Nutritional psychologist Marc David, MA, says we don’t have enough vitamin P — pleasure, that is — in our diets. And he’s not just talking about recreational enjoyment. The level of enjoyment we experience in eating our food has very real biochemical consequences that directly affect our metabolism and digestion, says David, founder of The Institute for the Psychology of Eating and the author of The Slow Down Diet: Eating for Pleasure, Energy and Weight Loss (Healing Arts Press, 2005). “Half of nutrition is what you eat,” he explains, “but the other half is how you eat.”
In this, the first of a five-part series of interviews with David, we asked him to elaborate on the role that pleasure and appreciation play in creating a healthy relationship with food.
Why is eating for pleasure so important?
We are all programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. It’s the most primitive part of the human nervous system. So, when you eat, you are seeking the pleasure of food, and you are avoiding the pain of hunger. But here’s the trick: You can’t receive pleasure unless you are aware that you are engaging in it. So, if you’re eating food and you’re not paying attention — if you’re watching TV, talking too much, rushing or reading — you will potentially miss the experience of pleasure. And, if you do not get the pleasure that you seek, the brain often interprets that missed experience of pleasure as hunger. You’ll want more food, so then you’ll be wondering: Do I have a willpower problem? But there’s no willpower problem — the problem is we are not entirely there when we eat. We’re not getting the full experience, and so we are left feeling hungry.
So, what we think of as overeating is actually about underappreciating?
Yes, this thing we’ve called overeating is really a product of our culture, which has us moving too fast. And the faster you go, the less your brain and digestive physiology can actually experience what’s going on with food. It takes the brain about 20 minutes to realize when we’re full. This raises a simple but very important point: When it comes to properly registering both the nutrition and satisfaction inherent in the food we’re taking in, the body needs time and focus to figure out what’s going on. That’s just how we’re wired.
And the link between pleasure and your metabolism?
Pleasure catalyzes a relaxation response, and the same switch in your brain that turns on relaxation — the parasympathetic nervous system — also turns on full, healthy digestion and assimilation. Conversely, the same switch in your brain that turns on stress, anxiety and fear — the sympathetic nervous system — turns off digestion and assimilation. So, there is a direct biochemical connection between eating with pleasure and our digestion and long-term calorie-burning metabolism.
You could be eating your favorite ice cream cone, but if you’re miserable and stressed-out and guilty while you’re eating it, you are not receiving that pleasure. Also, you’re actually shifting yourself into a stress response, which will put you in a mild degree of digestive shutdown, which means you’re excreting nutrients and not absorbing them fully, and you’re increasing your output of cortisol and of insulin, which will signal your body to store fat.
How can we learn to eat with more pleasure and awareness?
First and foremost, we need to slow down and notice, as well as savor and receive. The only way to eat with pleasure is to notice if there’s any pleasure to be had. So be attentive, take your time, and delight in your food. You may find you don’t actually enjoy certain foods as much as you think you do, or that it doesn’t take nearly as much to satisfy you. I once asked a client to slow down and really savor the Big Macs he felt compelled to eat daily, and when he started fully experiencing them — flavor, aroma, texture — he found himself completely repulsed.
You recommend doing a “Forbidden Foods Inventory” of foods we love but feel we “shouldn’t” eat. Why?
Doing an inventory of all the foods that give us pleasure allows us to play with our “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” And once you’ve got your list, you can figure out how to include those foods in moderation in a way that works for you.
Let’s say pancakes are on your “Forbidden” list. You might decide that Sunday morning is when you’re going to have a couple pancakes and really enjoy them. Are you going to have unlimited pancakes seven days a week? That’s probably not the best thing for you. But conscious doses of pleasure throughout the day and the week put us in a place where we’re honoring our desires and at the same time nourishing our bodies in a thoughtful way.
Marc David’s most recent book is The Slow Down Diet: Eating for Pleasure, Energy and Weight Loss (Healing Arts Press, 2005).