Mealtime Hygiene – 5 Tips for Mindful Mealtimes and Better Digestion
Mindful Mealtimes: Why HOW you eat is as important as WHAT you eat
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 mealtime hygiene is lacking, you might not be reaping the benefits! By working on improving your mealtime hygiene you’ll also be working on better digestion; it’s really a win-win situation.
So what do I mean with mealtime hygiene? Well, it’s basically your habits around eating your meals. Do you eat on the go, 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.
What you need to know about the parasympathetic state, a.k.a. rest and digest mode
Our autonomic nervous system has two key states: the sympathetic and parasympathetic state.
The sympathetic state is where the “fight or flight” stress response is turned on, it’s 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. This is our active, energetic, reactive state. It’s a positive reaction when we have a specific stressor to focus on, like the extra adrenaline needed for a push towards a looming deadline.
To contrast, the parasympathetic state 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. It’s less active, more passive, and we need to find a comfortable balance between both of these two states.
By making sure your body is in the parasympathetic state (or rest and digest mode) at mealtimes, you’ll be setting yourself up for better digestion and less stress on your digestive system overall.
How to use proper mealtime hygiene to get yourself 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. Ditch the distractions
We are conditioned nowadays to always occupy our mind with something. Whether it’s scrolling our phones while waiting in line, in the bathroom, or at the dinner table, it can be really difficult to disengage from the constant stream of information. But it’s important to stay away from screens while you’re eating – even if it does feel super uncomfortable the first few times! (And no, you can’t just substitute a book or magazine for your usual scrolling.)
If our mind is distracted by whatever we are reading or looking at, it’s also distracted from really registering the act of eating and properly triggering our digestive system. Plus you’re much more likely to have your stress response triggered by something that you see or read, pulling you out of rest and digest mode.
3. Take your time
The first physical 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.
Try and aim for 25-30 chews for every mouthful. It might feel tedious at first, but you’ll quickly start noticing the difference. By doing this you’ll also automatically slow down your eating, giving yourself more time to digest your food and lower the likelihood of over eating.
4. Breathe your way to better digestion
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. Try a box breathing exercise that is shown to relax and bring people into the rest and digest mode. Inhale for 4 counts, hold the breath for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts, and hold again at the bottom for 4 counts. Repeat a few times before starting your meal.
5. 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!
Getting started with mealtime hygiene and mindful mealtimes
Don’t bite off more than you can chew! (Sorry, not sorry for the pun.) Start slow and build it up so that it doesn’t feel overwhelming. Choose one meal to focus on implementing proper mealtime hygiene, like dinner, and once you get the hang of it, go from there.
The bonus is that a lot of these habits easily stack together. Focusing on chewing more slows you down, and you’re less likely to crave the distraction that a screen might bring.
Good luck, and enjoy your meal!
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