We’ve all heard the saying, “You are what you eat.” This, to a large extent, is true. Yet, the ways our bodies process and transform our food into fuel aren't only dictated by what we eat; they're also heavily impacted by our thoughts, feelings and physiological states. With that being said, the more accurate iteration of this axiom might be, “You are what you eat and how you eat it.”
It may sound crazy, but it’s true: What we believe about the foods we eat and what state we’re in when we eat them (whether we’re mindful and relaxed; stressed and rushing; completely distracted; feeling guilty or judgmental about our choices; or joyous and at ease) directly impact how well our food is digested, how fully we absorb its nutrients and how efficiently we burn its calories.
Food & the Mind-Body Connection
You may be familiar with the experience of having a particular thought stimulate a certain feeling, which then triggers a physical sensation in your body. For example, if you think of an upcoming interview and feel excited or nervous, your heart rate will quicken and palms may begin to sweat. Similarly, how you think and feel about the food you eat will spark specific—and distinct—physiological responses.
Our minds are in direct communication with our digestive systems via the vagus nerve—the longest cranial nerve in the body. When we are relaxed and joyful, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Also known as the “rest-and-digest” state, this strand of the nervous system regulates an array of activities when the body is at rest—including supporting our digestive systems in functioning optimally (releasing saliva and its digestive enzymes, absorbing nutrients, burning calories, etc.)
When we are in a state of stress or anxiety (which includes having negative thoughts), our sympathetic nervous system is activated. Also known as the “flight-or-fight” response, this system readies our bodies for survival in the face of danger. Our heart rates accelerate and our basic metabolic processes pause—because who has time for digesting when a serious threat is near?
It may sound silly, but the truth is that our physiology hasn’t changed much since our cave-people days. Because of the brain-body connection, our nervous system responses don’t distinguish between a real threat (“AHH, a mountain lion!! RUN!!”) and a perceived one (“UGH, I really shouldn't have just eaten that”). While these scenarios differ greatly in terms of gravity, they are both rooted in fear and result in stress, sending similar signals to our bodies and activating the sympathetic nervous system. As the body shifts into a defensive state, ready for action, the digestive process is halted—preventing our guts from properly breaking down food and encouraging our bodies to store calories as body fat rather than burn them as energy. (1)
Mindfulness, Positivity & Digestive Health
This is just one example of the incredible mind-body connection and its relation to health, which reinforces why we at Navitas practice our mantra, “Live Life Positive”—and why we encourage you to do the same! Integrating positivity into your life isn’t just a passing trend. As we’ve learned here, it has scientific grounding and a direct positive impact on your physical and mental health.
So what can you do to make this positive shift? Here are five ways you can support your body in making the most out of the foods you feed it.
1. When you eat…just eat.
It’s difficult to eat in a relaxed state, digest properly and avoid overeating when you’re not paying attention to the fact that you’re eating! We do it every day: desk lunches, scrolling through our phones as we chew, treats during TV time, car snacking, etc. For the next week, challenge yourself to avoid multitasking while you eat, even if you’re alone. It may feel awkward at first; that’s okay! Approach the task with curiosity. Notice how your body and mind feel differently during and after your meal versus how they felt in in your distracted eating state.
2. Breathe deeply.
Here’s another physiological phenomenon for you: Breathing helps burn calories! As Nutritional Psychologist Marc David explains, “Certain parts of the stomach lining consume more oxygen than any other tissue in the body,” (2) positioning oxygen as a main ingredient in both nutrient absorption and metabolism. “If you interfere with the body’s natural switch to deeper breathing because of anxiety or overstimulation, you limit your ability to burn calories. The simple rule here is this: If you eat more, breathe more.” (3)
3. Chew your food.
While we often think of digestion as beginning in the stomach, chewing is actually the first stage of the digestive process. Our saliva contains digestive enzymes that begin to break down the food into its nutrient parts and prime it for absorption. By chewing your food completely before you swallow it, its benefits will be much more bioavailable to you (and that includes your smoothies).
4. Put down your fork.
By putting down your utensils or food between bites, you give yourself more of an opportunity to breathe and chew completely. It’s a simple and tangible action that is great for helping you slow down.
5. Eat with reverence.
As you give your meals your full attention, breathe deeply and chew fully, you will create the space to find joy and gratitude in each bite. Relish the colors, textures, scents and flavors of your food. Bring to mind the time the foods spent connected to the earth, the cultures that depend upon and honor them, and the hands that harvested them—especially your Navitas superfoods, which have wondrous histories and often thrive in unusual or extreme conditions. Appreciate the care that you took in preparing your meal or that someone else put into preparing it for you.
Eating with gratitude and mindfulness—direct, non-judgmental attention given to your food and the process of eating—will prime your body to receive the greatest possible benefits. You will more easily notice when you’re hungry and when you’re full. Your body will better absorb the food’s nutrients and burn calories more efficiently. On top of these physical health benefits, by creating space in your day to eat joyfully and with intention, you are actively showing yourself that you are worth undivided attention and care—which, in and of itself, is something to be practiced and celebrated.