Dr. William Beaumont, known as the “Father of Gastric Physiology,” first met patient Alexis St. Martin in 1822 when he was accidentally shot in the stomach at close range by a shotgun loaded with buckshot. Dr. Beaumont treated the wound, although he was unsuccessful in fully closing the open hole in St. Martin’s stomach.
Despite a poor prognosis, St. Martin survived and was subsequently hired by Dr. Beaumont as the family’s handyman. In 1825, Dr. Beaumont began medical testing with St. Martin and recorded his results.
Dr. Beaumont realized the unique opportunity St. Martin presented for the real-time observation of human digestion. Most of Dr. Beaumont’s experiments involved him tying a piece of food to a string and inserting it through the hole directly into St. Martin’s stomach.
Dr. Beaumont would inspect the food over a period of time and observe the rate of digestion of different foods. St. Martin would at times become irritable during these experiments, which led Dr. Beaumont to make an important discovery: stress can hinder digestion.
Almost two hundred years later, the medical community is still untangling the connection between stress, digestion, and the regulation of appetite. Awareness has been growing as to the importance of how we eat, not just what we eat.
Mindful eating occurs when you engage and focus your full attention upon the experience of eating—the smells, tastes, thoughts, and feelings. You’re conscious and aware of all aspects of the process. Many of you eat even when you’re not hungry, or eat for comfort, or use food as a distraction. When you eat mindlessly, you become unaware of the dangerous effects that food can have on your emotional and physical health. By tuning all of your senses into the food you’re eating, meals become more enjoyable and satisfying.
The practice of mindfulness starts with increasing self-awareness and living deliberately. This involves turning off the autopilot that steers us mindlessly through life and instead focusing our attentions on our thoughts, bodily sensations, and feelings. Once we are no longer “zoned out,” we can begin to question knee-jerk decisions that eliminate choices.
Just as the practice of mindfulness has helped people overcome depression, anxiety, stress, and chronic pain, it is also very useful in overcoming disordered eating. Relaxation exercises that focus on awareness can be transferred to eating habits and the thoughts that both prompt and maintain them.
A review published in the journal Eating Disorders found that mindfulness-based eating awareness training decreased binge episodes, improved a sense of control over eating, and cultivated self-acceptance in patients with a history of disordered eating.
Two of the most common mindfulness-based therapies are Transcendental Meditation (TM) and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). While MBSR emphasizes calming stress and TM cultivates transcendence of everyday problems, both utilize the discipline of meditation to support recovery from food addiction. These therapies help you to control impulsive urges and develop patience.
Science supports the benefits of meditation that individuals report anecdotally. A study of regular meditators concluded that they release sixty-five percent more dopamine into the ventral striatum than those who do not meditate. These increased levels of dopamine, sustained by meditation, reduce impulsivity and help curb food cravings.
Mindful eating is the opposite of mindless eating, during which food is consumed without awareness or enjoyment. Mindful eating involves much more than the actual process of eating; it encourages you to explore why you eat and to contemplate the roles food plays in your life that may in fact have little to do with hunger.
As you eat more deliberately, you may be surprised to discover the myriad ways you rely upon food to control your moods: for instance, you drink coffee when you’re tired, eat chocolate when you’re sad, or raid the refrigerator when you’re bored.
These are knee-jerk reactions to outside stressors that can cause more problems than they solve. Mindfulness will help you uncover the automatic choices you are accustomed to making, and realize it is possible to make new and different choices.
In addition to a regular mealtime schedule, mindful eating involves the establishment of a relaxing eating context. Sit down and try to keep mealtime free of distractions.
If you focus on balancing your checkbook or planning your strategy for an upcoming difficult meeting, you will be unable to enjoy what you’re eating or to remain attuned to your body’s cues when you have had enough.
Stress contributes to a legion of problems related to digestion and disordered eating, including:
- Decreased nutrient absorption
- Increased salt retention
- Increased cortisol, linked to weight gain and abdominal obesity
- Decreased thyroid activity, which slows down metabolism.
A stressed eater has a dominant sympathetic system, which leads to digestive shutdown. A relaxed, mindful eater experiences parasympathetic dominance, and his digestive system operates at an optimal level. Restrictive eating in combination with stress sets the stage for binge eating disorder.
The Pleasure of Eating
Relaxed meals revive pleasure in eating. Many people who have grappled with disordered eating have lost a sense of association between eating and pleasure altogether. If we deny ourselves the pleasure of food by restricting, the body responds by demanding, with increasing vehemence, pleasure and satisfaction.
If, on the other hand, we allow ourselves to enjoy eating, the endorphins released by eating produce pleasure and stimulate the mobilization of fat. Moreover, the greater the endorphin release in the digestive tract, the more blood and oxygen will be delivered there. All this leads to more efficiency in digestion, assimilation and, ultimately, calorie burning.
Conversely, the production of excess cortisol that is triggered by stress or anxiety desensitizes us to pleasure. We tend to overeat most when we are stressed, anxious, or unaware. And – ironically – any anxiety or stress that we experience about eating makes us eat more in an effort to achieve satisfaction.
Choosing foods that are high in quality is an excellent nutritional strategy because high quality generally means greater nutritional value. When you eat processed foods devoid of nutrients, the brain registers a nutrient deficit and signals us to eat more. No matter what food you eat, choose foods that are fresh, locally produced, and nutrient dense.
Meticulous calorie counting, portion weighing, and rigid adherence to rules take the pleasure out of eating.
Dieting leads to a preoccupation with a body image. Chronic deprivation from restrictive eating, in tandem with binge eating, severely disrupts metabolism in addition to undermining the potential for happiness and psychological health.
You can learn to control your appetite and rewrite your life script-free of diets. You can transform the functioning of your digestive system, limit foods that contribute to disordered eating, and eat mindfully.
A more effective way to normalize eating patterns and achieve a healthy weight is to work with the body to optimize nutritional status, stabilize blood sugar levels, and learn to trust appetite once again.
Adopting mindful practices around meal and snack times can ease the stress and emotional strain that often surrounds food. When you limit foods that contribute to disordered eating habits, you’re able to improve digestive function and rediscover the joy of eating. Your appetite will settle, and you will restore a positive relationship with food.
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- David M. Nourishing Wisdom: A Mind-Body Approach to Nutrition and Well-Being. New York, NY: Random House; 1991.
- David M. The Slow Down Diet: Eating for Pleasure, Energy and Weight Loss. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press; 2005.
- DeFina LF, Marcoux LG, Devers SM, Cleaver JP, Willis BL. Effects of omega-3 supplementation in combination with diet and exercise on weight loss and body composition. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;93(2):455-462.
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- That Is Saving Lives. North Branch, MN: Sunrise River Press; 2010.
- Greenblatt JM. The Breakthrough Depression Solution. North Branch, MN: Sunrise River Press; 2011.
- Guiliano M. French Women Don’t Get Fat. New York, NY: Vintage Books; 2005.
- Ross, J. The Diet Cure. New York, NY: Penguin Books; 1999.
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