How to eat

Most of us think a lot about what we eat, but what about how we eat? 

Do you eat on the move? Grab a bite at the fridge? Eat at your desk while working? Or in front of the TV? 

What about your stress levels when you eat? Do you take time to engage the senses and taste your food? And how thoroughly do you chew your food? 

For many of us, eating has turned into a necessity, to be squeezed in around our busy lifestyles. Proper mealtimes have become a thing of the past, with many of us multitasking while we eat – distracted by televisions, phones, or computers. Our engagement with food, and each other around the dinner table, has dwindled. 

In fact, how we eat our food is equally important as the food we eat, both for our physical and mental health. 

The cephalic phase of digestion: digestive foreplay 

You might think that digestion starts in the stomach, or in the small intestine, but actually it begins before we put anything in our mouths. The sight, smell or even thought of food can cause our salivary glands to secrete saliva into our mouths – known as the cephalic phase of digestion. You’ll have experienced this mouth-watering sensation when you start thinking about a particularly delicious meal (close your eyes and image a  warm, gooey chocolate brownie with ice cream and I bet it’ll happen…). This stage of digestion is crucial, as our saliva contains enzymes that break down starch into simple sugars, and it coats food to help it down the digestive tract. 

Chewing is equally important. This mechanically breaks down food into smaller chunks, which can then be more easily digested by the rest of the digestive system. Remember, we don’t have teeth in our stomach, so the more we chew our food, the more help we give our digestive system and the more chance we have of getting the nutrients out of it.  

Think of this phase of digestion as digestive foreplay – getting everything nice and juicy, ready for the main phase of digestion.  

Stress: ‘Rest & digest’ vs ‘fight or flight’ 

Stress levels can also affect how we digest our food. Even if you’re eating a perfectly balanced meal full of lovely nutrients, eating it in a stressed out state may well be impairing your digestive function. When we’re stressed, we’re in ‘fight or flight’ mode (known as our sympathetic nervous system), meaning that our body will prioritise the stressful situation in front of us rather than other bodily functions like digestion. The opposite of ‘fight or flight’ is ‘rest and digest’, which is where our parasympathetic nervous system is in control. This is a relaxed state where we’re able to – you guessed it – digest our food properly. 

What happens if we skip this phase?

When we’re rushing around, grabbing a bite on the move, eating while stressed or gulping down our food without chewing, we are not going to be optimising our digestion. This means that we won’t be getting the nutrients, like vitamins and minerals, out of our food. 

Here are some signs that you’re not digesting your food properly: 

  • Indigestion or bloating after eating 
  • Feeling uncomfortably full after eating 
  • Undigested food in your poo 
  • Nutritional deficiencies 

How to eat 

So how should you eat? Here are my tips to optimise digestion and ensure you’re getting the most out of your food.

  1. Sit down at a table to eat your meals. Not in front of the TV. Not standing up at the kitchen. Not at your desk at work. No matter how busy or tired you are, you can take 20 minutes to eat a proper meal at the table. You’ll feel better for it, I promise. 
  2. Create a calm environment to sit down and eat. Turn off the TV, put on some music, light some candles and set the table. Even if you’re eating alone, take yourself on a little date.
  3. Try not to eat when you’re stressed. If you are anxious, do some deep breathing to engage the parasympathetic nervous system – breathe in for a count of five and then out for a count of five.  
  4. Engage the senses when you eat. Take a moment before you start eating to smell and look at your food. Think about the taste of it and allow your mouth to water.
  5. Say ‘Grace’. You don’t need to be religious to say some kind of Grace. It could be a moment of gratitude for the food in front of you or the people you have round your table.
  6. Chew your food thoroughly. How many times depends on what you’re eating, but make sure it’s enough to turn your food into a liquid. 
  7. Bitter foods before a meal can also help prepare the body for digestion. A glass of lemon juice and water, or bitter leaves like chicory, rocket, dandelion or watercress can be helpful. I also love Viridian’s Digestive Elixir supplement – just add a few drops to a glass of water and drink before a meal. 
  8. Get social – eating with other people will usually force us to slow down, as well as building positive relationships with friends, family or colleagues.