“We now know that food is information, not just calories, and that it can upgrade your biologic software. The majority of chronic disease is primarily a food-borne illness. We ate ourselves into this problem, and we have to eat ourselves out of it.”
–Dr. Mark Hyman
Our relationship to food is primary, as it is essential for survival, and is the foundation of our health. But the food itself is also sacred, is communion—eating is one of the ways that the earth enters our bodies and becomes us, where we physically become one. So it’s not just what we eat that matters, but how.
Most of us have lost our way with food at one time or another. Whether it was a bad week, or a phase, or a lifetime, some of our more personal struggles show up in our thoughts and feelings around food. From bingeing to calorie-restriction marathons, difficult food behaviors can result in addiction, guilt, confusion, frustration, and suffering. When our relationship to food is hampered by discomfort and unhappiness of one kind or another our mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing suffer. When we can’t digest and assimilate nutrients it affects every system in our bodies.
The good news? It doesn’t take very long to get back in sync. As soon as we begin to remove obstacles, systems begin to repair, and our bodies respond. Our bodies want to be healthy, and are, in fact, constantly trying to get us back to health.
Modern humans have, in many ways, gotten separated from body wisdom. Inside each of us, however, there remains an intelligence and source of information that’s constantly projecting what you need, moment by moment, to be in balance. Once you start paying attention, you will start making more optimum choices and re-sensitize to your body. In return your body will restore your resilience and vibrance.
Homeostasis is the body’s mechanism of balance and is made up of incredibly intricate systems that keep everything from pH levels to the precise amount of sugar available to our brain cells in check. All day and night your body is adapting and making adjustments in response to changes that impact these systems: from the temperature outside to viruses, from oxygen to potassium levels — the body works tirelessly to bring things back into optimal working order. This is your body’s innate capacity.
So when you think about getting healthy, try not to think about how you or your health program needs to do something to your broken or resistant or lazy body. Think of your body as your biggest ally. Healthy choices act more like obstacle removers or an offering of support to an already perfect system that is functioning 24/7 to bring you back to center.
If inflammation is at the heart of most disease conditions (see my post about inflammation), stress is at the heart of most inflammation. And stress is not just one thing. It’s the combination of all the stressors in your life and how you’re responding to them. Everything in your life comes into play: from your environment, sleep, pathogens, quantity and quality of movement, age, genes, relationships, work, to your mindset and attitude. Our bodies respond to over-exercise, under-exercise, lack of sleep, deadlines, stressful emotions, negative thoughts, and even chronic macronutrient restriction (macronutrients: fats, proteins, or carbohydrates), as a stress-survival situation. Even celebratory times, like the fast-approaching holidays, can be a significant stressor.
When it comes to mental and emotional stressors (including all the tension-producing thoughts and emotions like worry, frustration, judgment, fear, etc.) and how they impact our health, think of the cells of your body as a country. In this analogy your thoughts and senses are the body’s news source. The cells of the body depend on input from all the senses and the brain to know what state to be in, what level of readiness for fighting off invaders (the sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system) or peacetime maintenance and bridge-building (the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system.) So what we think and feel and decide about things around us affects how our bodies function. And when your body is in a stress state, you end up activating the sympathetic nervous system, which affects things like cortisol levels, insulin sensitivity, and other hormone levels. And hormones play a key role in how you burn and store fat.
Most of you have read a great deal of nutrition information and found that much of it contradicts the last nutrition “fact” you read. Without the time and energy to delve deeper into the science (and pseudo-science) behind each new diet fad, people get overwhelmed and discouraged and end up more confused than informed. Fad diets cover the full spectrum of possibilities, from the low-fat craze of the 80s and early 90s to our current no-carb high-fat paleo craze. I get it. Maddening. Food choices can seem like a minefield. Add to that all the “truths” we’ve been sold that didn’t turn out to be true: smoking is not a health risk, DDT is safe, butter is bad but margarine is good, and so on.
For example, there are still a large number of people who believe that weight loss is strictly about how many calories you consume vs how many you burn. Some doctors even still share this formula with their patients when discussing weight management. From that understanding we’re taught to limit the number of calories and work out for more hours per week (and usually this is done from a place of anxiety, or stress). If we’re not losing weight on this formula of “calories in, calories out,” and most don’t for long, we get upset with ourselves. Truth is, one of the biggest challenges to weight loss is stress. And both constant macronutrient deprivation and over exercising keeps us in a stressed state with chronically elevated insulin and cortisol, both of which keep the sympathetic nervous system turned on.
