Digestive issues can be incredibly complex. Advice abounds. I never actually had troubles with this, though, until after I began having anxiety on a large scale, over a decade ago. I’ve certainly learned a lot in the years since, one thing being that stress wreaks havoc on the tummy. Actually, it completely halts digestion in its tracks. It was a long time before I learned this though, and by this time, I had had years of experimenting with elimination diets and being this-free and that-free. Finally, I began to wonder:
Could this be less about WHAT I’m eating
and more about HOW I’m eating?
I’ve always been one who loves to read while I eat. It always seemed like the most relaxing thing to do, but it turns out that this is the very definition of eating mindlessly. Eating mindlessly is something like driving mindlessly – where you drive down the road and get to your destination without having any recollection of how you got there. Plowing through your meal, knowing on some level that it’s good but not paying attention to it, not really. The first rather regretful bit is that you didn’t get to fully appreciate the experience and can’t get it back once you realize this on your last bite, but the other really important piece is that we weren’t designed to eat this way, and our body needs the cues that it gets when we pay attention while we eat.
It used to be that when I would start preparing something for myself to eat, I would at the same time be thinking about what I’d do WHILE I ate. Read, watch TV, check something out on-line. It was just more of distracting myself and not allowing myself to be IN the present moment.
I had heard of the mindfulness approach to eating where you really focus on the food and notice its tastes and textures as you eat, but I never realized the significant digestive benefits until I read Deepak Chopra’s book Perfect Digestion. This was during a time of actual physical crisis I was going through, and I parked it at the table and changed my ways. I sat. I paid attention to what I was eating and nothing else. It helped. And then once it had helped, I stopped, as is often the way.
I thought about it from time to time and resisted, as we do with things that are going to be good for us that are different from our usual way, so we blow them off and determine that they are just not for us.
Then I read about it again from Dr. Dani during a series of emails she was sending out. She wrote, “Eating In ‘Fight Or Flight’ Mode May Be Making You Sick – The way we eat is a major issue. If your body isnt ready to absorb nutrients it doesn’t matter how fancy your smoothie is! Here’s the deal, if you eat on the run, at your desk, in your car or in front of a TV, chances are your nervous system is in the WRONG state (too much flight or fight activated) to receive, process, digest, and absorb your food properly. This can lead to problems like heartburn, indigestion, gas, constipation and feeling bloated. It can also lead to fatigue over time. When you eat, JUST EAT. THAT’S IT. Don’t drive, don’t talk on the phone, don’t type, don’t read, don’t watch TV. JUST EAT.”
I had never really thought about HOW I eat before all this, but apparently, and thankfully, other people had. Here’s some tips, gleaned from my own experience and the wisdom of lots of teachers, including Deepak Chopra and Dr. Dani. It took me a long, long time to follow these tips, oh, and desperation. That helped.
Tip 1 – Settle in before you begin eating – give your body an assist.
Take a few minutes to sit down and become relaxed before you start to eat. You have to get yourself to a place where you’re not still feeling the effects of your busy day – before you take your first bite. It doesn’t have to take long, but it’s important to start off right. So sit down, take a few deep breaths. Calm yourself in whatever way feels best. Some people might say a prayer of thanks for the food in front of them. Or just sit there for two minutes and breath, settle, leave the details behind and acknowledge that this is where you are right now and this is all you have to do right now.
***Dr. Dani recommends taking five healing breaths, also known as the 4-7-8 breath developed by Dr. Weil, before starting to eat.
***See if you can get your mouth to water – usually just by thinking about food. According to Deepak Chopra, this gets the digestive enzymes going, which helps prepare your body to do its thing.
Give your brain and body a chance –
by letting them know, quite simply, it’s time to eat.
Tip 2 – When you eat, eat.
Now it’s time to eat and . . . stare at the wall if you have to, but no reading, no TV, nothing else. Even our thinking can be a distraction from what we’re doing! Sitting there to pay attention to your meal while your mind is going a million miles an hour is just as distracting as watching the TV. You are EATING right now. That is IT.
“When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” -Zen proverb
You may have to even leave the room you would normally eat in to make this happen, like if everyone in the family is sitting down in front of the TV. No worries, I’m not suggesting that you can never, ever again eat in front of the TV or a book. I’m saying that when you are in need of recovery, then you are in need of recovery, and you have to make some exceptions for a little while until you’re better.
I’ve really resisted this one and tried to be the exception. I’ve been down the TV route a million times, thinking that it’s easier to pay attention to my food while I watch TV than while I read. Nice try. Nice compromise. Nice trying to get out of something that you really don’t want to do even though you know it’ll make a difference. Alas, watching TV while eating is still asking your brain to multitask, and even though I’m a little more aware of the fact that I’m eating while watching a show than when I’m reading, I still have to actively remind myself to pay attention to what I’m putting in my mouth and actively remind myself to enjoy it. It really is a NO DISTRACTIONS or multitasking kind of thing.
