How a negative relationship with food damages our health

One of things that really bugs me is our society’s negative relationship with body image and food. High-fat, low-fat, low-carb or no-fat; certain ways of eating have become more of a fashion statement than part of a healthy lifestyle. We crave the food we think we can’t or shouldn’t have. And we when we do eat them, we feel guilty –  like we’ve done something wrong.

I had an ‘Ah-ha’ moment the other day whilst listening to a webinar on eating and food psychology. If we believe that the food we’re eating is going to make us fat or unhealthy, then what’s to stop exactly that from happening?

Seeing food as the enemy initiates the stress response

Nowadays, Western society is largely overfed and undernourished. We are heavier and more unhealthy than ever. Why? Our relationship with food. For many of us food is a reward, a way of making ourselves feel better or a companion when we are bored or lonely. But when we eat for these reasons, it’s common to consume the comfort foods that are high in fat or sugar because they contain substances that tell our brains that we’re experiencing reward or pleasure because they stimulate the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine.  But at the same time we’re told these foods are bad for us, and so we believe they are. I’m certainly not going to dispute the fact that sugary, processed foods can harm the body, but our guilt about eating them harms it even more. Seeing food as bad creates stress. Eating the ‘enemy’ causes cortisol levels to rise, blood sugar levels to spike, the digestive system slows down, and fat is stored. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

Food as nourishment

I had a conversation with a good friend of mine, a nutritionist, who is focusing on ‘nourishment’ rather than nutrition. I thought this was genius. Even the word nourishment screams, “Feed me the stuff that heals me!” The human body runs on the nourishment that food provides. The vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fats, & proteins play a role in keeping our biological processes ticking over. These processes only happen correctly when we get the right nutrients – the outcome of nutritional deficiency is disease.

In thinking about this, I realised that perhaps one of the problems with eating habits today is that we’ve forgotten why we’re eating food in the first place. Maybe we’ve become so out of touch with food in relation to how it’s grown and what it should really taste like that the only reason we’re eating is because we feel hungry. In years gone by, farming food and growing our own food was part of everyday life. Now we rely on someone else to farm it, and then we just go and buy it from the nearest supermarket. We’ve become dissociated. Most of the time, we’re too busy to even take the time to pay attention to our food when we eat it.

Which brings me to my next point.

Mindfulness and eating

The act of eating can easily be accomplished without paying a whole lot of attention to what goes into your mouth. But in not paying attention, the first and vital process of digestion is inhibited. The cephalic digestive phase occurs when we smell, see or taste food. It promotes saliva production, increases hydrochloric acid & digestive enzyme production. If a person is looking at their phone for example, or eating while driving, this reflex is reduced so that digestion is limited from the start.  There is research to suggest that tasting food is also a way of sensing the nutrients in what we eat, passing this information along to the brain which leads to changes in levels of satiety (feeling full).

When I was researching this blog post, I had time to reflect on my own eating habits which I discovered were not ideal by any stretch of the imagination. I shovel my food down, eager to get to that next email, the next load of washing etc. So over the last few days, I’ve slowed down. I’ve paid attention to my food, eaten in silence with no TV, no phone & nothing else to distract me. I’ve also taken the time to relax and not my make myself feel bad for eating something that I might otherwise have felt guilty for. And in the process, I have learnt a new respect for eating, and I find myself reflecting more on how the food I eat nourishes me and contributes to my health and wellbeing.

Deliberately taking the time to limit distraction and pay attention to food can decrease portion size, at the same time improving the whole sensation and experience of eating. But more importantly, being mindful of what we eat gives us the option to think about the nourishment that we’re providing for our body. I guess it’s a good way of telling the body we respect and understand it’s needs.

So at your next meal, have a good think about how what  you’re eating nourishes you. Get back in touch with your food.



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