Besides breathing and sleeping, eating is life's most vital activity. We cannot sustain ourselves without eating.
In hunter-gatherer times, finding and eating food was a matter of survival. Many hours of the day were spent in the pursuit and eating of food. In the modern world, much of the hunting and gathering is done for us. Very few hours (or, for some people, minutes) are spent gathering, preparing, or eating food. However, as Jon Kabat Zinn, psychologist and author of multiple books on mindfulness, says,
"For the most part, we eat with great automaticity and little insight into its critical importance for us in sustaining life and also in sustaining health."
We seem to have forgotten that eating is necessary to our body functions. Food gives us energy, and allows us to think, move, and prosper. But we are no longer attentive to the impact of food on our functioning. The idea of being consumers of food has switched to that of being food "consumers," in a marketing sense.
Our food preferences and choices are now influenced more by food companies, ad campaigns, and the notion that "faster is better." We don't always (or perhaps even often) pick foods based on what our bodies need for optimal wellness. Our busy lives and stress  prevent us from taking the time to really nourish body and soul. We eat for convenience, not health.
If we begin to pay attention to how specific foods impact our body, we can start to make better choices about what foods to buy and eat.
For example, Jennifer was tempted in the supermarket to buy one of the sweet cereals, and she ate a bowl of this cereal each morning. But she noticed that she was always hungry a few hours after breakfast, craving a muffin or sweet roll. On the suggestion of a friend, she started eating eggs for breakfast, and found she wasn't so hungry and didn't crave sugar. (This was probably because the protein and fat in the eggs made her feel full while her previous breakfast, which had more sugar, probably increased her insulin level. The insulin reduced the glucose level in her blood, making her feel hungry.)
In addition, if we pay attention as we eat, we are likely to eat less and to better digest what we eat.
Susan Albers, author of Eating Mindfully, suggests that in our fast-paced world, attentiveness to the things you "have to do takes on a greater priority than what is going on internally." "Slowing down" she says, "is a foreign concept to busy individuals. Doing several things simultaneously is considered a more efficient way of doing things." We may not even care that multi-tasking registers as stress in the mind and therefore triggers a stress response in the body.
When our bodies perceive a threat, a whole host of physiological reactions occur within seconds. Our bodies move into a state of readiness, a chemical version of "code red." This is called the "fight or flight response," also known as the stress response. In this state, the following processes occur:
When the body is in the midst of fighting or fleeing, it gives very little priority to digestion. In fact, it essentially puts the digestive system on hold. After all, if you are being chased by a saber-toothed tiger, it isn't really the time to stop and eat.
Because the digestive system is shut down, fewer digestive enzymes are released and less hydrochloric acid is secreted to aid in the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Without stomach acid, many vitamins and minerals can't be broken down, liberated, or absorbed.
During the stress response, the cells' ability to metabolize fatty acids is also impaired. Instead, the body tends to break down muscle and replace it with stored fat and excess fluid. Over time, this can cause weight gain.
In addition, during the stress response, excess glucose is released into the blood stream to provide additional energy. The pancreas then releases additional insulin to deliver the excess glucose. Some researchers believe this can create cravings for foods that are high in sugar.
You might think that the stress response doesn't really apply because you don't eat much when you are stressed. But distraction can act just like stress in terms of the impact on your digestive system.
An often-cited 1987 study, published in the journal Gastroenterology, illustrates how metabolism and digestion are altered under perceived distraction and stimuli. In this study, participants consumed a mineral drink while they were in a relaxed state. Researchers found that participants absorbed 100 percent of the drink's nutrients in this relaxed state.
Then the participants were asked to concentrate as two different people spoke to them simultaneously. In one ear, someone spoke about intergalactic space travel, while in the other ear, someone spoke about financial planning. When the subjects were exposed to this listening conflict and given the same mineral mix, they showed a significant reduction in assimilation that lasted up to an hour afterward.
The simple act of attending to two stimuli at once dramatically altered their metabolism, even though we might not normally consider this to be very stressful. Consider that people often read the newspaper, watch TV, or drive a car while eating. These distracting stimuli can to some degree impair the ability to digest fully.
The bottom line is: if you are eating while overloaded with stimuli and under stress, your body doesn't know that it's supposed to be digesting. As you dash out the door in the morning, toast in hand, or eat lunch in front of a computer screen, or when anxiously worrying about the day or experiencing negative emotions tied to a relationship, the message you are giving your body is "don't digest."
