
By Nima Nazemi
Reference: Gillian Mandich, 2018, ‘Mindful Eating’, Canfitpro Magazine, January/February 2018, p. 34-35.