Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Eating 101 with Luciano Pavarotti

"One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating."

~~ Luciano Pavarotti, Pavarotti, My Own Story

Leave it to Pavarotti to extol the virtues of eating. The legendary operatic tenor, who died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 71 in 2007, struggled with his weight throughout his life. His appetite for food was nearly as well-known as his ability to sing beautifully and effortlessly. It may be tempting to just dismiss this quote. Of course, it's something that an avowed glutton would say, right? However, his sentiment actually shows great insight into how we should ideally eat.

Eating nowadays is often just an afterthought. How did your breakfast go today? Did you wolf down an apple while driving to work? Nibble at a muffin and gulp coffee during the morning's meeting? How about lunch? A quick drive-thru meal? Or something eaten at the desk while trying to work on that project before the deadline? And dinner? Something thrown together or even microwaved quickly and quickly devoured while watching the evening news?

Unfortunately, the above scenarios are often the norm, rather than the exception. We don't sit down intentionally, relax, and fully concentrate on eating. Life in the 21st century is often hectic, and it seems like setting aside time to eat mindfully often falls lower and lower on the list of priorities. Yet it can be one of the most delightful experiences to "stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating." Just sitting, enjoying good company in a relatively quiet environment, and deliberately savoring each bite of food can make an otherwise frantic day more handleable.

But beyond being merely pleasant, there is a more physiological reason why, when we eat, we should be so single-minded about it. Digestion ideally occurs when the body is at rest - in a state called the parasympathetic state. It's the exact opposite of the sympathetic state we all know as the "fight or flight" state. In fact, I prefer to think of it as the "rest and digest" state.

In a sympathetic state, our body is alert and primed for action of some sort. Breathing becomes deeper and quicker, the heart pounds, and blood is shunted to the muscles to provide oxygen, should we need to fight off that metaphorical saber-toothed tiger or run from danger. Or, to put it in modern terms, we enter this state when someone swerves in front of us and we slam on the brakes at the last minute to avoid an accident, or when our boss yells at us for missing that deadline. The body expends very little energy on digestion at this point, and any digestion that does occur is bound to be less effective. Considering that we derive all of our nutrition from the food that we eat and digest, it behooves us to avoid this sympathetic state.

Conversely, in a parasympathetic state, breathing slows down and becomes shallower, the heart relaxes, and blood becomes concentrated in the core of the body. The stomach is more prone to secreting acid to help digestion, and the liver and pancreas both tend to secrete more of their respective digestive juices, too. The intestines engage in more peristalsis - that is, they churn more effectively, making sure that the contents of the food we ate can be more readily absorbed. This enables us to get the most out of eating, nutritionally speaking.

So how do we most optimally get into this parasympathetic state and eat effectively? Here are some good ideas.
  • Tonight, sit down at the dinner table and resist your usual routine of reading the newspaper, watching television, doing homework, or getting into negative emotional discussions. In other words, "stop whatever it is you are doing, and devote your attention to eating." Simply focus on enjoying the experience of nourishing yourself.
  • Establish the habit of experiencing genuine gratitude for whatever the food or beverage is before you. Or, in simpler terms, say grace before each meal. Who are we to take for granted the bounty which surrounds us in our uniquely blessed culture? It is essential to feel your gratitude here, not to just think it fleetingly, for thoughts which we attach feeling to become emotions and emotions influence every cell of our being. (A good source of pre-meal blessings is John Robbins’ book May All Be Fed: Diet for a New World.)
  • Notice your breathing as you reflect on your good fortune and begin to draw deep slow breaths from low in your abdomen, feeling your stomach relax as it rises and falls with each breath. Notice how this type of deep relaxed breathing feels inside.
  • Notice the aroma of your food, and if you do not find it appealing, add your favorite natural herbs and spices to enhance its appeal. Be creative! You owe it to your soul to experience the dozens of delightful and healthful herbal and spice seasonings available in our culture’s diverse marketplace. Whole healthy foods can taste marvelous. Make the time to master this art. You will have no regrets.
  • Place a reasonable amount of food on your plate, and if you are still hungry when you are done, wait five minutes. If you are still not satisfied inside on a gut level, you may then eat more.
  • Throughout your meal, listen to your stomach – not just your taste buds – and do what it tells you. Notice when you are satisfied or when foods do not agree with you.
  • Chew each bite 42 times and swallow it before you place more food in your mouth. Digestion of all food actually begins in the mouth where it is reduced to small enough particles for your digestive enzymes to get at and continue the process. Important salivary enzymes also begin their work here when provided the opportunity as per the above suggestions.
  • Drink only pure water with your meals and only as necessary, between swallows of food – not with them. Excessive fluids may dilute valuable digestive enzymes, minimize chewing, and therefore serve to negate salivary digestion. The most disruptive beverages are those which are alkalizing (acid-neutralizing), such as milk, which can interfere with digestion in the stomach. Learn to satisfy your thirst between or before meals to minimize any possibility of interference during the meal.
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