Many traditional systems of medicine consider our digestion and nutrition to be central to the maintenance of health and (when imbalanced) the development of disease. If you look up almost any health problem in a textbook of Chinese Medicine, one of the possible causes will nearly always be “improper intake of food and drink.” This covers a lot of things – eating too fast, consuming very cold drinks, overeating, eating the wrong kinds of foods for one’s constitution, skipping meals, eating while upset, and more.
I appreciate that Chinese Medicine explains the origin of health problems in this way, because it highlights the most fundamental issue – and shows us the way to get the maximum results by changing our behavior. Whereas someone suffering from acid reflux (heartburn) might simply take an acid-blocking drug and think that’s the end of it, such an approach would not get to the real cause – which might be a food sensitivity, overeating, eating too fast, a structural imbalance, stress, or something else. Addressing the cause is better medicine; anything else is just a band-aid.
While “improper intake of food and drink” is a very common root cause of health problems, I think we can actually go one step deeper. If we’re eating and drinking in a way that is damaging to our health, much of the time we know this, but there’s a mental disconnection occurring. The disconnection takes one of two forms – a split within the mind, or a split between the mind and body.
When the mind is split, we allow ourselves to ignore what we know to be true. We might do this consciously, such as in telling ourselves, “I know I shouldn’t eat this whole container of ice cream, but I had a really bad day.” Eating the whole container of ice cream is harmful to us and we know it, but we justify it with a belief that having done something good or endured something bad entitles us to this indulgence. We may also do it unconsciously, by simply avoiding thinking about how our eating choices are likely to affect us. In either case, there’s a part of us that knows how to care for our body properly, and another part that pretends not to know. Playing this game never feels good.
When the mind and body are disconnected, we tune out the feedback we get from our body during and after eating. It is this split that allows us to overeat, to eat too fast. All bodies give clear negative signals when we do this. When we don’t pay attention to how our body responds to different foods and ways of eating, we miss out on valuable physical information. Not only does our body tell us when we’ve eaten in a manner that it dislikes, it also tells us when we’re treating it well. Unfortunately, the concept of “listening to your body” strikes many as some kind of kooky New Age practice. I would guess that the great majority of modern humans ignore all but the most dramatic messages from their bodies.
A good way to start healing these disconnections is through a practice of doing nothing but eating for one meal each day. Engaging in other activities while eating makes it easy for our consciousness to stray from the vital and enjoyable act at hand. It’s hard enough for many of us to eat consciously even when it’s the only thing we are doing. Why complicate it by trying to multitask while eating?
Relax your mind: let go of worries before you start a meal. If this is hard to do, try making a deal with yourself – tell yourself you can worry all you want at a later time in the day and put it in your calendar. Turn off the TV, put away reading material, keep conversation minimal and light, and turn off any music (or keep it soft and light). Relax your body: no driving, standing, or walking while eating, and no exercise for at least half an hour after eating.
Try to keep a portion of your attention (like ten percent) on how your body feels before, during, and after the meal. With practice, we can learn to perceive which foods our body likes and dislikes – often from the moment they touch our tongue. As we stay connected to our body, it becomes harder to eat more than our body wants. Think like an Okinawan. They are some of the longest lived people on the planet and they embrace a practice called Hara Hachi Bu, which means, “eat only until you’re 80 percent full.” You’ll feel lighter and more energized as you leave the table.
Emotions can strongly affect our digestion and the ability to stay focused on the act of eating. The nervous system is densely “wired” into the digestive tract. It’s why so many people experience nausea, appetite changes, diarrhea, constipation, or other forms of digestive upset when they’re stressed. The sympathetic division of the nervous system excites us, it raises our level of arousal, and it’s responsible for the “fight or flight” survival mechanism. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated – whether or not we’re in actual danger – blood is diverted away from the digestive tract (because digestion is less important to our immediate survival) and is sent instead to our lungs, heart, and sense organs. For this reason, thinking about the bills we need to pay, a recent conflict, or politics is best saved for a time other than during or just after a meal.
Another reason to avoid being unsettled or engaged in other activities while eating is that it degrades something that should be a thoroughly enjoyable event. The frequency with which we do it doesn’t make eating any less special an act. When we eat, we are doing for ourselves what our mother did for us in the womb, and then while cradled in her arms. Later, she or another family member cooked meals for us and offered them with love. Eating reconnects us to these deep memories of being nourished and engaged with family. We put life-giving sustenance into our bodies and it keeps us alive; it makes us feel good; it gives us energy; it physically connects us with the earth, sun, plants and animals. So, when we eat while talking on the phone, while driving, or while working, we miss out on something important – a level of sustenance that goes beyond the food itself.
Why not try this week to have one meal of just eating each day?
Dr. Peter Borten