Are You a Stressed Eater? It’s Affecting your Metabolism.
In today’s busy world, most of us are living in a constant state of stress. We wake up tired and roll out of bed. We spend the day trying to check things off our work and personal to-do lists. We worry about the future, about money, about our kids. And, if that’s not enough, we add to the list: ebola, global warming and whether your pumpkin spice latte habit will give you diabetes.
In the midst of all this, feeding ourselves is often not a priority. We eat breakfast while running out the door and lunch at our desks. Some nights, when we’re lucky, we properly sit down to dinner – but even then, it’s rarely a slow, nourishing experience.
I hate to break it to you, but all of this eating without paying attention is taking a toll on our health. When we eat in a stressed state, we significantly decrease our body’s ability to digest, metabolize, and assimilate nutrients from our food.
From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. Our bodies are designed to serve us in our greatest hour of need. Back when we were cavemen (or cavewomen, or cavepeople – pick your favorite proper cave-noun), and we stumbled upon an angry gorilla, our stress response would immediately kick into gear. Blood would rush to our arms and legs to help us fight or flee, and to our brains to help us to think on our feet. All of our body’s resources were focused on the challenge at hand. In that life-or-death moment, breaking down the food in our
stomachs was not a priority.
Today, we’re not too likely to run into an angry gorilla, but our body’s stress response still works the same way. Have you ever been highly stressed and either thrown up or had the food run right through you? Now you know why.
You may be thinking, “Ok, that’s good to know, but my day-to-day stress isn’t on the level of fighting or fleeing a bear.”
I get it – mine isn’t either. (Thank goodness, because I’m a slow runner, and I’m not all that tough. Once, I was musing with my sister on what my patronus would be if I were a Harry Pottercharacter. When I suggested a tiger, Jen almost fell off the couch laughing, then said that she was thinking more along the lines of a turtle).
So let’s talk about low-level stress. Back in our cavehuman days, this was the stress of finding food and shelter. If the search wasn’t going so well, it was likely going to be a cold, hungry winter. Again, our bodies are designed to serve us in our hour of need. Recognizing the low-level stress of another unsuccessful day of foraging, our bodies produced insulin and cortisol, hormones that specialize in fat storage. Because during the long winter, we needed every ounce of fat we could get to fuel us and keep us warm.
I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, you’re not facing the prospect of a winter without food and shelter. However, your body is still reacting to low-level stress the same way it did when we were cavepeople – by producing hormones specifically designed to store fat.
Science has proven this nutritional fact in a variety of ways, but one specific study really drives the point home. In this study, researchers divided rats into two groups. Both groups were given the same amount of food and lived in the same type of environment. One group of rats lived a normal, content rat life. The other group wasn’t so lucky – they were subjected to random shocks. Not knowing when the next shock would arrive, they lived in a constant state of stress.
Both groups of rats ate the exact same number of calories. In the first group, the rats’ weights remained constant. But in the second group, all of the rats gained weight.
So what’s the answer? It’s simple – relaxed eating.
When you relax and eat with pleasure and awareness, your body gets the message that everything is ok. There is nothing to stress about, no reason to hold on to calories. The body’s resources aren’t sent to do other things, so digesting, metabolizing, and assimilating nutrients from food takes place efficiently. Much more efficiently, in fact. Researchers have estimated that as much as 30 to 40 percent of the total digestive response to any meal is due to something called cephalic phase digestive response, which is a fancy term for the pleasures of taste, aroma, satisfaction, and the visual stimulation of a meal. In other words, you can increase the amount of benefit your body receives from a meal simply by eating in a state of relaxed awareness.
In another study, researchers gave test subjects a mineral drink, and asked them to drink it in a relaxed state. Then, they measured the absorption of two minerals, sodium and chloride, in the small intestines. They assimilated at 100 percent.
Later, the same individuals were given another mineral drink, as well as a pair of headphones in which two people were talking simultaneously. In their left ear, someone lectured about intergalactic space travel, while in their right ear, someone else talked about the joys of financial planning. The study participants consumed their drinks while trying to concentrate on both messages at once. When researchers once again measured for assimilation of sodium and chloride, there was zero percent absorption.
Take this information and apply it to your daily life, and it’s easy to see how eating on the run or while working significantly decreases your metabolic power. So, I challenge you with this call to action:
In the next 24 hours, make it a point to eat one meal in a relaxed state. Don’t aim for a total upheaval of the way you eat every single meal – just start by bringing relaxed awareness to one meal, and see where it takes you.
Annette Sloan owns (w)holehearted, a Denver-based business specializing in compassionate health coaching for teen girls. Her work as a coach and speaker empowers teens to discover their happiest, healthiest, most authentic selves.
Annette also offers mother-daughter bonding sessions that incorporate yoga, positive body image, and a healthy relationship with food. Learn more (and download your free report, “The Savvy Parent: Five Essential Practices for Role-Modeling a Happy, Healthy Relationship with Food,”) at www.healthyteengirls.com.