This is such a great topic not only for those who currently need to work on improving their food choices, but also for those who feel they have good control over their food choices and have a healthy diet. What we are delving into today is what some new research is looking into but also just some food for thought about whether what we are eating is compromised by the way we are eating it.
Let’s start with the good old flight or flight response which I’m sure many of you have heard of before. You are presented with a stressor, your body undergoes a series of physiological changes to prepare your body to either fight, or flight from this stressor. This response is actually a survival technique and is important for acute stressors which were very common back in the hunter gatherer days, eg. a threatening animal encroaches on your hunting/living space, you either fight it or flight from it, the stressor is removed and we’re back to homeostasis. The difference is that these days the stressors are things like work, money, relationships, health, etc. and they are ongoing all of the time so we end up in a state of chronic stress.
Now how does this affect your food you might be thinking? When the stress response is initiated it triggers our sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the physiological changes which I mentioned that prepare the body to flight or flight from the stressor. One of these changes is that blood flow is diverted away from systems that are deemed less important at that time (immune, reproductive and digestion systems), and is redirected to our large muscle groups to help provide oxygen and energy so that your muscle cells will fire to allow you to fight or flight. Other changes that occur is reduced saliva production (you know how you get a dry mouth when you’re nervous?) and also reduced stomach acid production - both two very important parts of the digestive process! If the stressor/s are removed, then the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and restores our body back to homeostasis where it can support our immune, reproductive and digestive symptoms again.
So for the modern person in today’s Western society who is always stressed, this is a big problem for our digestion. Not too mention the many other effects that stress has on your body such as promoting inflammation and compromising gut health from the ongoing release of our stress hormones and associated physiological changes.
Now here’s where it gets interesting! Research has discovered that people in the Mediterranean seem to have high risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, but death rates from cardiovascular diseases are not as high as Western countries. We know that people of the Mediterranean traditionally have more active lifestyles and they eat what we know as the Mediterranean diet (which has a significant amount evidence to support a positive effect on our health), but they also tend to eat their food sitting at a large table with family and friends, a glass of red wine in hand, laughing, sharing home cooked food and having a good time (now hold your horses, I’m not saying we should drink wine with every meal but in terms of a healthy and ‘balanced’ way to include a glass of wine I’d say this fits the bill!). Compare this to the typical Westerner today, sitting at their desk reading emails while on the phone and shoveling cereal into their mouth before their next meeting in 5 minutes. I think there’s no denying that we know who is in a ‘sympathetic’ state here and who is in a ‘parasympathetic’ state - which raises the question is HOW we eat just as important (assuming you are eating the right thing in the first place!)?
Sound evidence for this is lacking at the moment but I have not doubt it’s an area that is going to be of much more interest to researchers going forward but in the meantime I know I am trying to pay more attention how I am eating my food and this mainly involves being more mindful and trying to eat when in a relaxed, calm and happy state. Simple things that can really help with this include:
Taking five big deep belly breaths before sitting down to eat (this helps to activate your parasympathetic nervous system)
Take time to eat your meal, chewing your food properly and noticing the taste and textures of your food.
Make the food, the company you eat it with and the setting you eat it in all things that make you feel grateful and happy for.
Appreciate home cooked food for the nourishment and enjoyment it brings you.
Eat away from distractions such as social media, emails, chores or driving!
Manage your stress!! Cannot highlight this one enough, although it can always be a work in progress doing something is better than nothing!
So although it is always going to be important to choose the best foods for our health, paying attention to our physiological and also mental state when eating can mean that you don’t let any of the goodness from your food go to waste!