Nutritionist Clare Backhouse encourages us to slow down to eat, with tips to aid digestion
Welcome back to the nutrition and lifestyle column, where we’re exploring health from the perspective of love.
We’re learning to ditch health ‘rules’, stress and obligation, and instead develop a more joyful, nurturing care for ourselves and others.
One game-changing way we can love our bodies, is to sit down properly to eat. This might sound too simple to be true. But it is true!
When we take time to sit down and eat, we help ourselves digest in a way that simply cannot happen when we’re in a rush. Why is this?
It’s all about the Cephalic phase of digestion. This is the first and most foundational stage of the digestion process. It is everything that happens in the brain and the mouth, before food even reaches the stomach.
Skip the Cephalic stage, and you needlessly compromise your health. Enjoy it, and you help your body squeeze every drop of goodness from the food you eat.
How our digestive system works
Let’s step back for a moment and understand the digestion process a bit more. For digestion to work, our bodies need to: 1. break down food into smaller particles; 2. absorb these particles in the digestive tract for the body to use; 3. excrete waste products out of the body.
We often take the first two for granted, assuming that if we eat an apple, for example, we will absorb its nutrients automatically. But the fact is, nutrient absorption depends on the effective breakdown of food in the first place. And this cannot happen unless sufficient acid is made in the stomach and enzymes in the small intestine.
What helps to ensure the production of these acids and enzymes? It’s everything that happens in our heads, before we even swallow the first mouthful!
As you may have experienced, the mere thought of food can sometimes cause the mouth to ‘water’, or produce extra saliva. When we look at, smell and sample food, this encourages saliva even more. And saliva in the mouth not only contains enzymes to begin breaking down food in the mouth, but also prompts the stomach to produce enough acid to break the food down further after swallowing.
You may have a bad impression of stomach acid and worry about it becoming too high, especially if you are one of the estimated one in ten people in the UK who suffers from acid reflux. But, in fact, stomach acid needs to be sufficiently high enough if digestion is going to be effective. (Many cases of acid reflux are in fact due to low, not high, stomach acid.) The Cephalic phase of digestion is responsible for initiating about a third of this healthy stomach acid production.
At the same time, at the sight and smell of food, the brain sends messages to the whole digestive tract to prepare it to receive food. This is done by means of the ‘vagus nerve’, a wonderful nerve that connects the brain with the gut.
Finally, the very motion of chewing activates chemical messengers in saliva, which, together with stomach acids, triggers the pancreas and liver to secrete the correct enzymes to break down fats, carbohydrates and protein.
So the Cephalic phase really does set us up for good digestion.
Showing ourselves love as we eat
As we slow down to eat, and help the Cephalic phase to work well, we are also communicating love to our bodies.
We are communicating to ourselves: “You matter; your needs are worth taking time for; you are worth feeding in a peaceful, enjoyable manner.” Or, put another way: “You are worth loving well.” And, as I’ve said before, loving yourself well sets you up to love your neighbour well too.
I recognise that it isn’t always easy to make time to slow down for mealtimes. So when I am feeling tempted to rush, I mentally ringfence my mealtime. I’ll say to myself: “There is nothing else I am supposed to be doing except enjoying this food and this company” or “Until I finish my plate, there is nothing else for me to do except receive this good gift.”
TOP TIPS FOR MEALTIMES
Here is the advice that I share with my clients for how to help kick start the Cephalic phase, and make the most of mealtimes:
• Make meals yourself wherever possible.
• Sit down to eat.
• Take five deep breaths before you start.
• Pause to connect with God and be grateful.
• Smell and look at your food.
• Eat without screens, phones or work nearby.
• Enjoy restful things alongside your meal, like friendly company, prayer or a good book.
• Chew a lot – and slowly.
• Really taste and enjoy your food.