How to Eat Better: Part One

When we want to eat better, we often change WHAT we eat. Bring your attention to the WHY, WHEN and WHERE of eating, and notice how that helps you listen to the messages your body is sending.

“Ayurveda is about choosing to live life with awareness…everything we do and ingest affects us”- Dr. Claudia Welch, author of Balance your Hormones, Balance Your Life

Yoga is about cultivating attention. We bring our awareness to breathing, our body, and connection to something greater. Take this awareness off the mat and to eating habits, and you'll gain great strides in your health.

In Ayurveda, the 5000 year old science of yoga, digestion is paramount to health. Dr. Vasant Lad, Ayurvedic physician, professor and director of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, explains that disease begins when undigested, unabsorbed food accumulates in the GI tract. And why does this undigested food accumulate? Numerous reasons, which include eating when we’re not hungry.

According to the National Institute of Health, 60 to 70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases, at an annual cost estimated at $141.8 billion (2004). These statistics include those suffering from constipation, acid reflux, and irritable bowel (IBS). Certainly there’s a lot to be said about what’s being eaten to cause this widespread digestive distress. In this blog series, however, I’ll focus on the WHY, WHEN and WHERE of eating.

My personal experience with digestive issues began as a young teen when I was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Other than being tested for dairy sensitivities and given a fiber supplement, there was absolutely no direction on diet, and the doctor said IBS symptoms had nothing to do with food. My symptoms worsened in college, and at one point I took medication to ease the crippling pain. The IBS continued into my mid 30s, but once I began practicing yoga, and gained awareness of my eating patterns, it literally disappeared. Yoga has well-documented benefits on the autonomic nervous system, which soothes the IBS brain-gut connection.

The why, when and where of eating is arguably as important as the what. A meal made from just picked home grown ingredients won’t be digested well if eaten on the run, under stressful circumstances, or if you’re not hungry. Have you ever noticed how food tastes better when you’re hungry?

How to Eat Better Tip One: Eat only WHEN you’re physically hungry.

Time of day, boredom, and distraction all impact our eating. When we’re not truly hungry, digestion isn’t as efficient as when our body signals a real readiness to eat.  Ask yourself, WHY am I eating?

Years ago, a friend of mine told me he’d lost weight on a diet of his own creation, in which he ate anything he wanted, with one caveat;He had to be physically hungry before eating. The details of what he ate aren’t completely relevant (and I don’t recommend going to that extreme) but the fact that he only ate when he was hungry is key.

We eat for all sorts of reasons; boredom, stress, emotional comfort, social connections, entertainment, distraction and habit. But the body is only designed to optimally digest, assimilate and absorb food under certain circumstances. Think about what happens with the food we eat: the plants, or the animals that ate the plants, literally become our body. It’s amazing that we can chew and swallow our food, and digestion, assimilation, and absorption happen without conscious effort on our part. Without TRUE hunger, the body gets confused and is not able to digest as efficiently.

There are very clear signs when the body’s hungry. It’s a kind of lightness, emptiness and readiness. Angela Stokes Monarch describes hunger as a “scratching sensation.” And food eaten when we’re hungry simply tastes better and is more satisfying.

Eating without hunger also interferes with the signals the body sends when full. Ayurveda recommends eating until the stomach is filled one third with food and one third liquid, and one third with empty space. Eating too often or when we’re not hungry puts the body into digestion mode all the time. A clear break from eating AND digesting to efficiently absorb and assimilate food leads to optimal digestion and health.

I’ve continued to refine my eating habits as I study Ayurveda and nutrition, and look back at my first years as a yoga teacher. My schedule varied wildly each day and I’d teach for hours with just enough time to get from one studio or student’s apartment to another. I coined the term “preventative eating”, as I’d eat whenever, and wherever I had the time, just in case. I snacked every couple of hours, whether in a cab, on the subway, or even walking and rarely sat down for a full meal.

I learned about the daily rhythms of Ayurveda, and that my habits were not optimal. We’re meant to eat when hungry, and finish digesting the previous meal before the next time we eat.

Although biology classes in school cover the mechanics of digestion we’re never taught how we can optimize health through eating habits. We miss the opportunity to learn the specifics of how food affects our mind and body. I would have greatly benefited had I learned this earlier in life.  Focus on attuning to hunger signals, and notice when you habitually eat when your body is not hungry.

Healthy EatingMarjorie Nass