Most of us have been taught to believe that good nutrition is simply a function of eating the right food and taking the right supplements. Of course, this is true, but there’s more to the equation. What we eat is only half the story of good nutrition. The other half of the story is who we are as eaters. That is, what we think, feel, believe our levels of stress, relaxation, pleasure, awareness, and the inner stories that we live out all have a real, powerful, and scientific effect on nutritional metabolism.
Recent advances in the mind-body sciences have been proving what ancient wisdom traditions have been saying for eons – that the mind and body exist on an exquisite continuum, and profoundly impact one another.
So the good news is simply this: you can powerfully change your health and your nutritional status without changing anything you eat, but by changing you the eater. In my 30 years as a nutritional psychologist, I’ve seen so many profound breakthroughs in clients and students around weight, overeating, and a long list of health conditions when they began to practice some of the simple principles of eating psychology. Consider some of these key “secrets” that I think everyone should know:
1. Stress can put weight on – relaxation can take it off.
It’s fascinating how stress, fear, anxiety, anger, judgment and even negative self-talk can literally create a physiologic stress response in the body. This means that we generate more cortisol and insulin, two hormones that have the unwanted effect of signaling the body to store weight, store fat, and stop building muscle. Strange as it may sound, we quite literally change our calorie burning capacity when we’re stressed. What’s more incredible though, is that as we learn to smile more, ease into life and breathe more deeply, the body enters a physiologic relaxation response. In this state, we actually create our optimal day-in, day-out calorie-burning metabolism. So, you could be following the best weight loss diet in the world, but if you’re an anxious mess, the power of your mind is limiting the weight loss of your body. Far too many people adopt stressful weight loss strategies – impossible to follow diets, overly intense exercise programs, tasteless food, extremely low calorie meal plans – all of which can create the kind of stress chemistry that ensures our weight will stay put. It’s time to relax into weight loss.
2. Happiness is the best digestive aid.
Can you recall what happens when you eat during anxiety or stress? Many people report such symptoms as heartburn, cramping, gas, and digestive upset. During stress, the body automatically shifts into the classic fight-or-flight response. This feature of the nervous system evolved over millions of years as a brilliant safety mechanism to support us during life-threatening events. In the moment the stress response is activated, something very interesting happens – the digestive system shuts down. It makes perfect sense that when you’re fending off an angry gorilla, you don’t need to waste energy digesting your breakfast. All the body’s metabolic energy is directed towards survival. So, you could be eating the healthiest food in the universe, but if you aren’t eating under the optimum state of digestion and assimilation – which happens to be relaxation – you literally and metabolically are not receiving the full nutritional value of your meal.
3. Overeating – it’s simpler than you think.
Most people think they overeat because they have a willpower problem. “If only I could control my appetite, then I would stop being such a willpower weakling and start losing weight.” Well, here’s the good news – you don’t have a willpower problem. The problem for a majority of overeaters is that they don’t actually “eat” when they eat. What I’m suggesting is that we aren’t always fully present to the meal, aware of its taste, eating it slowly, or simply feeling nourished by the food. When this happens, the brain, which requires taste and satisfaction, misses out on a key phase of the nutritional experience. The brain literally thinks it didn’t eat, or didn’t eat enough. And it simply screams back at us – “Hungry!” So, you can dramatically decrease your overeating by increasing your awareness and presence at every meal.
4. Slower eating means faster metabolism.
One of my favorite nutritional questions to ask a client or student is “Are you a fast eater, moderate eater, or slow eater?” If the answer is “fast”, then it’s time for an overhaul. That’s because the act of eating fast is considered a stressor by the body. Humans are simply not biologically wired for high speed eating. So when we do eat fast, the body once again enters the physiologic stress response, which results in decreased digestion, decreased nutrient assimilation, increased nutrient excretion, lowered calorie burning rate, and a bigger appetite. The bottom line is that you can literally empower your nutritional metabolism simply by slowing down. What’s fascinating is that for many fast eaters, slowing down is quite a challenge. But try this – don’t just eat slow – eat sensuously, feel nourished by your food, and take in all the sensations of your meal.
5. Make sure you have enough Vitamin P – Pleasure!
Far too many people are taught to believe that pleasure is something frivolous. Well, it’s actually required by our biology. All organisms on planet earth, be they lion, lizard, amoeba, or human are programmed at the most primitive level of the nervous system to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Well, if you’re eating and not paying attention, the brain will drive you to seek more pleasure via overeating. What’s worse, if you’re stressed while eating, the excess cortisol in your system actually de-sensitizes us to pleasure – so you’ll need to eat more food in order to get the pleasure we are seeking. The bottom line is this: If you want more pleasure from food, you don’t need to eat more of the ice cream. Simply breathe, relax, de-stress, enjoy, pay attention, and the body will naturally experience the pleasure it seeks. And the great news is, since pleasure catalyzes a relaxation response, it actually fuels digestion and assimilation
6. Emotional eating – it’s not the enemy.
At our core, we are emotional beings – rich, complex, juicy, unpredictable feeling-filled creatures. We love, we celebrate, we laugh, cry, we break down, we rise up… So how could we NOT be emotional eaters? We love food. We love our favorite restaurant. We love how food makes us feel good. Some of us love cooking for others. Some of us are passionate about nutrition. It’s time to get over it – if you’re human, you will bring emotionality to the table. Once we embrace the reality that we’re genetically hard-wired for emotional expression, we can relax a little more. Underneath the quest to eradicate emotional eating from one’s life is often found a hidden desire to eliminate uncomfortable feelings. We strive for an impossible to attain goal that constantly leaves us frustrated and in failure. Yes, this thing called emotional eating can be very painful. But it’s not the actual problem – it’s a symptom that’s pointing to something deeper. It’s an alert mechanism from body wisdom that’s calling us to check in, and follow the flow of emotions within us to see where our soul is calling for more awareness and insight.
7. Get rid of toxic nutritional beliefs.
Finally, many of us have absorbed toxic nutritional beliefs that are as harmful and debilitating as any of the toxins in our food. Here’s what I mean: it’s surprisingly common for people to believe that “food is the enemy”, or “food makes me fat”, or “fat in food will become fat on my body” or “my appetite is the enemy” or “as soon as I have the perfect body, then I’ll finally be happy.” Such beliefs may seem harmless, yet they can create a relationship with food and self that’s filled with tremendous suffering and pain. Think about it – if “food is the enemy”, then we are constantly in a fight or flight stress response whenever we eat, or even think about food. Such a powerful stressor can cause all the problems of stress-induced digestive shutdown, decreased calorie burning capacity, and an inner life that’s seldom at peace. The question is: Is your relationship with food nourishing, or punishing?
Hopefully, you’ve noticed that there’s way more to good nutrition than simply the food itself. We bring all of ourselves to the table – our hopes, fears, thoughts, feelings, dramas, and dreams. And the more we include a well rounded nutritional profile – Vitamin R – relaxation, Vitamin P – pleasure, Vitamin S – slow, and Vitamin L – Love – the more we can literally nourish ourselves on every level.
Which of these Secrets have you found to be the most useful?