***The worst thing about not paying attention while you are eating is that it’s so common to swallow massive-sized chunks of food, and this is absolutely NOT what our body was designed to have to digest (hence all the women who are being told that they have leaky gut). This is really crucial. Put your fork down between bites and really pay attention to this process. Help your body out by making sure you chew really thoroughly. This properly begins the digestive process before you even swallow.
TV and reading aside, you may find that your mind is creating the biggest distraction of them all and not ALLOWING you to pay attention. When you notice your brain flying on ahead of you, close your eyes. Say gently to yourself, “Shhhhhh.” Take a breath. And another. “Shhhhh. All I’m doing right now is eating. That’s all I have to do.” It helps to focus on your meal – the actual food that is on your plate, and to say a thank you. Thank you to all those that made this meal possible. Thank you to the fields, thank you to the bees, thank you to the farmer, thank you to the driver, thank you to the grocer. Can’t get much more aware than that.
A lovely benefit of paying attention while you’re eating is that you will NOTICE (trumpets sound) when you are full! And THEN, you can stop when you’re ACTUALLY satisfied rather than when you’ve eaten too much, which brings us to the next tip . . .
Tip 3 – You don’t have to be a member of the clean plate club.
Don’t overeat. This one was another doozy for me. Since I wasn’t paying attention when I was eating, I pretty much overate at every single meal and snack.
We know the basics: Stop eating BEFORE you feel full. Once you’re full, you’ve already overeaten because it takes the brain 10 minutes to realize that you’re full. Eat until you are 80% full. Lovely to know. In theory. But, when something tastes really good? Or when you’re not paying any attention to what you’re putting in your mouth. Or you are just used to always finishing every bite on your plate, it’s way too easy to eat beyond the point of full at every single meal and then realize only in hindsight.
What has been enormously helpful for me is the decision that I will stop eating when there are three bites left on my plate, or two if I’ve given myself a really small portion. So pretty much just setting this as my intention before I eat or part way through when I’m starting to notice – because amazingly and wonderfully, I am actually PAYING ATTENTION while I eat – that I’m starting to feel satisfied. Even if it tastes delicious to me, I can make the 4th to last bite my perfect bite and leave the rest on the plate. This decision to stop before I’ve completely eaten every morsel is a cue that reminds me to be done before all the food is gone. I don’t, contrary to what some of us learn as children, have to clean my plate, and I CAN stop eating even though it tastes good. Revolutionary. Honestly, sometimes the simplest things can be enormously empowering!
Tip 4 – Stay sitting down for at least 3 minutes after you eat. You can do it!
So yep, again, you’re going to stay sitting down. Because you’re not standing and eating at the counter, and you’re not running out the door as you shove food into your mouth. You’re sitting, and you are determined that, because you know it will help you enormously, you are going to stay here for a little while longer and reap the amazing benefits over time. Don’t just jump up in the middle of your last bite as if you’ve done your bit. Your body is just getting up and running with the digestive process and what you’ve given it to do. So sit there for a few more minutes. Put your feet up if that feels comfortable to you. Again, create the intention, make the decision that you’re going to sit there for a bit and give your digestion time to get moving in the right direction.
Deepak Chopra wrote, “By relaxing at the completion of a meal, before returning to another activity, you can allow the digestive process to begin in an effortless way.”
So – stay sitting for a few minutes after you eat, with all the millions of to do’s that must be done? Yes. Just do it.
P.S. Once you’re up and about again, don’t bend over or lay down for quite a while after you eat. You could feel the effects of those movements immediately if that’s something you shouldn’t be doing.
Tip 5 – Wait a certain amount of time before you eat again.
Eating too often is a lot like overeating. The body needs some time to digest what we’ve put into it, so we need to space our meals out!
I’ve seen different recommendations about how long to go between meals, the idea being that you let the food you’ve eaten previously digest fully before you eat again, or that you wait until your body is really signaling hunger. This is really personal and depends on all kinds of different factors, are you eating a certain amount of protein, are you trying to keep your blood sugar at a certain level, stuff like that. You determine what’s best for you and your body through gentle trial and error and by paying enough attention so that you can hear what your body is trying to tell you.
A helpful way to begin really paying attention and taking some control over the frequency of your eating is to look at the clock and write down the time whenever you have a meal or even a little nibble of something. Putting any amount of food in your mouth is getting your body revved up to digest, and apparently, it doesn’t make us feel too well when we’re keeping our body in a constant state of digestion. If this is a thing for you, check out what time it is when you’re done eating and decide how long you would like to try to wait in between. Then when the idea to eat something else occurs to you, all you have to do is look at the clock as a reminder.
