Do you bring stress to the table when it's time to eat? Many of us do. We race through the day, checking off our to-do lists, and eating on the run. We take our emotional-stress to the cupboard for relief. And many of us, stuck in the diet-mentality, feel anxiety about the food itself. We eat while a voice in our head anxiously chatters, "I shouldn't be eating this."
As it turns out, being in fight-and-flight mode while eating affects how you metabolize your food. A fascinating study at Ohio State University found that when their participants ate while stressed, they metabolized their food less efficiently, which could increase fat storage. And their bodies generated more inflammation and plaque buildup, even when eating healthier foods. (1) The finding reveals that eating when stressed can increase weight and set us up for heart disease, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. We watch what we eat because we think it will make us healthier and perhaps thinner. But this study reveals that anxiously watching what you eat doesn't achieve that at all. It's another reason I don't recommend dieting.
If stress stirs up metabolic chaos, then a less stressful eating-lifestyle is a key to health and a healthy weight. When I say healthy weight, I don't mean being thin if that's not how your natural body is. Your healthy weight is the unique size and shape that your body likes to be. Your brain chooses it based on many factors beyond what you eat, including genetics, age, hormones, exposure to adversity, stress levels, and dieting history. In the study above, we learned that stress could be a more significant factor affecting weight and health than food choice. That's a big revelation!
We can use this finding for better health by rejecting the stressful diet mentality and practicing gratitude at the table. This simple, yet powerful practice, can shift your nervous system out of fight-and-flight and into it's rest-and-digest mode for metabolic efficiency. There are many ways to generate eating-calm. For now, I offer this simple practice. When it's time to eat, follow these steps:
1. While preparing or ordering your food, think about all those who made it available to you--the seeds and animals that became food, farmers who grew and cultivated the food, delivery people who brought it to your grocery store, workers at grocery stores and restaurants that make COVID-safe environments where you can buy it. Say a mental "thank you" to all of these hard-working heroes. Then notice how this simple act of gratitude makes you feel a little calmer.
2. Next, notice how easy it is to get nutrition, just the way you want it. Generate a spirit of thankfulness for our food environment that is abundant in nutrition and variety. It is an incredible gift, unprecedented in human history. Last night, while helping my daughter with a science lesson about our hunter-gathering ancestors, we marveled about how hard life would be without grocery stores and restaurants. Remember that not everyone in the world, or even in this country, has access to such a bounty. Say a mental "thank you" to whatever circumstances contributed to your easy access to food. Also, consider donating to food banks. We give one dollar of each session to Feeding America, a wonderful organization that provides kids and families with food during COVID while school lunches are unavailable.
3. Notice whether gratitude is shifting your state. If you feel calmer, it's a great time to eat. Keep calm by sitting down and tuning into the eating experience. Notice how your senses interact with the food - the sight, smell, taste, and feel. Tuning in reduces stress while increasing pleasure and satisfaction--that's an eating-bonus!
I'd love to hear how this gratitude practice is affecting your relationship with food. If you'd like to share your experience, leave a comment below or send an email to email@example.com. And don't forget to sign up for our newsletter to receive inspiration and support on the non-dieting path.
(1) Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Fagundes CP, Andridge R, et al. Depression, daily stressors and inflammatory responses to high-fat meals: when stress overrides healthier food choices. Mol Psychiatry. 2017;22(3):476-482. doi:10.1038/mp.2016.149
Hi. I’m Alison Ross, founder of Non-Dieting Health in Agoura Hills, California. I’m a licensed psychotherapist and neurofeedback practitioner specializing in eating and body image. My favorite things are my family, my dogs, yoga and working with my clients.