It might surprise some of you to know, but almost as important as what you eat, is how you eat. You can be eating all the so-called “right” foods, but if your meal hygiene is lacking, you might not be reaping the benefits!

So what do I mean with meal hygiene? Well, it’s basically your habits around eating your meals. Do you eat on the go, eat at your desk or in a meeting, or sit down for a family dinner? Do you eat quickly or slowly? All these things can affect your digestion.

Proper digestion is so important; you could be eating amazing, nutrient-dense foods, but if you can’t properly digesting them then your body isn’t getting all of the benefits! This could lead to subsequent cravings and unnecessary snacking, as your body calls out for the nutrition it couldn’t get from your meal.

Our autonomic nervous systems has two key states: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Sympathetic is stimulating the “fight-or-flight” stress response, a state of being a lot of us find ourselves in often in these modern times, from stressful commutes to work to managing relationships, finances, or high workloads. To contrast, parasympathetic mode is our “rest-and-digest” setting. It’s where the body can rest and repair/rejuvenate itself, and its the state we need to be in for digestion to function properly.

So what can we do to help ourselves get into rest-and-digest mode?

1. Carve time out for meals

Stay away from on-the-go meals and eating at your desk or in front of the TV and try as much as possible to sit down separately for your meal. Even though you think your brain can multitask while eating doesn’t mean your body is able to process that meal properly. The first part of digestion is triggered by the brain; the thought and smell of food can get the process kickstarted – for example, you start salivating which produces enzymes that help in the breakdown of carbohydrates.

2. Take your time

The first mechanical step of digestion is the act of chewing; if you inhale your food as fast as possible to move on to the next task, you’re only putting undue burden on the rest of your body, which won’t be able to take up the slack. Chewing mixes our food with saliva which as said starts the breakdown of carbohydrates. But the act of chewing itself also breakdowns proteins and fat into smaller pieces – the smaller the better and easier it will be for the rest of your digestive system to further break everything down. 

3. Breath

Before you start eating, try taking some deep calming breaths to help relax your system and switch over to that parasympathetic state. Be sure to pause between bites and repeat these breaths, it will help you stay mindful and present and less likely to rush through the meal. 

4. Enjoy yourself

Eating should be pleasurable! It’s a great time to relax with family, friends, or colleagues over a good meal, and that congenial atmosphere that is created with good conversation, laughter, and connection can actually help your digestion. Try to keep any potentially stressful conversation topics for another moment, away from mealtimes. Relax and enjoy yourself and the food!

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