Good nutrition is easier — and more pleasurable — than you might think.
Take a deep breath. This simple act is one of the secrets of good nutrition.
Here’s why: When we’re stressed, our bodies release more of the hormones cortisol, insulin and adrenaline, which can compromise our metabolism, leading to weight gain, insulin resistance and possibly diabetes. According to David L. Katz, MD, president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine and founder of the True Health Initiative, “A high cortisol level, as a by-product of stress, drives up insulin levels. The combination tends to send more calories to fat stores, especially around the middle, where excess fat does the most damage.”
Unfortunately, stress is becoming a way of life. Dr. Mark Hyman, director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine and founder and medical director of The Ultrawellness Center, explains, “There is an epidemic of stress-related disorders in our society, including depression, anxiety, autism, attention deficit disorder, memory disorders and dementia.” To address it, he says, many of us self-medicate with caffeine, refined sugar, alcohol and nicotine. Unfortunately, these substances can harm more than help, leading to increased stress and, sometimes, weight.
Even if we don’t turn to coffee, sugar, alcohol or cigarettes to manage our stress, we might turn to food — too much of it, that is. “Much of overeating is stress-based or emotional eating,” explains Pavel Somov, Ph.D., psychologist and author of “Eating the Moment,” “Reinventing the Meal” and “Mindful Emotional Eating.”
Yet, consuming more food when we’re stressed won’t truly deliver pleasure. After all, says Marc David, co-founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating in the article, “The Metabolic Power of Pleasure,” “Cortisol desensitizes us to pleasure,” so “we need to eat more food to feel the same amount of pleasure as when we’re relaxed. This means that if you’re afraid of pleasure or anxious about gaining weight or frightened to eat a dessert, you’ll generate more cortisol. This chemical will swim through your bloodstream, numb you to pleasure and ironically create the very self-fulfilling prophecy you feared.”
Choosing foods we don’t enjoy — even if they’re healthful — can also be counter-productive. In “The Metabolic Power of Pleasure,” David cites two studies illustrating the link between pleasure and increased nutrient absorption. In the first, Thai and Swedish women were offered identical Thai meals, yet the Swedish women (with less of a preference for this cuisine) absorbed only half as much iron as the Thai women. The results were the same with a typical Swedish meal: the Thai women absorbed much less iron than did their Swedish counterparts.
In the second study, rats were split into two groups; in one group, the nerve centers enabling them to taste were destroyed. Although both groups were fed the same food in the same amounts and treated the same way, the group unable to taste eventually died. When scientists autopsied the dead rats, they found that their organs had wasted away from malnutrition. The conclusion we can make from both of these studies is that our bodies tend to absorb more nutrients from foods we take pleasure in eating.
Steps to transform nutrition to nourishment
How can we optimize our nutrition? In short, aim for relaxation and pleasure. Somov instructs his clients to begin each meal with a minute or two of focused breathing. Next, he recommends drinking a full glass of water. After all, he explains, “Drinking slows down the intake of air. We have to pause our breathing to take in water — if we don’t, we choke. So, drinking is a kind of extension of the breathwork. It’s also a form of pre-loading, allowing for an earlier onset of satiety, or fullness.” Finally, he advises beginning a meal with at least one “mind-ful,” or a moment of conscious eating. Somov finds that it’s helpful to close the eyes and notice the flavors in food.
Katz, Hyman and David agree with Somov about the importance of relaxing, slowing down and eating mindfully. Katz (who relies on intense exercise, especially horseback riding, for reducing stress) also recommends deep breathing, practicing yoga, meditating and listening to music. “The key here is to know what helps you find moments of focus and peace, and make that practice part of your life.” In particular, “eating slowly and mindfully tends to produce satisfaction with fewer calories,” he continues. “Deriving pleasure from the whole experience of eating reduces the dependence on hyper-palatable junk foods, which conspire so mightily against well-being.”
Hyman counsels, “Make time to eat your meals — at least 30 minutes. Try to focus on chewing and the flavors of your food, and avoid technology while you eat. Make mealtime a special, sacred time to get the most nourishment out of your food.”
He also recommends cooking, which forces us to “slow down and get more pleasure from the foods” we eat. “When you fall in love with cooking,” he says, “you’ll find that it’s a very pleasurable, meditative act.”
When in the kitchen, prepare dishes that stimulate all of the senses, providing more satisfaction. Try including a variety of colors (such as orange, purple, yellow and green), flavors (such as tart, bitter, sweet and salty) and textures (from smooth to crunchy) in a meal. For instance, imagine a salad of crisp romaine, sliced apple and shredded carrots, crunchy toasted nuts, tender chickpeas, hard-boiled eggs and roasted beets, tossed with a sweet-tart vinaigrette of lemon juice, mustard, olive oil and a bit of honey. If serving a soup, consider topping with something crunchy, such as diced raw apple or toasted coconut.
Finally, choose wholesome foods that you enjoy. According to Hyman, “When you eat whole, real foods, you restore balance to insulin, cortisol and other hormones. And when you clean up your diet from mind-robbing molecules like caffeine, alcohol and refined sugars and eat regularly to avoid the short-term stress of starvation on your body, you maintain an even-keeled mindset throughout the day, even when things get hectic.” He advises relying on “clean protein, healthy fats, leafy and cruciferous vegetables, berries and non-gluten grains.” Protein and fat in particular will fuel your body for hours, leading to fewer energy crashes and hunger pangs.
So, when you’re about to reach for an unappetizing meal replacement shake or a vegetable you detest, opt for nutritious favorites instead, such as steel-cut oats with toasted almonds and fresh raspberries or stir-fried snow peas with garlic and ginger. Then, take a few deep breaths and get ready to indulge — in a healthy way.
Choosing foods we don’t enjoy — even if they’re healthful — can also be counter-productive.
“Make time to eat your meals — at least 30 minutes.”