Let’s make an assumption. Someone is talking about top quality seed, which brings a fantastic yield, and describing all possible details about the seed; but not a word is said about the soil where this seed will be planted. Sounds strange? You can have the best possible seed on the planet, if you put it in unprepared ground, or a barren land, it is impossible to expect a good harvest. Something similar is happening with food and nutrition. We talk about food in so many details: counting carbon atoms, saturated and unsaturated bonds, antioxidant potential, but completely forget the person who eats that food. This is just as important as good soil is for the seeds.
Even though every person is different, still there are some common places for all of us, which direction will our digestion take. One of the main is – how relaxed we are during the meal. As long as we are in relaxation response, when parasympathetic dominance is active, the body has optimal conditions for digestion, assimilation and elimination. It can look completely irrelevant, but it is amazing how our bodies respond when the case is opposite – when stress is present. That moment when stress hormones rush through our blood, everything changes. Our body has a very good economy system when it comes to energy, and doesn’t want to lose it to things that are not connected with the fight or flight response. So, digestion is not priority any more, and it is diminished; even shut down. A huge number of different processes are present in the body during the stress response, and many of them have connections with the fate of that donut we just ate. Or kale. Someone may eat the healthiest food on the world, but if this person didn’t make optimal conditions for digestion, he or she can’t have all benefits from that food.
Though we are not in position to be chased by a lion as our ancestors were, we have our ways to be stressed. Everyday life is full of challenges and many of us are in a permanent low-level stress response, which has a big influence on how our food is digested. What we can do is to find a way to alleviate the effects of stress. Of course, it is not that easy to change a job, or leave some toxic relationship but with some small things, we can make a big difference. You can even be surprised by what can make a stress response in everyday life. Let’s look at some of them.
One of the most important small, everyday things. We all know that we should eat slowly, and chew well. But why? Digestion starts in the mouth where the breakdown of carbs begins. As we more chew, the absorptive surface of the morsel increases, so the food particles are more available to digestive enzymes. This is a function of the mouth and teeth – to break the bite into smaller parts, so when this chewed food comes to the stomach, everything is ready for further digestion. If food isn’t properly chewed, the stomach has a harder time chopping it up in smaller pieces, and it is not its job. If this food continues its journey insufficiently digested, not all food particles will be available to enzymes, and can finish the journey undigested. A small digression here: it is possible very small, undigested proteins can pass through the gut, and make an allergic reaction. If we know how many people suffer from leaky gut, than importance of good digestion is obvious. This is why eating speed is so important, if we eat too fast, there is no time for good chewing and proper breakdown of the food.
There is one more reason. When we eat fast, our brain gets the message that something is going on, because we are designed to eat in the relaxation response. It automatically pushes the alarm. No time for eating - something is happening.
So, eating speed is very important, but is an underrated part of our eating habits.
Some people have really tough workouts, but still have problems with weight loss. Intense exercises, if there is no pleasure in it, can be very stressful and provoke a real stress response. It would be good to change it with some other kind of movements, and do it with pleasure and joy. This is one of the examples where less is more.
One of the first things that most people do when they want to lose weight is to start eating less. This message is heard for decades, so nothing strange. But this is not an effective strategy in the long run. When we eat low calorie meals, especially under our metabolic rate needs, the brain gets the message that there are not enough food outside and fall in saving mode, which means decreased burning calorie capacity, slower metabolism and keeping of the fat deposit that already exists. The message is simple: no food around, danger! And stress response. So,the good news is: this strategy should be changed, which means – more food, more pleasure. This one is much easier and more effective if done in the right way.
This is something really nasty that we do to ourselves. I am not good, I am not slender enough, pretty enough, my body looks awful, big nose, small breasts…. We can hate and criticize ourselves in so many different ways. It is not possible for us to do something important about peace in the world, but we can do a lot about peace within us. This self-hate state is a permanent stress source, and when is combined with limited and toxic beliefs (food is the enemy, appetite is the enemy, fat is bad, there is only one perfect way to eat and I must find it…), things get even worse. Self-generated stress is one of the main places where change is needed.
Stress is much more than we think, but also the truth is that we can do much more about it than we think. Nutrition, and all this madness about it, can be an important stress-generator, especially for people who are trying to find one perfect diet, or want to eat 100% healthy food. It is really frustrating. Relax. Food is here to nourish us, and we are here to be nourished. Let’s make peace with the food and try to find this wonderful fine-line between pleasurable and healthy, nourishing and attractive. Let’s be grateful for the food we have on the plate. It is no coincidence that so many religions have a prayer before a meal. State of gratefulness is state of relaxation response, and makes a perfect foundation for proper digestion and nourishment. And nourishment isn’t only what we consider as healthy food. It can be smell, touch, or cake that our grandmother makes, much more than broccoli, made in a local supermarket. To feed our soul is as important as food for the body. And as long as we live, the soul and body go together.