Invite gratitude to the table
I lecture routinely, almost daily, on the virtues of food as medicine. On why it is important to eat whole, real foods. On why it is important whether your body is healthy or illness ridden, why your body depends on it, literally. I teach resident physicians, I teach my patients. I teach my family and most importantly, I teach myself.
I care about it for too many reasons for this post. But it doesn't matter what you eat if you can’t digest and absorb it. Digestion is a complex event. It involves countless enzymes and so many parts of your beautiful anatomy from your mouth’s salivary glands, literally down to the end of your digestive tract when the food waste comes out. The health of your gut impacts how well you are able to absorb all of the nutrients.
And the most important part of digestion actually isn’t in your gut.
The most important part of digestion is in your head.
If you are in fight or flight, stress mode, you will not have any of your digestive juices or systems flowing and your body will ignore what you are eating to prioritize other actions. The truth is your body doesn't know the difference between a lion trying to eat you or your boss making your life hell at work. Either way, your fight or flight mode will ignore digestion as a necessary primary tool of the moment. Instead, it will focus on mobilizing your muscles to run, your heart to beat fast and flow blood to those muscles, and your survival mechanisms to take over. So what happens if you eat at your desk while you try to meet a deadline at work? Or while you write an angry email? What if you sit down to eat a meal with your family and you are upset and yelling at your spouse or children? Your cortisol stress hormone will be kicked into high gear and your “relaxation nervous system,” your parasympathetic nervous system will be set aside. Digesting your food will not be your body’s first priority.
The “cephalic” (literally meaning "of the head") phase of digestion that we learn about in medical school is the very first phase of digestion. It is the part of digestion where we prime our body to start mobilizing itself for receiving the food, breaking it down and extracting all of its good stuff. The cephalic Phase digestive response is simply a fancy term for taste, pleasure, aroma, satisfaction, and the visual stimulation of a meal. In other words, it’s the “head phase” of digestion. What’s fascinating is that our digestive experts have estimated that as much as 30% to 40% of the total digestive response to any meal is due to this phase—our full awareness of what we’re eating.
Awareness = Metabolism!!
Think about that for a moment. How you think about food can change how you receive that food. Simply amazing. You can experiment yourself. Think about your favorite meal, whether cooked by you or another, and notice what happens? Do you salivate? Do you prime your digestive system-YES! YOU influence your digestion!
So this where gratitude comes in…Gratitude can be the tool you use to stimulate your relaxation system and let the cephalic phase of digestion do its magic. What if you commit to starting any meal with just a few moments of gratitude? If it doesn't come so easy to you, start by simply directing the gratitude to the food you are about to eat. Imagine all the people who made it possible for you to have this food from those who grew the food to those who harvested it, transported it to the store, sold it to you, cooked it for you today and on and on. Feel a deep sense of appreciation that so many are responsible for your privilege to enjoy that food. And in this way, we bring ourselves to the present moment.
As you practice more, you may want to extend the gratitude to more than just the food. You will see what feels right. But the important piece is that you practice gratitude and your experience at the table changes. Your digestive system is primed and you are able to receive this beautiful gift of having food to eat before you. I love the Spanish saying before a meal of “Buen Provecho” which literally means “May you digest well.” It could be all of our wish for a meal well received.
Invite gratitude to your next meal. It's like eating with a dear friend.