Most people who try to eat healthfully, especially plant-based, tend to be very careful about their food choices. And that’s a great place to start when it comes to a healthy diet. But did you know that how you eat may be just as important as what you eat … and that stress can significantly undermine your otherwise healthy diet?
Not only can stress cause cravings for unhealthy foods to spike, it can may even sap the benefits of nutritious meals. That’s according to a recent study from Ohio State University. And although the study was quite small, it points to the importance of mindful eating.
Stress Negatively Impacts Digestion
“To properly digest your food and reap the health benefits, relaxation is key,” says Dr. Drew Ramsey, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, co-author of The Happiness Diet, and author of Eat Complete. One of the reasons for this is that when we’re stressed, our bodies excrete cortisol, a hormone that adversely impacts digestion.
All too often, we rush through meals while distracted by television or our email inboxes. Sometimes we even eat while driving! Our distracted, on-the-go eating habits don’t allow for the relaxation necessary for optimal nutrient intake.
“There’s no question that how we eat can be as important as what we eat,” says Dan Buettner, author of Blue Zones: Lessons from the World’s Longest-Lived People. It’s not always easy to make time for mindful eating, but when you try it, you’ll find that it’s well worth the effort.
Three Strategies for Mindful Eating
First, a good way to remind yourself of your commitment to mindful eating is to pause for a quiet moment before each meal. Buettner recommends using that moment to express gratitude. “Rituals like saying grace serve as punctuation between hurry-worry time and mealtime,” he says. Over the course of his research into the lifestyles of the world’s healthiest people, Buettner found that beginning with a moment of gratitude leads people to make better food choices take time to eat slowly and savor their meals.
A second strategy for reducing mealtime stress is to plan ahead. Ramsey recommends using tools like rice cookers and meal cookers so you can prep meals in advance. “These are the workhorses that make amazing home-cooked meals, plus you scoop and serve so there’s no stress of complicated cooking,” he says.
Last but certainly not least, cut out any distractions you can. That means turning off the TV and removing cell phones and any other electronics from the table. As Buettner succinctly stated: “When you eat, just eat.”
Back to Basics
Mindful eating takes practice. Experiment with different approaches to see what feels best to you. Reflect on your current habits, and let go of those that don’t serve you. As you eat, chew each bite slowly and pay attention to the smell, taste, and texture of the food. Above all—enjoy!