To your body, these stimuli, while not as dramatic or intense as being chased by a saber-toothed tiger, are still being registered as "emergency." So you can experience digestive symptoms, such as heartburn, a feeling of food just sitting in your stomach, bloating, belching, and overall stomach pain. The nutritional value of even the healthiest meal is diminished because the digestive system isn't functioning optimally to absorb the nutrients.
Stress  also inhibits concentration, memory, and reason, which can impact your planning and choice of food as well.
Mindful eating has health benefits. Paying attention while eating assures full digestion as well as full nutritional benefit.
There is an initial phase of digestion called the cephalic phase that occurs before we actually start to eat. Cephalic means "head," so it is not surprising that this initial phase of digestion begins with the brain seeing, smelling, and anticipating food. An example of the cephalic phase happens when you smell bread baking. Anticipating the delicious flavor of the freshly baked bread causes the mouth to water, preparing you to eat the bread.
In this phase, the brain informs the stomach that it should prepare for a meal by initiating a number of digestive activities. The body begins to prepare for the breaking down and absorption of nutrients. Salivation is activated (saliva is used for the initial break down of carbohydrates) and pancreatic enzymes and stomach acids (also used to break food down) are released. The conveyer belt that is the digestive tract begins its rhythmic movement so that nutrients can be absorbed and moved along.
It is estimated that as much as 30 to 40 percent of the total digestive response to any meal is due to the cephalic phase. So if we aren't paying attention to food before we begin to eat, if we are not fully aware of what and when we are eating, it stands to reason that we are not provoking the full beneficial digestive response.
The French and other Europeans demonstrate the benefits of dining in a relaxed state. During the early afternoon, the French and many other Europeans take hours to eat lunch. Lots of high fat food and wine is served and the meal tends to be the largest of the day.
However, the ingredients are fresh, and the company is enjoyable; there is conversation and engagement. They are dining rather than simply eating. They are experiencing pleasure. The body is aware of eating and digestion occurs. This presents quite a contrast to the fast food, rushed lunch "minutes" Americans tend to experience.
The paradox between the high fat, alcohol rich diet and the excellent weight and health of the French has been confounding researchers for years. Diseases such as heart disease were supposed to increase as people ate more fat. Thus the search for the "magic bullet" in the French diet was conducted in earnest. Was it the wine? Was it the quality of the fats? Was it the fresh ingredients? The answer is yes to all of these factors.
But there is more. As Marc David, author of Nourishing Wisdom points out, "First and foremost the French consistently eat under parasympathetic dominance (opposite of the stress response), the physiological state of relaxation and maximum digestive function. Even if they are stressed out, taking a generous amount of time to eat a meal and savor it probably helps them let go. It is the optimum state of digestion and assimilation."
In Eating Mindfully, Susan Albers describes it thus:
"Eating a mindful meal means completely focusing your mind on the 'process' of eating. You take it moment by moment and focus on the here and now. You begin by looking at the food, noting the different colors and shapes. You really see what is in front of you. You also become aware of the manner in which you reach for the spoon and fork. Food doesn't automatically end up in your mouth. Your entire body is involved in getting it there... from ingredients to atmosphere, whether appealing or appalling, both the psychological mood and the physical accessories that surround you when you eat may influence the way in which you metabolize food and in turn your health and wellbeing."
Mindful eating is the full experience of our meal. The Enlightened Diet authors Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz describe mindful eating as being present, moment-by-moment for each sensation that happens during eating, such as chewing, tasting, and swallowing. "When you take time to experience your food through all your senses; taste (flavor), smell (aroma), sight (presentation) sound (of surroundings), and touch (movement of utensils and the feel of the food)," they suggest, "you are likely to be truly nourished."
See the activities on the left for specific strategies for mindful eating. But even if you don't use these techniques, you can't go wrong if you eat fresh and wholesome foods in pleasant surroundings with people you enjoy!
Albers, S. (2003). Eating Mindfully. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Barclay, G.R., Turnberg, L.A. (1987). Effects of psychological stress on slat and water transport in the human jejunum. Gastroenterology, 93(1), 91-97.
David, M. (1991). Nourishing Wisdom. New York: Random House.
Heller, R.F. (1994). Hyperinsulinemic obesity and carbohydrate addiction: the missing link is the carbohydrate frequency factor. Medical Hypotheses, 42(5), 307-312.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Coming to Our Senses. New York: Hyperion.
Kesten, D., Scherwitz, L. (2007). The Enlightened Diet. Berkeley, California: Celestial Arts.
Pelletier, K. (1993). Between Mind and Body: Stress, Emotions, and Health in Mind Body Medicine. New York: Consumer Reports Books.