I started by challenging myself to get to 2 1/2 hours without eating a morsel in between and then I stretched it out over time. For me, this was a big adjustment. Awareness is key here, and I was just used to putting stuff in my mouth without paying any attention. I had to be disciplined since my habit was to eat my way pretty constantly through the day. My whole world revolved around food. I’d eat three breakfasts by 9 am! Through the practice of eating mindfully, I was amazed to discover that I could get up in the morning and not immediately put food in my mouth and that I could go a whole 4 hours between meals! It’s amazing how we put our heads down and don’t even realize that our habits are not working for our bodies until our body finally screams that it’s had it.
Why was I eating all the time like that? Habit, not paying attention and eating for all the wrong reason, which brings us to . . .
Tip 6 – Eat only when you are ACTUALLY hungry.
There are a lot of questions to investigate with this particular tip:
Why am I eating right now?
Have I even waited long enough for the food that I ate at my previous meal to be digested?
Am I really hungry?
Or am I bored?
Am I just used to reaching for something to eat when I’m not sure what else to do with myself?
Am I avoiding something?
It’s no secret that people eat for all sorts of reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with physical hunger. People eat out of boredom or to soothe their aching souls. People eat because they feel a longing in themselves that they don’t know how to satisfy. But often, it isn’t about actual food at all, and if you’re really paying attention to whether you are hungry or not when you’re reaching for something to eat, and you realize it’s got nothing to do with food, you may start to wonder what that longing is all about.
You may want to spend some time investigating this one. Ask yourself why you are eating and then – pay close attention to the answer. You just might learn some valuable information about yourself and your habits and mindsets.
Tip 7 – Eat the “variety diety.”
Eating the same thing every single day is not the best idea for our bodies either. Variety diety is the goal.
I could easily eat the same thing all day every day. Apparently my tummy has other ideas. For this reason, the freezer has become my new best friend.
The word on the street is that it’s best for our body to not keep eating something every day for more than three days. I know that sounds a little extreme, especially when something tastes really good or is super easy to prepare and seems healthy. But, give it a try and see if it makes a difference.
Tip 8 – Be a stress detector.
Continue to be on the lookout for possible reasons that stress is accumulating in your system: Not enough sleep? – This one is an absolute giant in the digestive department. Lack of sleep creates bunches of stress in our systems. So does filling our mind with things that aren’t helping, maybe too many scary movies – or watching the news too much, which is pretty much the equivalent these days. Not enough exercise? Too much caffeine? Ugh, I know. But there is loads of research out there on the negative effects of caffeine on digestion, including the fact that it increases stress hormone production (no thank you! – not something we need when we’re doing everything else we can to reduce the build up of stress) and is highly acidic in the body. I didn’t want to hear it either, but then again, I wanted to feel well . . .
A couple of notes about starting special diets and stress: If you are trying anything different in your diet, like eating Paleo or Whole30 or giving up gluten or dairy, this can be a surprisingly emotionally-charged time. Be sure to be really gentle with yourself and to make the changes in a way that doesn’t create any more stress in your system. It can be enormously stress causing to make changes like these, so remember, if you want to experience the benefits of the diet change, the even more important part is to not experience the accompanying stress. Setting yourself up for success and knowing where you are going to get the extra time for a food change is one key to success. Knowing you’ve got plenty of options available and that it is possible to feel satisfied once you’ve eaten goes a long way. For this reason, preparation, preparation, preparation is key. You want to ALWAYS have the ingredients and the already prepared foods in the house so that you don’t ever get to a place where you feel like there’s not a single thing you can eat in the world. That’ll put you in a bad mood, and then your stress chemicals will follow suit and your cells will take their cues from there, and all because you weren’t prepared for making the change.
Additionally, there’s the learning curve piece. Any of these new diets or cooking styles take some time to catch on to. Dehydrating, soaking, grain free options, cooking from scratch – there can be a lot to learn, it all takes time, and often, we’re so used to a grab and go kind of lifestyle, that this causes a lot of tension and makes eating a far too pressure-packed process. So just know, going in, that you’re going to want to be very aware of how this all affects your mood and that you do NOT have to know all of it today. Decide what works in a way that it doesn’t create extra tension. Think of one thing to start that you can do successfully, and do that today. Then each day, keep adding, but it doesn’t have to be all at once, so again, be gentle with yourself. Keep going. Let the process gradually unfold. Be sure to not simply rely on the WHAT you eat but also the HOW you eat.
Once you’re feeling like you’re ready to incorporate these tips into how you eat for a bit:
- write them all out in your own words
- add any other tips that you know would help
- read through them each time you eat as a reminder
- consider this your eating mindfully practice
- decide on a certain number of days or weeks that you would like to be sure to incorporate this practice on a regular basis, consistently over the course of your day
- stick with it, and know that it will make all the difference for your digestion and for your experience of life!
The really wonderful news is that our bodies can recover so quickly when we take the time to pay attention and do our part. Sometimes it feels as if we’ll always be in this exact place or state of health, but we have a huge role to play in our recovery, and there’s no reason at all to settle where we are. When we take really good care of our bodies, our bodies take really good care of us. Take good care.
(originally written in 2016)