What exactly is mindful eating?
Well, research defines it as incorporating the following:
So, how does mindful eating work?
Digestion actually begins in the brain in what is termed the 'cephalic phase' of eating. Just by acknowledging, smelling and seeing our food, our brain starts to get our body ready for the digestive process ahead. Just think about a time when you've smelled fresh bread wafting out of the bakers, or when you watch Nigella making anything on TV - your body starts to prepare to eat - your tummy rumbles, your mouth waters.
Stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system,, or the 'rest and digest' mode of our bodies, by the evidence of an imminent meal triggers the brain to prepare the digestive tract for nourishment.
Taking this time allows your digestive juices in your mouth and stomach to get to work, thereby improving the level of digestion you will achieve. Remember the last time you bolted down a meal and felt bloated and terrible - your body wasn't in the right state to be accepting that food, and therefore your digestion was impaired.
But it's not just physical preparation that is helped by mindful eating. Research shows that it affects us emotionally too. Psychologists have found that mindfulness helps people to recognise the difference between emotional and physical hunger and satiety, thereby introducing a moment of opportunity and consideration between the urge to eat and the act of eating.
It's all too common for us to eat for many reasons that aren't actual physical hunger - boredom, sadness, irritation, sometimes just because it's there. And that's ok - but by giving ourselves a moment's contemplation, we allow ourselves the opportunity to decide if it really is what we want to do.
Check out my article here for some top tips for mindful eating during the festive season.
Back in caveman times, the stress response was an essential part of our ability to escape danger - say, for example, being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger. The ‘fight or flight’ response, an innate response designed to stimulate our sympathetic nervous system, makes us alert, focussed and energised – we can escape the danger.
Our body releases certain stress hormones, such as cortisol, which allow our body to respond adequately to the threat by various means, such as increasing available fuel and your respiratory response, whilst dampening down body systems not needed to escape imminent danger, such as the digestive, reproductive or immune systems. In normal circumstances, we experience the ‘fight or flight’ response and its corresponding body effects fleetingly, and then the danger passes, and we can return to normal.
However, today’s stressors tend not to arrive as a sudden, acute danger, but rather exist in a more consistent, ongoing form. Chronic stress like this can be less than beneficial to our health, as long-term exposure to high levels of stress hormones can take its toll. Symptoms of chronic stress include increased irritability, anxiety, headaches, insomnia and depression. Plus, ongoing high levels of stress hormones may continue to affect the digestive, reproductive and immune systems in ways which are not sustainable.
This month’s newsletter covered lifestyle aspects of building stress resilience and ways to encourage lower stress levels. But how can diet help with dealing with chronic stress? Whilst it may be tempting to go for quick, comfort eats and throw out healthy habits, stressful times are when good nutrition can be at its most effective. Aiming for a diet with lots of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, plus good sources of proteins and fats is a good place to start.
Also, don’t forget that stress may not only be psychological, it can also be physical. Being regularly in a state of blood sugar imbalance can be a huge stressor to the body, causing an increase in production of the stress hormone, cortisol, as the body attempts to regulate itself. See my free eBook, 5 STEPS TO BLOOD SUGAR BALANCE for further info. Finally, try and stock up on foods that contain the following stress-supporting nutrients:
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin and is not stored in the body, therefore we need to try and eat good sources of it every day, such as red and green peppers, kiwi fruit, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, kale, watercress, strawberries and broccoli. Studies show that vitamin C may be considered an essential part of stress management, as early research shows may produce a braking effect on the stress-axis helping to moderate any stress-related disorders (1).
Magnesium can be found in green, leafy vegetables (spinach, chard, rocket, kale) as well as avocadoes, tofu, nuts, and legumes. Magnesium has a lovely relaxing effect on the body, and research shows that it may help with brain functions necessary for stress and anxiety reduction (2).
Vitamin D has a multitude of roles in the body, but one of which is in regulating the stress-axis. Foods such as oily fish, liver, eggs, and mushrooms are sources of vitamin D, as is exposure to the sun during the months from May-October in the UK (3).
In our current climate, stress is becoming an ever-present phenomenon. Learning to include stress-relieving practices each day and eat good foods to support our bodies during this time may help to improve our stress resilience in the long term.
Let me know what your favourite stress-relieving tips are.
Please get in touch and find out more - I offer a free 30-minute exploratory call.