All living things need to eat. We eat every day, and yet our relationship with food is complicated. Our digestive system, emotions and moods are in such a sensitive balance that food is much more than mere energy or sustenance. Emotions and thoughts have a huge effect on our eating habits. But what is behind this complex relationship, and how can our relationship with food change when we try to eat mindfully?
First, let’s take a look at humans’ relationship with food. When you think about it, eating is actually quite simple: there’s a certain amount of energy, essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals that we need to ingest daily. These amounts vary depending on our body type, age and gender. When you look at how other animals eat, you see that they only eat when they are hungry, make it their priority and only eat until they are full. Similarly, toddlers are much more instinctive about how they eat than adults. The human brain is complex and many factors can disrupt our natural tendencies. Today, eating disorders are sadly on the rise. Sometimes we lose our appetite completely and sometimes we continue to snack even when we are full. It can be hard to figure out how to eat the right amount and type of food.
There are many reasons why we sometimes overeat or undereat. Many animals experience a loss of appetite as a reaction to danger or stress. This is because digestion requires a lot of energy. When we are stressed, instead of ‘wasting’ that energy on digestion, our body uses that energy to solve our problem. However, “emotional eating” can also be a common reaction to feeling stressed. So what exactly is emotional eating? Eating some foods gives us an instant feeling of gratification or happiness. This is due to the substances they contain; they satisfy the reward center of our brains. Sweet foods that are high in sugar are the leading culprits because sugar is quickly absorbed and gives us an instant rush of energy. In modern times, our lives move so fast that we don’t even have time to notice most of our emotions. We not only do not take the time to pause and feel our positive emotions and be grateful for them but we also develop ways to avoid negative emotions instead of allowing ourselves to feel them. One of the most effective ways to avoid our feelings is to reach for food. Other unhealthy tools include alcohol, cigarettes or other harmful substances. Snacking is maybe the easiest, most accessible and fastest option. Moreover, food appeals to our senses and gives us great pleasure. When we cannot cope with a difficult emotion, instead of allowing ourselves to feel it or noticing what is happening inside us at that moment, we reach for ways to avoid facing the emotion and that give us instant pleasure. Once our brain gets used to this cycle, the same neural pathways are triggered each time we experience a similar situation and our body automatically craves food. This pattern of behavior has both emotional and intellectual origins, and can turn into a physical addiction as it has an impact on our blood and hormones each time we repeat it. So, when our eating habits become deeply ingrained in our brains, we can find ourselves snacking even when we aren’t dealing with a difficult situation or emotion.
Another reason why we overeat has its origin in evolution. Nowadays, it is very easy to produce sugar and we consume much more sugar than our ancestors who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, sugar and its derivatives are added to almost all packaged and ready foods. Plus these foods are easily accessible. However, sugar was a rare treat for primitive humans: fruit was the only real source of sugar for hunter-gatherer societies. Since there was no mass production of food, they couldn’t just go to the supermarket and fill up their carts. So, when they found a tree covered in fruit, their instinct was to binge and eat as much as they possibly could in order to get an instant rush of energy. We inherited this instinct to binge on sweet food from our ancestors. This behavior is embedded in our genes. So don’t feel guilty if you have a sweet tooth – it is totally natural!
Another negative impact of our fast-paced lives is the weakened link between our mind and body. The pace of life in cities and the burdens we bear create tension in our body and nervous system. When we feel under pressure, we tend to disassociate from our bodies as a physiological response. The signals transmitting sensations from our body to our brain become weaker when we are stressed. In addition, as our mind races and our thoughts get more intense, it becomes harder to pay attention to those already weak signals from our body. Just like some scales become less sensitive over time, our ability to sense the needs of our body can also become reduced; this also includes understanding if we are hungry or full. Moreover, our needs and the things that are good for us change constantly, from day to day. When we become desensitized to the signals our body sends us, we begin to repeat actions that have worked for us in the past.
