Ever rushed through a meal and felt afterward as if the food just sat there, like a brick, in your stomach? According to nutritional psychologist Marc David, MA, that effect occurs because when we eat under stress, we essentially shut down our digestive system. Make a point of eating in a state of relaxation, says David, and you’ll enhance not just your enjoyment, but your digestion and metabolism too. “It is probably more important to relax and count our blessings,” he adds, “than it is to count our calories.”
Q&A With Marc David, MA
Under stress, many people experience digestive trouble. Why?
The stress response — that fight-or-flight response — is a brilliant evolutionary survival mechanism. All your metabolic energy gets rerouted into survival function, meaning blood will reroute from your midsection and digestive organs to your arms and legs for quick fighting, or to your head for quick thinking and fleeing. But you don’t have to be battling a lion for this to happen. Faced with any kind of stress or perceived threat, your body will naturally shut down its digestive function; it figures you can deal with the digestive process later, when the threat is past. But as a result of the delay, you can experience all kinds of digestive distress.
You’ve noted that a relaxed state turns on digestion and nutrient assimilation. So, does it make sense to take a nap — a traditional siesta — after a big meal?
It makes nutritional and metabolic sense on a number of levels, assuming you’re talking about a midday meal. In just about any culture where people traditionally have a siesta, they will probably also have their biggest meal at midday. When you eat your biggest meal, you want your fullest metabolic force available in the body. And your metabolic force relative to digestion and assimilation and calorie burning is highest between approximately 12 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. It’s just your body’s natural rhythm.
Interestingly, while noon to 1:30 p.m. are the peak hours for metabolism (and thus a great time to enjoy your most substantial meal), between approximately 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. we have a natural metabolic dip. These are the hours during which people in traditional cultures observe siesta (as opposed to in this country, where it’s the time we turn to our favorite stimulants: caffeine and sugar). Siesta doesn’t necessarily involve napping — it can mean just relaxing and resting — but either way, it allows you to eat your biggest meal at midday, digest it more fully, and enjoy more energy and vitality all afternoon and evening. I do not recommend eating a big meal in the evening and going directly to bed, however. That’s a very different situation.
You encourage people to focus on breathing in a relaxed manner while they eat. Why is that important?
Every brain state has a corresponding brainwave pattern and breath pattern, and if you want to achieve a certain brain state, adopting the corresponding breathing pattern is the fastest way to do that. For example, if you are calm and relaxed but suddenly adopt the breathing pattern of a stress state (which is shallow, arrhythmic and infrequent), you’ll soon start to feel more anxious. Conversely, if you are stressed and you adopt the breathing pattern of relaxation, which is regular and rhythmic and deep, you will send a signal to the brain that says, I am breathing like a relaxed person; I must be a relaxed person. It’s possible to change your brain state and body state easily, in less than a minute, just through the conscious use of breath.
You can facilitate the digestive process by making sure you’re breathing like a relaxed human being. Relaxed breathing encourages your parasympathetic nervous system to take over. It throws a switch in the brain that helps us relax and turns on our full digestive and calorie-burning capacity.
People tend to hunch forward when they are eating fast or are stressed. Does sitting up straight create better results?
Yes. In general, the ideal body posture for eating is upright with relaxed shoulders and feet flat on the floor. The body needs gravity to help it digest — it wants to know that food is moving down and not up. When the body is upright, you also have the best breathing capacity because your spine is erect, so your lungs will be most fully operative and able to expand (as opposed to when you’re hunched over). That means you can take in more oxygen and digest your food more fully.
Also, research shows us that the more erect your spine, the more functional the brain’s going to be. So, if you sit up straight while you eat, you’ll tend to be more aware — and if you’re more aware of your meal, you’ll be better attuned to what and how much you’re eating, and also more able to digest it properly.
Marc David, MA, is author of The Slow Down Diet (Healing Arts Press, 2005) and the founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating (www.psychologyofeating.com) in Boulder, Colo.