Mind-Body Nutrition

JA12_mind-body-nutrition

Nutritional psychologist Marc David explains why our mental and emotional responses to food matter far more than we realize.

Marc David, MA, is no ordinary diet guru. He’s the founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating in Boulder, Colo., a nutritional psychologist, and the author of two best-selling books: The Slow Down Diet (Healing Arts Press, 2005) and Nourishing Wisdom (Three Rivers Press, 1994). Here are some notes from “Secrets of Mind Body Nutrition,” the en*theos course he taught on “nutritional psychology,” or why our thoughts and feelings about food are just as important as what we put in our mouths. You’re going to enjoy your food a lot more after learning about his philosophy.

Food Without Fear 

The field of mind-body nutrition explores food and digestion, but it also considers the thoughts and feelings we have while eating. Are you happy? Worried? In the big picture, are you satisfied with your life or hungering for more?

David recommends looking at all the factors that might affect how we eat, from breathing patterns to motivations. People may be motivated by fear to eat healthy foods, he explains. But when we eat something because we’re afraid we’ll get sick or fat if we don’t eat it, what we’re really doing is feeding our fear. When fear is the motivation, fear will also be the end result. And who wants more of that?

Instead of fearing and judging what we put in our own mouths, David recommends we approach our food experimentally: “How does this taste? How does this make me feel?” This is an essential first step to healthier eating, he says, because it involves listening to your body and not some outside voice of questionable authority.

No Perfect Diet

Some people thrive on a vegetarian, raw-food diet. Other people feel incredible when they follow a Paleo program. David’s view is that, despite all the dietary dogma, there is no single eating approach that’s perfect for every person.

David instead advocates for a spectrum of nutritional perspectives, and a broad range of healthy foods. Age, gender, exercise level, personality, culture, upbringing, beliefs and even the weather all contribute to what makes the “perfect diet” at a given time. He also identifies four types of diets that may be ideal at different times, depending on our situation and priorities of the moment:

  • Maintenance — Most of us generally enjoy a range of staple foods that maintain our vitality, feel good in our bodies and don’t cause allergic reactions. We can and do eat this way most of the time.
  • Therapeutic — Occasionally we may choose to eat in a way that supports healing a specific condition or disease. Healing diets are wonderful but not usually sustainable. A vegetarian diet with a lot of raw salads is just right if you’re prediabetic and coming off processed foods, but you might need more fat and protein after a while.
  • Experimental — Sometimes we try a new way of eating or a new supplement just to see how it goes. Being one’s own guinea pig is a good thing, David says. It’s good to eat this way once in a while to learn if the body might be lacking something, or just to discover new foods.
  • Optimizing — When we’re in training for a specific event or sport, we might eat a diet designed to support our goals. We can eat this way intermittently, or on an as-needed, ongoing basis.

Stress and Eating

Eating while we’re mentally stressed or emotionally wound up usually leads us to eat more. It may cause us to choose poorer-quality foods, and leave us with symptoms of digestive distress. David emphasizes that no food or diet is healthy if we’re stressed when we eat.

What we’re actually experiencing under stress, he explains, is the sympathetic nervous system in action. That neurological system prepares the body to fight or flee, and one of its functions is to shut down digestion. When this happens, the stomach produces fewer digestive enzymes, and we excrete nutrients without absorbing them. Because the enzymatic “fires in the belly” aren’t burning hot enough to break down our food, we’re more likely to experience heartburn, indigestion and gas.

David recommends we approach our food slowly and calmly. This helps trigger the parasympathetic nervous system’s “rest and relax” mechanism, which helps optimize our digestive powers. Slow, deep breathing helps activate it and can also improve nutritional absorption, David says.

The tradition of saying grace before a meal is another way to encourage a calmer eating experience, David notes. It gives us a second to catch our breath and bring our whole selves to the table. This allows us to really taste, experience and feel the satisfaction of our meal. When we don’t taste food, our brains don’t get the message that we ate, and pretty soon they’re telling us that we’re still hungry.

Tips for Healthy Eating

David’s main take-home message is this: If you have a healthy relationship with your food, it will have a healthy relationship with you. Some of David’s best tips to keep in mind:

  • Relax. Make a point of calmly breathing before, during and after a meal. Oxygen acts like a nutrient in the body, and it’s as powerful as any digestive enzyme you can take.
  • Slow down. Give yourself more time to eat meals, and pay attention to your pace. If you normally take 15 minutes for lunch, take 30.
  • Regulate your rhythm. Notice when you eat your biggest meals. Are you sluggish after a big breakfast but energized by a hearty lunch? Figure out a rhythm that works for you and adjust as needed.
  • Notice results. Digestion is a feedback system. Pay attention to how you feel after consuming particular foods and combinations. Do you feel sleepy? Foggy? Energized? Melancholic? Strong? Experiment with eliminating and adding different foods to see what produces the best results for you.
  • Prioritize pleasure. Enjoying and savoring our food activates the relaxation response and gives us maximum digestive power. So the more you consciously enjoy your meal, the better it is for you. The body is a powerful teacher, David reminds us. So slow down, taste your food, listen to your body and enjoy the eating process
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Brian Johnson is a philosopher and (professional) student of life. He used to build businesses. Now he reads a lot and has fun integrating universal truths into his day-to-day life. He also likes to hike, laugh, write, think, teach and hang out with his wife, Alexandra. Learn more at Philosophers Notes.com.

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