In this article we will address the Philosophy of Eating. In upcoming articles on this site, we will further address the encouragement of salubrious digestive function, as digestive health is a point of great contention for many in this here and now, day and age. For now, I would like to focus simply on the act of mindful eating.
Food is central to every one of our lives. It is the very stuff that constitutes us, what we are quite literally made from. And, from which we extract the nutrients, and caloric fuel our bodies eventually transform into the ATP that powers our very cells! And not just that, food is: sensual indulgence, profound enjoyment, olfactorial pleasure, the satisfaction of thorough satiation, and the nourishment that follows. Food can make us feel all sorts of good, or all kinds of bad. Food, I love you! But you are so central to my life that I sometimes take you for granted, and treat you foolishly, carelessly, and with less respect and solemnity than you truly deserve! If we value our lives, our food should be treated with reverence, and the act of eating should be considered sacred.
This article is not even about what you eat, it is much more about how you eat. I used to have much more severe digestive problems than I do writing this. It was not some drug that sorted my ailments, it was my devotion to trying to understand myself that has brought me closer and closer to a picture of good health. Stress has been a major stifling factor for me throughout my life. I simply understand stress now as an inability to cope, and the associated panic, anxiety, self-doubt, and all that other good stuff. Being overcome with stress is a problem that affects one’s life on every level. I believe stress, and my scatter-brained state of being that resulted from this stress, were huge factors in the digestive ill-health I myself experienced in the past.
When a human being is stressed, we are in ‘fight or flight mode’. This means ‘the sympathetic nervous system’ is activated. This causes increased heart rate, muscle contraction, as the body readies itself for physical action; which greatly impedes digestive function, and puts the digestion of food on hold. That is why indigestion is a common issue with people that have stressful lives. The healthy functioning of the digestive system depends on the activation of ‘the parasympathetic nervous system’, which cannot occur in someone who is all wound up in a fit of stress.
Mindful eating is almost like a meditative practice, to be undertaken with great calm and solemnity. If you are religious, a prayer before food is a real powerful tool to bring awareness to the food, and the act of eating. If you are not religious, some sort of reverence and special respect and attention given to food before it is eaten seems to prime the body for the initiation of the digestive process. I know I may sound like a hippie for coming out with such a statement, but I wash daily, and provide sources to support my airy fairy notions(1).
It is important to remember that digestion does not begin once food reaches the stomach, but that food begins the digestive process as soon as it enters the mouth. Important digestive enzymes are produced by the salivary glands (amylase in particular), which begin breaking down carbohydrates, predominantly, as food is chewed. Sometimes the act of eating ends up with us not properly chewing our food, causing it to not be broken down adequately for our bodies to correctly process it, which can lead to indigestion and other digestive difficulties. Some of us make a habit out of chewing our food poorly, and this can be a serious factor in the development of chronic digestive distress. Remember, to effectively digest what you eat you must first break down the food adequately, so that the enzymes can make contact with the constituent elements of what you are eating, which allows them to be fully digested. If you do not chew properly, you will not digest properly.
It is easy to chew improperly, or to get distracted while eating; and understandably so. Life is stressful, time is money, and I can eat and text and feed the cats and the baby all at the same time! Sure, multitasking is possible. But, it is good for your digestive health and general state of well-being if you can sit down, relax, and focus on eating during mealtimes. It is all about activating the parasympathetic nervous system at the right time; also referred to as ‘rest and digest’ mode, as opposed to the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ response. When we are constantly getting up to tend to others, or to answer the phone, or are even giving our attention elsewhere other than mealtime and our present company, it is interfering with our ability to process our food.
For the purpose of this article, post-meal rest is the final thing that needs to be given credence to: If we wish to encourage healthy digestive function we should not expect that once we are finished eating we can go back to mental and emotional stress, and physical exertion. Digesting a meal takes a while, and the more we allow our body the time it needs to rest and digest, the more thoroughly we will be able to process our food. Light physical exercise is fine – a walk, for example — and is even beneficial to digestive function. But taking it slow and easy after a meal is always recommendable if a robust state of digestive health is an aim of yours.
When we have issues with our health — digestive health in particular! — giving respect, attention, and solemnity to the food we eat, and encouraging mindfulness at mealtimes, is a surprisingly effective way to begin feeling better. So, at mealtimes, try to remember: take it slow, take it easy, chew thoroughly, and, most of all, enjoy!