Social pressure can also have a negative impact on our mind-body relationship. The worst culprit is the idea of the “ideal body”. Popular culture tells us that only a few body types and sizes are desirable. As a result, we end up imposing these ideals on ourselves without questioning whether they actually suit or are healthy for us. These ideal images differ over time as pop culture changes. Being overweight was considered a mark of beauty during certain stages of history, while being dangerously skinny was the definition of “beautiful” at other times. Historically, there have been economic reasons behind these trends. For example, in times of scarcity being overweight implied that that person was wealthy and had access to food. Popular trends are just that – passing trends that should have no impact on your personal body image.
Currently, we are bombarded with advice about nutrition, sports and diet in our daily lives. Everyone has an opinion — from friends to doctors on TV shows, from diet books to social media. Medical experts are the best source, as they can help you understand your body. However, it is hard to separate how much of what we read and see actually comes from experts and how much is from lay people or even completely false. This bombardment of information is too general, and does not factor in our own body and personality. For example, while eating frequent, small portions may suit some people, it is better for others to have larger portions but fewer meals. Some people benefit from eating the same food and drinking the same beverages year round. Some days we are physically more active and need more calories. Some days we are more tense or angry, so we reach out for food to soothe us. Trying to follow general rules instead of listening to our present state can be stressful. Society tells us that we should ignore our own needs. Instead, how can we build a stronger relationship with our body?
Based on my personal experience, my primary advice would be to get to know your body. Since adolescence, I have had problems with my body image and eating habits. I was able to overcome this step by step once I started to pause and listen to my body. Of course, this is not as easy as it seems.
So what can we do to listen to our body and maintain a healthy diet?
If you sometimes skip meals without even noticing or have digestive issues, start by slowing down how you eat. If possible, eat regular meals. When chewing, try to focus on each bite as much as possible without any distractions and make sure to chew your food thoroughly. Digestion begins in the mouth and experts recommend swallowing your food after chewing it to an almost soup-like consistency. This way, your stomach finds it much easier to complete the digestion.
Incorporating body scanning meditation into your practice is another great way to raise your awareness. To do this, you can try guided meditations or just simply take short pauses where you pay attention to each part of your body, from the top of your head to the tip of your toes. As you do this more often, it will get easier to notice the sensations in your body. This will help you better understand how the type or amount of food you eat makes you feel, and whether you feel the urge to eat because you are actually hungry or just by force of habit. Meditation helps us to become much more sensitive to the signs our body is sending us as we calm the voice of our mind.
Mindful eating is another important practice. This consists of examining your food carefully and noticing all its details. A great food to try this with is a raisin. First, take a raisin in your hands and start to observe it. Take the time to examine all its details such as its texture, color and smell–everything but its taste. Spend at least five minutes doing this. Then, taste a small piece of it and notice how it feels in your mouth and how it tastes, focusing on every moment. You can spend up to ten or fifteen minutes eating a single raisin! You can also try this with another fruit or nut of your choice.
Even if you do not have a eating disorder or weight problem, you can always consult a specialist on how to become better in touch with your body. We all have different physical needs. For instance, you might have a sensitivity to a certain type of food. Food intolerance tests can be quite helpful if you experience discomfort after eating. In order for these tests to be useful, they should be held under the guidance of a physician or a nutritionist. Some people even believe that you can benefit from eating a diet based on your blood type. To learn more about this, you can consult an expert in the Hindu practice known as Ayurveda. One or more of these options might help you to better connect with your body.
We mostly eat at set meal times by force of habit. You may actually be eating without being really hungry. There are many reasons why we eat besides actual hunger: we can be thirsty or simply bored. In addition, everyone has their unique circadian rhythm that affects when they feel hungry. So, try to notice when your body is giving you real signals of hunger. In that way, you can decide whether the feeling of hunger is a physical or emotional need.
We look forward to hearing the experiences and practices that have helped you to make mindful eating a part of your daily life!
Translator: Ebru Peközer