Our nervous system has two main subsystems: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS governs our “go mode”, acting as our internal gas pedal. When we are active, stressed, or multitasking, our SNS is stimulated. Activation of the SNS is great when we are working, playing sports, or being busy with our many tasks during the day.
The SNS draws blood and chi/prana away from the digestive organs and brings it to the extremities, such as arms, legs, and certain parts of the brain, to boost our ability to move and think quickly. This decreases our digestive power, lessening the secretion of digestive enzymes. If we eat while we are stressed or multitasking, we set ourselves up for indigestion and poor assimilation of nutrients.
For optimal digestion and wellness, it is necessary to decrease SNS activity and increase PNS activity while we are eating. This improves digestion, nutritional absorption, and satisfaction. When we eat in a calm state of mind, our digestive organs work efficiently. This naturally enhances nutrient intake and absorption. Better digestion means less ama, or toxic buildup, in the body. It also supports the efficient elimination of toxins such as normal waste, chemical residues, and heavy metals. Conscious eating supports the body in working more efficiently and intelligently.
A Remedy for Neurosis and Emotional Eating
Conscious eating helps reduce stress and emotional triggers around food and eating. For some of us, childhood mealtime was a forum for conflict and arguments and an abundance of stress, and that association of stress with mealtime carried forward through our lives. When we eat under stress for years at a time, it makes sense that food can become a trigger for emotional issues. Our hunger is often due not only to a lack of nutrients, but also to a lack of intimacy in relationships, soul fulfillment, or the fulfillment of our dharma. In this way, conscious eating is a powerful solution to emotional eating. It helps us develop the sensitivity to distinguish between actual hunger and emotional hunger and to find real satisfaction.
Here are the 9 practices of conscious eating.
1) Take Three Full Breaths Before You Begin Eating
Conscious breathing automatically shifts nervous system dominance from sympathetic to parasympathetic. You will feel an immediate energetic shift. This simple step is foundational to supporting all of the other steps, so it is a vital one. Continue to breathe deeply and with awareness throughout the meal, even between bites
2) Sit Down while Eating
When we stand and eat, we give our nervous system the message that we are not entirely safe or that we have something urgent to tend to that is more important than eating. With this message, the SNS takes dominance. When we sit, the message is the opposite: we are safe, and eating is the priority. Now the PNS rises to dominance and facilitates healthy digestion.
3) Express Gratitude or Grace
Whatever your tradition or present orientation may be, theistic, agnostic, or atheistic, gratitude is universal. Whether you are thanking God, nature, the food itself, or the work that went into producing it, this expression of gratitude enhances a sense of presence and calm at the moment. Gratitude is essential for an enjoyable meal and healthy digestion.
4) Keep Your Feet on the Ground
Be grounded and present while you eat. Keep your body aligned and your spine relaxed and straight. This allows the body to be calm and function at its highest capacity. When the body is relaxed and in a healthy posture, it messages the nervous system that all is well.
5) Do Nothing Else while Eating
This can be very challenging for many. Focus on the act of eating: seeing, smelling, bringing food to your mouth, tasting, chewing, swallowing, breathing, and pausing until the next bite. Let it be a meditation. On a physical level, the stomach helps churn food and aids digestion. From a Chinese medicine perspective, stomach chi controls thinking, the digestion of experiences, and worry. When we overthink, work, do and worry while eating, it takes a great deal of blood and energy (chi) away from the stomach and brings it up to the head, decreasing our power of digestion. Being in our “doing” mode stimulates our SNS while being in “being” mode stimulates the PNS. So “be” while you eat.
6) Eat in a Cheerful State of Mind
If there were any time for the healthy use of denial, it would be around the dinner table! Mealtime is not the time to discuss stressful concerns or challenging relationship issues. While eating, it’s best to temporarily let go of issues, petty resentments, and stressful topics. Eating while upset turns off the digestive power. In fact, many digestive conditions can be traced to regularly eating in a stressed-out state of mind. When eating, accept a cheerful state of mind and enjoy the simple pleasure of receiving nourishment. It is also an opportunity to respectfully honor those with whom we share our table. By intentionally lightening our mood and avoiding conflict or challenging issues during mealtimes, we create a safe environment, letting our loved ones know that their well-being, downtime, and nourishment matter to us.
7) Observe and Smell Your Food
Opening our senses while we eat brings us into the present moment with deeper awareness, and being present supports the PNS. All of our senses are involved in eating: smelling, tasting, seeing, touching, and even hearing. Tuning in to our senses brings us into the present, slows us down, and enhances satisfaction.
8) Eat One Mouthful at a Time, Chewing Sixteen to Thirty-Two Times with Each Bite
Chewing breaks down food into smaller particles and mixes it with salivary digestive enzymes, which enhance that breakdown. It is the first step of the digestive process, and the more we break down the food in this first step, the easier the rest of the digestive process is. Before we swallow, it is best to create a homogeneous liquid in our mouth. Chewing sixteen to thirty-two times also helps us slow down the eating process. Sometimes we take another bite before we are finished chewing the previous bite. One bite at a time and sufficiently chewing automatically supports conscious eating habits. Chewing in this way is very effective in achieving optimal nervous system balance and digestive power.
9) Rinse Your Mouth Six to Twelve Times After Eating
Rinsing the mouth has two functions. First, it is hygienic, as it cleans the teeth and mouth. Second, it clearly ends the eating cycle. Rinsing also removes the lingering taste of the food we’ve just eaten, which clears the palate so that we will be less likely to nibble at leftovers while cleaning up. This helps prevent overeating. Rinsing the face is also beneficial as it is refreshing and helps to clearly end the eating cycle.