Why Mindful Eating Matters, Part 2

In the first part of my article on this topic, I described how eating in a low-stress environment may decrease food reactivity and help reduce the symptoms of IBS. In this article, I’d like to explore some of the ways we can de-stress and become more present with our food. Some of the strategies will feel very familiar - they may be things you did as a child around your family’s dinner table or things that you’ve heard of as mindfulness practices have become more popular in recent years.

None of these strategies is necessarily more effective than the next. As a physician, I often encourage my patients to take time to experiment and find those practices that work best for them. Start by picking a single meal each day to use to test out 1 or 2 of these techniques. Do not feel as though you have to do this perfectly, 100 percent of the time to get a benefit. Building habits takes time, and picking small goals improves our chances of success.

Engage your senses at meal time

Long before your first bite, seeing, smelling, and even hearing the sounds of food preparation initiates the digestive process. This sensory information triggers nerve signals from the brain to your stomach and other organs of digestion to stimulate the release of digestive juices. This is called the cephalic phase of digestion. These secretions are necessary for your body to digest, absorb, and assimilate nutrients, and for a normal immune response to foods. So, with your next meal, take a moment to appreciate the look and smell of the food before digging in! Or better yet, maximize your cephalic phase by prepping and preparing your own meals.

Put away distractions while eating

Many of us eat on the go, in front of screens, or at our desks. Eating while distracted, especially if that distraction is stressful (nightly news, anyone?), can limit our digestive capacity. Not only do we interfere with the cephalic phase described above, but stressful distractions can also trigger the release of neurotransmitters like adrenaline that shift our body’s focus AWAY from digestion. Pick a meal each day to make distraction-free. During this meal, put away books and magazines, turn off the news, and shut down screens. Give yourself the gift of 15-20 minutes to focus on your meal and the task of eating. The rest can wait.

Slow down

Slowing down while you eat is necessary for multiple reasons. You are able to chew your food more thoroughly - better-chewed foods are more likely to be properly digested and absorbed later in the digestive tract. Slowing down also allows us to better attune to our hunger and satiety signals. These signals can help us avoid overeating, which can make some folks with IBS feel much worse.

Express appreciation for food

One way to slow down and engage your senses is to take the time to appreciate your meal and those that prepared it. You may already have the habit of using a prayer, or saying grace, before your meal - if so, keep it up! Or consider taking a few minutes to appreciate all the individuals that helped to make your meal possible - the cooks, the farmers, the delivery drivers, the wait staff. Imagining where each ingredient came from and it’s the journey from farm to your table can be an awe-inspiring exercise.

Employ your brain’s potential

Many of my patients struggle with fear around eating or fear of specific foods. This “food fear” can trigger a stressful state in the body that makes proper digestion difficult. Using active guided imagery techniques is one of the most helpful ways that I have found to counter these fears. Next time you are eating and find yourself nervous about the particular meal, or a portion of specific food that you are re-introducing, take a moment to set the stage of your brain and nervous system to receive the meal in the most positive way possible. Below is an imagery technique I have employed with good success, but feel free to be creative and invent your own!

  • Close your eyes, place your feet squarely on the floor, and take a few deep breaths.
  • Visualize yourself taking that first bite.
  • Imagine the flavors and textures you will experience as you chew and swallow.
  • Track that bite of food as it makes its way to your stomach, and then to your small intestine, where it is broken down into smaller and smaller pieces that can be absorbed into your bloodstream.
  • Imagine each of those small amino acids, sugars, or fats making there way to the various corners of your body, where they are absorbed and cause each cells’ machinery to hum to life!

Alternatively, you could imagine that each bite of food turns into a ball of light that slowly fills your entire body as it is absorbed. Or any other variation that keeps you in a relaxed state and reminds your body that food is meant to nourish, not aggravate.

While the above practices may not completely resolve meal-based symptoms, they can often dramatically reduce the symptoms of IBS. Try them out, and let me know what you discover!

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