To top off the chronicle of dieting travails, most people who are overweight and afraid of gaining try to avoid eating for as long as possible and then end up eating their biggest meal in the evening. But what we know from studies on the mitochondria (cellular powerhouses responsible for turning the fuel you consume into usable energy) is that when you consume all that fuel close to bedtime — the time when you need the least amount of energy — you end up generating metabolic complications caused by free radicals produced in the process (think accelerated aging).
Most people are eating on the run or while multitasking and this doesn’t allow for the body to experience the food and respond to it fully. When we eat fast or while doing something else we are not paying attention to the food: the chewing, the smells, the flavors and colors. We’re not able to savor or be grateful. We are, in short, missing out on the cephalic phase digestive response (CPDR.) “Cephalic phase digestive response is a fancy term for taste, pleasure, aroma, and satisfaction, including the visual stimulus of your meal. Researchers estimate about 40 to 60 percent of your digestive and assimilative power at any meal comes from this “head phase” of digestion.” – Marc David, head of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating ” . . . [Y]ou look at a food and your mouth starts to water. You think of a food and your stomach starts to churn. That’s digestion beginning in the mind. When we are not paying attention to the meal and eating very fast your body goes into a stress state.”
In addition, fast eating contributes to overeating. When you don’t notice your food your brain doesn’t have enough time to sense or get pleasure from the food, so it keeps signaling that hunger has not been satisfied. One of the best things you can do for your digestion and metabolism is to be present with your food. And to do that you just have to slow down and notice what you are eating.
We need to stop moralizing our food choices and start being grateful for our food. No matter what the food is in front of you, if you are about to ingest it, let yourself feel good about it. Stressing about whether a food is “good” for us, will not make it better for us. I mean, do your best to choose clean whole real foods. But it’s time to start respecting the food and what your body is craving when you are making food choices. Appreciate the abundance of food you’re eating. Savor each bite to the best of your ability. The more pleasure you can bring to your eating the quicker you will get into your parasympathetic nervous system (your rest and digest.) Your digestion will improve. You will absorb and metabolize better. It will also allow you to feel satiated. Give yourself time to eat happy. This may seem like a small thing but eating mindfully is the sweet spot for physical transformation. And mindfulness is a profound practice. You can’t have mindfulness and stress in the same meal. And it’s critical that we stop obsessing about our health. There’s a big difference between being smart and making informed choices vs developing an eating or stress or digestive disorder because of worrying about them.
You can actually ruin the benefits of a healthy meal by dreading or resenting it, by making it harder to digest. If you tell your body something is “bad” how can your body respond healthfully? Instead, try to flip those thoughts. Think about how healthy the food is making you. Think about the soils that nurtured it. Think about all the hands that had to hold and carry the food across vast expanses in order to get that food to your table. Savor the sunlight and the rain in the food. Appreciate the resources that fed all those people that worked to get it there. It’s really a miracle that we can eat avocadoes and melons in the winter and grapes in summer.
We have all read the research on meditation and the positive effects it has on the nervous system and the body. One way to get more present with your food is to use the time you spend preparing and eating food as a kind of meditation. Even if you have to move pretty fast, practice gratitude and expectation of goodness. Use eating as a time to check in with your body. How does it like the taste and the feel? Are you still hungry? Do you need something else? Then after eating check in with yourself again. See how the food sat with you—this is how you are going to begin to learn what foods your body likes and in what amounts and what times of the day. Your body broadcasts so much important information. Get curious. Let your body teach you what works best. There is no diet in the world more perfect for you than the one your body already knows.
The weight loss industry has it wrong. It’s not about the weight. Our fat is not the enemy. Our bodies are not against our efforts. Sometimes we feel defeated and give up. And sometimes we make poor choices with the best of intentions. We go on a low-fat or no-carb diet, or we start exercising like crazy, doing lots of long punishing daily cardio workouts in an effort to change. But anything that increases our daily stress load will impact our health, and inevitably our weight, because of stress’s unique and intimate relationship with homeostasis. It’s time to stop punishing and blaming and hating on ourselves.
One of the first steps to healing is to get curious about your thoughts and feelings. In the case of food and weight, all you have to do is pay attention to how you feel when you are making food or health choices. Locate the internal sources of resistance and hurt. Start to notice the tone of your thoughts. How are you talking to yourself as you are eating or thinking about eating? Do you hear phrases like, “This is bad for me. This will make me fat.”? This kind of self-talk while eating is not only bad for digestion, it sabotages your efforts.