You’re about to witness a profound shift in the way we understand nutrition. A new wave of wisdom is rolling through the scientific landscape, and it’s transforming how we see metabolism, health, weight, energy, and nourishment. It’s the kind of paradigm shift that makes itself known not only through the outer world of science, but through the world of our inner experience — the deepest truths that resonate at our core.
Simply put, the nutritional paradigm shift is this: What we eat is only half the story of good nutrition. The other half of the story is who we are as eaters. That is, our metabolism is literally and scientifically affected by our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about food and the body. It’s profoundly impacted by our level of stress or relaxation during meals. It’s elevated by the amount of pleasure we receive with eating. It’s energized when we have compassion for our fears about health, weight, and body image. And finally, our metabolism is enlivened when we experience a healthy relationship with the Earth, and with the Domain of the Sacred.
Previously, you’ve likely been taught that good nutrition is about getting the right vitamins and minerals. It’s been about having enough protein, and the right amount of fat and carbohydrates. Some foods are bad for you, while others are clearly the “good guys.” And all this is certainly true yet is woefully inadequate in describing the fullness of our nutritional reality. Indeed, assessing the nutritive value of a meal by the amount of vitamins and minerals it contains is like judging a great work of art by analyzing the pigments in the paint.
If you’d like to know if something is truly nutritional for your body, ask yourself, “Is this nourishing for my soul? Am I receiving my food with pleasure? Am I relaxed and receptive and taking time for my meal? Am I feeding my body quality foods — those that are grown with care, with consciousness, and with respect for the Earth and its creatures?”
The inescapable truth is that we are creatures of mind, body, heart, and soul, and all these contribute to our nutritional status with equal power. It’s no longer sufficient to focus exclusively on finding “the perfect diet,” the cure-all miracle supplement, or the foods with the ideal nutritional profile. It’s time to factor in who we are as eaters and what we bring to the table. And perhaps the ideal place to see how the mind powerfully influences nutritional metabolism is stress.
Can you recall what happens when you eat during a state of anxiety or stress? Most people report such symptoms as heartburn, cramping, gas, digestive pains, belching, and intense hunger. During stress, the body automatically shifts into the classic fight-or-flight response. This feature of the central nervous system evolved over millions of years into a brilliant safety mechanism that supports us during life-threatening events — hostile attackers, natural disasters, and anything we must quickly evade or forcibly overcome.
In the moment the stress response is activated, heart rate jumps up, blood pressure increases, respiration quickens, hormones that help provide immediate energy — such as cortisol — are released into the circulatory system, and blood flow is rerouted away from the midsection and toward the head for quick thinking and to the arms and legs for the power necessary for fighting or fleeing. Most importantly, the digestive system shuts down. It makes perfect sense that when you’re fending off an angry gorilla, you don’t need to waste energy digesting your Froot Loops. All the body’s metabolic functions must be geared directly for survival.
So picture yourself anxiously rushing from your apartment to the office while munching on a muffin, or grabbing a fast lunch while you’re overloaded with work and thinking about everything but food, or eating a meal when you’re upset because the universe is being uncooperative about conforming to your humble demands. During these moments, the body hasn’t a clue that what we’re experiencing is not life threatening, because it is genetically programmed to initiate the fight-or-flight response the instant the brain perceives stress. This means that, depending on the intensity of the stress we’re experiencing, each of the physiological changes just listed that characterize the fight-or-flight response is activated, including some degree of digestive shutdown. So if you’ve ever eaten in an anxious state and had the feeling afterwards that food is just sitting in your stomach, that’s exactly what it’s doing. It’s waiting between several minutes and several hours for the body to kick back into normal digestive output.
The key to understanding the profound link between nutritional metabolism and stress is the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Two subdivisions of the ANS help it accomplish its dual task of stimulating digestion or inhibiting it — the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. The sympathetic branch activates the stress response and suppresses digestive activity. The parasympathetic branch relaxes the body and activates digestion. In other words, the same part of the brain that turns on stress turns off digestion. And conversely, the same part of the brain that turns on the relaxation response turns on full, healthy digestive power. This is perhaps the most profoundly important yet overlooked nutritional law etched into our DNA.
That’s because we can eat the healthiest meal in the Solar System, but if it’s eaten during an anxious state, its nutritional value is dramatically diminished. Our mood has affected our food. Some of the more eye-opening results of eating under stress or in an anxious rush are increased excretion of minerals, especially calcium, increased blood cholesterol, and elevated cortisol and insulin levels, which translates into a slower calorie-burning metabolism. Stress also leads to decreased levels of growth hormone, thyroid hormone, and sex hormones, gastrointestinal reflux, gut flora die-off, and impaired immunity. Eating healthy food is only half of the story of good nutrition. Being in the ideal state to digest and assimilate that food is the other half. This means taking time to create a culture around eating that includes joy, warmth, conversation, prayer, and love.
So, if you care about nourishing yourself, relax. Literally. Take five to 10 long, slow deep breaths before you eat. In less than a minute, you can go from a state of no digestive force to full digestive and calorie-burning power. But if we wish to slow down and breathe, we also are called to give ourselves the gift of time. Many of us live as if there is no time, or at best, it’s running out on us. From this place we value work far above nourishment. We emphasize multitasking and a frenzied way of living, where self-care and a quality meal are squeezed into our schedule. In the race to get somewhere more important, we lose some soul, and our metabolism weakens. Vitamin T — time, is an absolute requirement for good nutrition, as essential as calcium, and perhaps even more so. Can you be as committed to including it in your dietary world as you would your bone-building supplement or your salad?
It’s fascinating how we experts have emphasized the perfect diet and the right foods to eat, yet without relaxation and time to eat it, our efforts fall metabolically short. Eating in an anxious rush, and the physiologic stress response it produces, has another interesting side effect: It desensitizes us to pleasure. Specifically, the hormone cortisol is responsible for this chemical theft. And when we are desensitized to pleasure because of stress, our natural tendency is to eat more so we can receive the pleasure our brain and being are instinctually desiring in the first place. Many people who claim to have a willpower problem when it comes to food — “I can’t stop eating when I have ice cream” — have no such issue. The problem is we’re moving too fast, eating without awareness, and hyper-producing a stress hormone that causes us to consume more. So the remedy is not a punishing diet devoid of all lust. Quite the opposite, the remedy is to eat, to live, and to enjoy.
Consider then, that our new paradigm of eating now includes some newly rediscovered "miracle" nutrients: vitamin O — oxygen, vitamin R — relaxation, vitamin P — pleasure, and vitamin S — slow. You probably won't find these listed on the side panel of your cereal box, but don't let their absence fool you. Nutrition is truly a powerful affair between body, mind, heart, and soul.