WHAT we eat is of course important to our overall health and wellbeing, but HOW we eat it is just as important. It’s something that often gets overlooked which can keep us feeling stuck.
If we regularly eat fast, don’t chew well, eat while we’re multitasking and not focusing on our food, or even second-guess our eating habits and feel guilty after eating – these trigger our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system to activate when we eat, rather than our parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system.
When this happens, it can ultimately trigger us to eat more than our body really wants and needs, make us crave more sweet and processed foods, negatively affect our absorption of nutrients, reduce our day in/day out calorie-burning capacity, increase our fat storage hormones, and lots more.
How does HOW we eat affect how much we eat?
If we miss the experience of taste, pleasure, and satisfaction from our food, the brain often interprets this missed experience as hunger. That’s because we’re biologically wired at the most primitive level to get those things from food…so that way we keep wanting to eat and survive.
Say you’re running errands and mindlessly eating as you go. Your brain isn’t smart enough to say, “Hey, you were in a rush and not paying attention to your food.” The brain simply says “hungry.”
We are physiologically driven to signal HUNGER for more food, even if we’ve eaten a huge meal, because the brain didn’t get what it needed – the eating experience.
How does HOW we eat affect our metabolism?
Research shows 40-60% of our digestive and calorie-burning power when we eat comes from something called “cephalic phase digestion.” Cephalic means “of the head” so it literally describes the “head or brain phase” of digestion.
Say you’re at a party, you’re chatting and drinking, not paying attention to what you’re eating, eating fast, and eating under stress because you feel a little awkward, you’re only metabolizing your food at 40-60% efficiency.
And on top of that, since your body is in a stress response, you’re also signaling the body to store more fat and making it harder on your digestive system, increasing likelihood for bloating or indigestion.
How does HOW we eat matter if we eat food that isn’t very nutritious for us?
I’m going to answer this one with an example that gives 2 scenarios. Say you’re at your work celebration and you see delicious-looking cupcakes.
Scenario 1: You tell yourself you shouldn’t eat the cupcake, but ultimately decide what the heck and have it. You eat it really fast because you feel bad you caved, and afterward, feel guilty about it.
By eating the cupcake in this way, you’re putting your body in stress response and missed the eating experience. You also increased your likelihood of overeating and having sugary or carby cravings later. Plus your metabolism isn’t working at optimal speed, and you’re releasing fat storage hormones.
Scenario 2: You’re in the exact same situation, but you give yourself full permission to eat it. You savor it, eat it slowly, enjoy its flavors and textures, get lots of satisfaction from it, and just move on afterward.
By eating the cupcake in this way, you’re in a relaxation response. You got that full eating experience, you optimized your metabolism and digestion, and have less likelihood for overeating or intense cravings later.
It’s the same cupcake in both scenarios, but the body responds completely differently depending on HOW you eat it.
HOW do we eat more mindfully?
At a high level, aim to eat with intention and attention.
I have my clients create what I call a Pre Eating Ritual. It’s a way of tuning in and connecting with their body before (and during) eating to stimulate that rest and digest nervous system and make empowered choices to give the body what and how much food it wants and needs.
A great way to start is by taking a couple of long, slow deep breaths. This scientifically stimulates that rest & digest nervous system right off the bat. Then see what food is available to you, and ask yourself what would feel good in your body. What you really feel like having.
No matter what you choose, when you do eat, aim to be fully present, minimize distractions, take small bites, chew really well, eat slowly, and fully savor and enjoy it.
Eating mindfully helps prevent overeating because when our body feels satisfied, it will signal fullness sooner.