How We Eat - 5 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Health
In this series of articles, we are focusing on nutrition. Chinese medicine has long understood that diet is fundamental to health and longevity. In fact it has been viewed as a branch of medicine in it's own right. As early as the Zhou dynasty (11th - 3rd centuries BCE) , medical services classified dietary medicine as the highest form of practice. We are frequently asked for advice on what foods should be eaten or avoided to help with a condition or disorder. In this series we will look at nutrition from several different perspectives. First we'll look at how we eat. Later we'll look at the specifics of what we eat and other aspects of living a healthy lifestyle. You can find some information that we've posted in the past regarding diet here and here.
1) Eat less.
“When eating stop when you are seven-tenths full.” Chinese saying.
The way we eat may be even more important that what we eat. Eating the right amount of good quality food, perhaps less that we are accustomed to eating, is the key. Finishing meals when we are 70% full is best for optimal nutrition, can offer significant health benefits, and helps us age gracefully and with vitality. Recent studies have shown that in addition to cognitive benefits, eating less can increase longevity, improve function of the nervous and immune systems, and reduce incidence of several diseases that are prevalent in our country, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease, diabetes, kidney disease, neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, and autoimmune disease. There is now strong evidence that obesity has harmful affects on the brain while reducing food intake can improve mental functioning by producing new nerve cells in the brain.
One way to accomplish eating less is to only eat when truly hungry. True hunger is when our body genuinely needs nourishment. This means that we aren't eating when we are bored, emotional or crave certain foods. Moderate hunger also makes all food taste great, so you can get great satisfaction by eating the simplest of foods. That said, don't wait too long before eating. Eating at regular intervals is important for our digestive health as well, providing adequate time between meals to give the digestive system a break. By establishing regularly spaced intervals between meals, we are also less likely to snack on unhealthy foods.
One thing David's teacher suggests to his patients is to chew every bit thirty times for the entire meal. At home, for one meal, try to do this. As you are chewing,what you additional things you notice? How does this change the flavors of the food? What do you notice in your mouth? What happens to the conversation (if you are eating with others)? Did the amount of food you consumed change?
When you do eat, follow the Chinese rule of eating until you are seven-tenths full. It takes 15-20 minutes for your brain to register that you are full, and eating too fast has been shown to contribute to obesity and the risk of type 2 diabetes. By eating slowly, chewing thoroughly, and observing how full you are during a meal, you will realize that you will feel better if you stop eating before you are full to the brim. Your stomach needs some room to digest the food you consume – about 30% of its capacity to be exact. This improves your digestion and maximizes the nutrition you get from your food, and can even help you lose some weight.
Of course, those who are ill or recovering from illness, the elderly, those with eating disorders may be require more food to overcome serious insufficient nutrition.
2) Minimize liquids with meals.
Another consideration in how we eat includes the consumption of liquids with meals. Drinking water and other liquids with meals dilutes the digestive fluids required to break down the foods we put into our digestive system. Digestion is further hampered by having cold drinks with meals, because cold liquid puts out the “digestive fire” needed to efficiently break down your food and make nutrients available to your body. You may wish to try eating warm soups or tea before your meal to help prepare the stomach to receive the food. This may also help slow eating and create a sense of fullness, making it easier to sense the 70% full threshold.
3) Create the right environment for eating.
Sitting down to eat and focusing on our food helps us be calm and centered which encourages good digestion. While typically regarded as a religious tradition, giving thanks for your meal, can help to still your mind, slow your eating, and help to be more focused on the food in front of you. Eating when you are calm and relaxed greatly aids digestion. Avoid eating when you are upset, rushed or absorbed in work. Eating when stressed, especially on a regular basis is one of the most common causes of digestive disorders. In many monastic practices (from both Eastern and Western traditions), many meals are consumed in community with others, but also in silence. Try taking a meal or two in silence and then take note of the experience.
4) Eat bigger meals earlier during the day and avoid large meals late at night.
“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
The microcosm of the human body mirrors that of the larger macrocosm of the universe. Because the body’s metabolism (yang energy) begins to rise at dawn and peaks during the hours that the sun is at its highest point in the sky, it is a good idea to eat a good breakfast and take the largest meal of the day around noon. Towards the end of the day, the body begins to cool down as it moves into the yin phase and the metabolism rests, so less food should be consumed at night.
Morning is the time of day where our Large Intestine (5:01 – 7:00AM) and Stomach (7:01 – 9:00AM) have the most strength and therefore ability to digest food. Late into the evening the strength of the Large Intestine and Stomach are at their weakest and our ability to process and metabolize food is greatly diminished. Therefore, as general practice the last meal of the day should be completed by around 7:00 or 8:00PM.
The habit of eating late at night contributes to food stagnation, causing stomach discomfort and bloating. Long-term food stagnation can contribute to internal “dampness”, characterized by a feeling of heaviness and fatigue, and a tendency toward obesity. Dampness causes a “foggy head” with difficulty focusing and concentrating. Long-standing dampness creates heat in the body, known in Western medicine as inflammation, which is at the root of of many chronic diseases including chronic pain. So follow the old English saying “breakfast like a king, lunch like a merchant, and supper like a pauper”.
5) Include light movement after a meal.
“Walk a hundred paces after a meal and one can live ninety-nine years.” Chinese saying.
After eating, especially after the evening meal, go for a stroll to assist digestion. As mentioned before, digestion is a yang activity and becomes more sluggish as nightfall comes. Light exercise helps promote digestion. It is still appropriate to sit for awhile after eating, so don't feel as though you need to jump up and rush out to exercise. “Light” exercise and “stroll” are the key phrases here.
Remember that these are guidelines, and not “commandments.” Our body has an amazing amount of resiliency built in, so be careful to not be hard on yourself if you vary from these principles from time-to-time. By following these five suggestions regarding how to eat, you will improve not only your digestive health, but your overall health and well being. Even with the best foods on our plates, if we eat in a chaotic and stressful manner, we will not experience maximum health. Focus on how you eat, and then combine these strategies with what you eat (discussed in future editions of the newsletter) to cultivate a balanced diet that will serve you well and promote a long, productive, and happy life.
Deadman, Peter (2016). Live Well, Live Long.
Liu, Ming (2008). Santidao The Way of the Three Treasures.
Iwashina Anryu (2014). The Book of Dr. Bear.
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