I once ran into a bear on a backpacking trip. There I was, walking along a trail, minding my own business, when I turned a corner and came face to face with a large black bear, who was none to pleased to see me in her blueberry patch. I was not pleased either. In fact, I was terrified.
When you are face to face with a large bear, dinner is generally the last thing on your mind. So, what does this have to do with eating?
If you are like me, and many of my patients, when the decision of how to eat becomes overwhelming, you feel stressed. Your body is subtly reacting to food the way mine responded to that bear.
And who can blame you? It can be confusing trying to understand how to eat well!
WHY IS EATING HEALTHY SO CONFUSING?
You have decided to make a commitment to your health, and to eat better. You start with buying organic food at the grocery store, and then decide you want to take it up a notch.
You search around for the best diet. You talk to friends and find internet sites claiming that a vegan diet will be the salvation of your body and the planet. But then there are other people telling you to ditch the grains and eat a diet high in fat and meat. And then there are the food combining folks. Maybe you should try to eat an Ayurvedic diet? Raw foods?
Its enough to make you want to go back to the ice cream and pizza. Right?
Amid all this confusion, it is easy to loose focus on the reason why you wanted to eat healthy in the first place. To nourish yourself.
Easier said than done, I know. In our schizophrenic American food culture, with our fad diets and nutrition science, it can be difficult to simply understand how to eat to nourish yourself.
Now, everyone’s digestive system is different, and in my practice I work with many people on creating custom plans to bring them back to health and happiness. There is, however, one element that I include in everyone’s plan. And it had to do with that bear in the blueberry patch.
BEAR VS. DINNER
When I ran into that bear, my sympathetic, or “fight or flight” nervous system was activated.
When you are under stress- such as being face to face with bear – the sympathetic nervous system dominates. Your body mobilizes its resources to allow you to fight or run away. For example, blood is shunted towards your skeletal muscles and away from your digestive tract.
With all those resources going towards fighting or fleeing, there is not much left to allow for good digestion.
When you are not under stress, your nervous system switches into parasympathetic, or “rest and digest” mode. In this state, your body moves its resources towards digesting, healing tissue, and all of those bodily functions that are very important, but don’t matter much if you might get eaten by a bear in a few minutes.
In order to really receive nourishment from your food, it is crucial to be in a parasympathetic, “rest and digest” state when you are eating.
THE PHYSIOLOGY OF GRATITUDE
Now, you may not be face to face with a bear on a regular basis, but it is worth checking in to see if you feel stressed while you are eating.
There is a subtle way in which even the process of getting and cooking food can turn from a joyous and nourishing activity, to something that is stressful when you are trying to eat healthy. Are these grains going to kill me? Is meat the enemy?
I am not saying that these questions are not important, but no matter what you happen to be eating, it is necessary to create a physiology that will allow for optimal digestion.
One of the best ways I have found to do this is very simple and very old. Gratitude. Before you eat, take a minute to feel grateful for your food, for the people that worked to bring it to you, and for anything else that comes to you.
You do not need to say grace. You do not need to make this a religious ritual (unless you want to). You do not even need to take more than a couple minutes. Gratitude is simple, it is powerful, and it will drop your body into a physiologic state that will allow you to make the most of what you are eating.
In this day and age it can be confusing when you are trying to decide how to eat, especially if you have a health concern. The food you eat is the foundation for a healthy body and mind, and it is important to eat as best you can for your body. But before you eat (whatever you are eating), take some time to bring your body into a state that can digest that food.