Nourishing Life #3 : How to Eat Part 2 - Regularity
After Quantity (see Nourishing Life #2), the next most important aspect of ‘how’ we eat to pay attention to is the regularity of meals and the environment in which we eat.
Our bodies love regularity and rhythm. We are natural beings and although all the wonders of technology allow us to operate 24/7, the closer we stick to a routine the happier our body and mind tends to be. Kids are happier with a routine and so is our digestive system.
‘When eating and drinking is doubled, the stomach and intestines are seriously harmed’
Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic, 2nd Century BCE
In Chinese medicine, the digestive system as a whole is referred to as the ‘Stomach and Spleen’ *. Li Dongyuan (1180-1252) headed a school of thought in Chinese medicine called the ‘Stomach and Spleen’ school where the health of the digestive system was emphasised as paramount.
The nutrition and energy contained in food cannot be fully extracted without a healthy digestive system - a fact that was obvious to Li Dongyuan - and is borne out by the presence of many modern digestive disorders.
*Capitalized organ names such as ‘Stomach’ or ‘Spleen’ make reference to the Chinese Medicine meaning of these organs. These are distinct from the anatomical organs and viscera we are familiar with in Western biomedicine for which I use the lower case spelling e.g. spleen, stomach.
A weakened or compromised digestive system can give rise to chronic diseases which are suffered by 1 in 5 Americans. Common diseases include chronic constipation, diverticulitis, IBS, stomach ulcers, acid reflux and indigestion. The treatment cost for these diseases in the US in 2004 was $140 billion - a figure rising annually.
In 2006, Americans spent $13 billion on antacid medications (e.g.Gaviscon, Rennies, Windeze) which help to treat digestive symptoms but fail to address the underlying cause of digestive discomfort. In the long run, this approach of treating the ‘branch’ symptoms but not the ‘root’ cause is ill advised as it may mask the progression of a more serious chronic digestive disease.
The Chinese nourishing life guidance that follows suggests ways to look after our digestive system so that it remains the cornerstone of our health and longevity for years to come. Once again, this article draws content and references from Peter Deadman's book 'Live Long, Live Well: Teachings from the Chinese Nourishment of Life Tradition’ which I highly recommend.
Eating smaller amounts of a nutritionally complete diet is (alongside drinking hot water) one of the easiest dietary changes we could make - but it is often one of the hardest.
Calorie Restriction and it’s benefits for health, longevity and brain function are explained in ‘How to Eat - Quantity’.
But how do we cut down on our food intake?
David A. Kessler** - a self confessed foodaholic - in his book ‘The End of Overeating’ has real empathy for us all in this dilemma.
Kessler’s book covers the ways in which food manufacturers ‘engineer’ foods to be optimally addictive and gives many social, psychological and neurological explanations for why we can eat too much.
**I highly recommend Kessler as a pioneering advocate for the public in the face of big business. He took on the tobacco companies to get health warnings on packets, and lobbied successfully for nutritional information on processed foods.
Visual Cues & Bottomless Bowls
One of my favourite findings on overeating relates to the ‘visual cues’ that tell us when we are full.
Up to a certain age babies are able to self-regulate how much they eat. They eat until they are full, then they stop. As a parent with a 15 month old I’m constantly surprised by how little my son needs to eat, but yet he is perfectly healthy and energetic.
Things change when we are socialised at the table and are encouraged to clean our plates so as not to leave any food. We move from knowing ourselves when we are full, to having to eat everything that is put in front of us because it is polite or because if we do we’ll get a reward (often more food - like an ice cream!).
The importance of this visual cue for ‘satiety’ (fullness) can become a problem as we can easily overestimate how much food we need. Bigger plates mean bigger portions and the potential to unknowingly eat more than we need.
In one famous Cornell study, two groups were given bowls of soup to eat and asked to stop when they were full.
Group A had a normal bowl of soup.
Group B were given a bowl of soup with a false bottom hiding a tube that allowed experimenters to secretly refill the bowl.
Group B ate 73% more soup than Group A before declaring they were full. Asked what they thought of the soup, some Group B participants even responded “It wasn’t very filling”.
This study graphically shows the importance of making sure we put less food on our plates because we are socially conditioned to eat whatever is on it.
Eat at regular times
The traditional boundaries of mealtimes have been eroded to such an extent that we can now eat anywhere, anytime. Fast food, Deliveroo and high streets lined with sandwich shops means the temptation to eat is ever present.
In urban China this phenomenon is growing. However, in many parts of China, it is still seen as important for co-workers to stop, sit together and enjoy meals at regular times through the day.
Sit down and relax when you eat
Eating anywhere, anytime means we can eat at our desk, in the car or walking along the street. Anywhere but at a table with a knife and fork (or chopsticks).
This issue does not persist is Asia. In Japan it is considered bad manners to eat whilst walking. In China, for many eating in silence is still the the norm so that food can be enjoyed without interruption.
Personally, I am a real advocate of taking a moment before eating to give thanks for all the work of man and nature that has made the meal possible. I’ve also spent many weeks on meditation retreats where silent eating is the norm. It is amazing how much more you appreciate food when you are able to give it undivided attention.
Eat slowly and chew your food well
Have you ever heard the saying - ‘The stomach has no teeth’.
If we are eating the right kinds of food - whole foods - we need to chew them slowly tom make our food more digestible and allows our brain to accurately detect when we are full.
Processed foods, are engineered to be both ‘hyperpalatable’ and easy to break down in the mouth so they can be swallowed before we’ve even registered them and reach for another. See David A. Kessler’s description of how a Snickers is created to do just that.
Eating too fast has also been linked to tripling the risk of developing type II diabetes (citation re'd)
Take a stroll after eating
‘Walk a hundred paces after a meal and one can live 99 years’
‘Eating to satiation and then lying down causes the hundred diseases, including indigestion and energetic blockages’
Nourishing Inner Nature and Extending Life, 7th/8th Centuries.
As the day wears on our digestion becomes more sluggish and slows down. The Chinese advice to move the body after eating is especially important after an evening meal and implies we should not eat close to bedtime.
Mild exercise after eating a high fat meal has been shown in a Japanese study to reduce levels of fats in the blood more significantly than exercise before eating.
Personally I can endorse this method as it is how I structure my mealtimes but I’m not a purist.
The Italian’s do know how to live well and ‘la dolce vita’ incorporates a nice slow lunch followed by a siesta. This is ideally followed by an dense evening meal preceded by ‘la passegiatta’ - a stroll to work up an appetite.
So whether you stroll before or after dinner depends on your preference .
Or perhaps on your holiday destination.