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How to Build Healthy Habits Around Mealtimes

How to Build Healthy Habits Around Mealtimes

Like most practitioners, I send out a questionnaire to new clients. It gathers information on lots of different areas, ranging from medical history to toxin exposure, typical daily diet and much more besides. From a clinical perspective, every part is highly valuable and it becomes a great starting point for an initial consultation. Client answers to the following question are particularly insightful…

Qu. 12: Please highlight all the words that best describe how you currently eat your main meals?

Breakfast

At a table / On the couch / In bed / At home / In front of the TV / Whilst travelling / At a desk / At work / On the go

Relaxed / Free from distractions / Stressed / Distracted / In a hurry

Sitting upright / Slouched / Standing up / On the move

Lunch

At a table / On the couch / In bed / At home / In front of the TV / Whilst travelling / At a desk / At work / On the go

Relaxed / Free from distractions / Stressed / Distracted / In a hurry

Sitting upright / Slouched / Standing up / On the move

Dinner

At a table / On the couch / In bed / At home / In front of the TV / Whilst travelling / At a desk / At work / On the go

Relaxed / Free from distractions / Stressed / Distracted / In a hurry

Sitting upright / Slouched / Standing up / On the move

‘You are not just what you eat, but what you can digest and absorb’
Digestion is one of the first lessons at nutrition school. And the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ soon morphs more accurately into, ‘you are not just what you eat, but what you can digest and absorb’. The best diet in the world can do little good if digestive and absorptive processes aren’t working properly.

The process of digestion starts way before food enters your mouth
The entire digestive process is vital and complex, and starts way before the first morsel of food enters the mouth. A bit like preparing for an important event, such as packing for a holiday; your body must get ready for a meal – digestive juices start to flow and the perfect internal environment is created in anticipation. However, just like you wouldn’t pack for a holiday if it wasn’t booked; your body won’t get ready to receive a meal if it doesn’t get the right signals that it’s coming.

Parasympathetic nervous system sets the stage for optimal digestion
The parasympathetic nervous system is often called the ‘rest and digest’ system. It is activated when you are relaxed and your body is gently going about its daily housekeeping duties. Amongst other roles, the parasympathetic nervous system conserves energy, stabilises the heart rate and dilates blood vessels enabling restorative, calming breaths. Crucially, it also stimulates digestive processes and increases intestinal activity too.

In contrast, when we are stressed, rushed, on the go, or busy dealing with other things whilst we are eating, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This is the part of the nervous system that deals with any kind of real or perceived threat or stress and prepares us to fight or take flight. Digestion shuts down and instead energy is diverted toward parts of the body needed in an emergency situation, such as the muscles.

Unfortunately for many people leading a busy 21st century lifestyle, continual activation of the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ part of the nervous system is the norm and the ‘rest and digest’ part rarely gets a look in. It’s no wonder then that so many people rely on antacids and tablets to settle indigestion; if only they knew that an alternative solution was simply to slow down and make time for relaxed meals…

So what’s the solution?
It’s crucial that the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged before and during mealtimes. It signals to the body that food is on the way so it can get ready. The only way to ensure this is the norm is to slow down and build healthy habits around mealtimes.

Here’s 6 tips on how to build healthy habits around mealtimes:

1.  Bring awareness to your current situation
Start by filling in the simple questionnaire above. The first step to making any changes is bringing your full awareness to your current habits. Only then can you start to change them.

2. Relax and sit upright
The best time to eat a meal is when you are relaxed and sit upright at a table. You are more likely to feel relaxed when you make time for meals, instead of eating ‘on-the-go’, or at your desk alongside stressful tasks. Being relaxed enables your body to activate the ‘rest and digest’ part of your nervous system. From a physiological perspective, it’s best to sit upright, not slouched, so that food can flow unimpeded through the oesophagus and down into the stomach.

3. Use environmental triggers to your advantage
Many triggers in your environment can start to stimulate the flow of digestive juices; the smell and sounds of food cooking, the anticipation of a meal, visual food stimulus or perhaps a specific setting such as a dining table. If you always eat your meals at the kitchen table, your body will learn the cue and start to anticipate this when you sit down. If you spend time preparing a meal, your body will respond to the sights and smells of food and be more than ready when you finally enjoy it. You can use environmental triggers like this to your advantage. Even simple steps like taking your lunch out of the fridge at work a few minutes earlier than you normally would, lifting the lid and slowing down to have a look before you dive in, can help to prepare your body for the meal ahead.

4. Pause before you begin
Simple strategies such as building in a pause point before you start a meal can really help to activate your ‘rest and digest’ system. A bit like stopping to look before you cross the road; you can do the same with your meal. Pause, take a moment to notice your meal, and then begin.

5. Take a breath
Every one of us will take about 23,000 breaths each day, yet how many will notice even one of those? The truth is that most people go through a whole day and never notice a single breath.

Try this:
Before you begin eating, take a moment to notice your breath. Now take 3 deep belly breaths; watching your abdomen rise and fall with each new breath. This is the quickest way to shift your body into a more relaxed state.

6. Enjoy your food
Eating is meant to be a pleasurable experience, it is one of life’s simple pleasures, especially when shared with family and friends, yet the joy is soon sapped out of it when food is wolfed down in record time. Eating becomes functional with the sole purpose of filling a hungry void. When you take time to appreciate and enjoy your food, pleasure receptors are activated, which in turn activates the ‘rest and digest’ part of your nervous system.