Popular culture pays endless attention to what we eat. From Atkins to Whole30 and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter to gluten free pasta, it’s a never-ending obsession. But what almost never comes up in conversation is how we eat – our rituals, thoughts, and feelings around food. And according to digestive psychologist Caspar Poyck, there’s growing evidence that how we eat may be just as important as what we eat for digestive health.
We sat down recently with Caspar Poyck, a digestive psychologist, to discuss this mind body connection and how practicing emotional intelligence with food can lead to better physical health.
7 TIPS FOR PRACTICING EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE WITH MEALS
WHAT DO EMOTIONS + DIGESTION HAVE TO DO WITH EACH OTHER?
Many digestive problems have an emotional cause at the root of them.
We know that our emotions affect our physical body. They are connected and influence each other on a deep level. Stress, for example, contributes to a wide array of illnesses, like high blood pressure, heart disease, and digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome. Many digestive problems have an emotional cause at the root of them.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO FOCUS ON HOW WE EAT AS WELL AS WHAT WE EAT?
If you are only looking at what you eat, you are only looking at half the picture. This is very easy for Westerners to do because our culture incessantly focuses on what we eat. So we think, “It must be just about the foods, so if I eliminate these foods or if I add these foods, then I’ll be fine.” But nobody looks at the fact that if I’m super anxious about cutting out gluten, my anxiety will actually become a huge contributing factor to why I am most likely sensitive to gluten. Instead of coming out of your problem, you’re actually aggravating the problem.
BUT SOME PEOPLE ARE ALLERGIC TO GLUTEN OR EGGS OR DAIRY, RIGHT? SO DOESN’T WHAT WE EAT MATTER, TOO?
Yes, it’s both. Take the example of a stomach ulcer. It’s well documented that stress leads to ulcers. Healing means changing what you eat and changing the emotional dynamics at the root of the problem.
I like to use the following analogy. Let’s say I have an open wound on my arm. If I want that wound on my arm to heal, the first thing I need to do is to stop scratching it. But then, I need to promote healing. Similarly, an ulcer is an open wound in the digestive tract. The first thing you need to do is to stop being abrasive to it. You have to stop scratching it. And that means a dietary change. That by itself, though, is not the final healing. That is just symptomatological healing. You’re just preventing that symptom from showing up. But, it doesn’t mean the underlying reason why it’s a problem is healed yet. The healing has to come from a deeper place, the emotional cause of the problem.
In the same way, consider this other example about body weight, which causes so much of the noise about what we eat…
I had a client and she had gained a lot of weight. Initially, she asks for a diet. I say, “Before we talk about a diet, let’s talk about your psychology, what’s happening? Why do you think you are gaining weight?” Eventually, after some therapy I find out she eats a lot of candy. Then I find out when she was a child, her mother was very busy with her life. When she felt neglected and cried out, her mother would come out of her busy life and looks at her and go, “Are you okay?” And she inspects the child’s physical body implying that if you have a physical pain, I will hold you in my lap, I will give you a kiss, I will put a bandage on you, I will give you the attention you seek. But not finding physical pain, the mother says, “Oh no, you are fine. Here, have a lollipop.”
What’s the association that the child’s brain makes? When I feel unheard or unseen or unloved, my emotional pain is not a real pain and it’s not valid, but if I have some sugar and give myself a dopamine rush, I will feel better. Then later on in life she is in a marriage, or at a job where she feels unseen or unloved and so her body conjures up this craving for sugar because that is the answer. Unconsciously, she starts eating candy, which leads to weight gain. The key to losing weight in her case and changing those habits starts with recognizing the pattern that she keeps acting out. What food she eats is a symptom of a deeper pattern that is more closely related to how she eats.
HOW DO YOU GET PEOPLE TO OPEN UP ABOUT THE UNDERLYING EMOTIONAL CAUSES OF THEIR EATING HABITS? IS IT DIFFICULT?
People are a lot more comfortable seeking help for a food allergy than an emotional imbalance, and so most people want to focus on diet – what to eat. It’s very difficult for a person to say, “You know what? I’m really anxious. I’m overthinking things. I wonder if that has to do with my irritable bowel.”
Our culture teaches us to look at our feelings in a very dualistic way. Our culture says there are “positive” emotions and “negative” emotions. Brené Brown teaches that if you want to deny or suppress what you consider to be negative emotions, you can do that, but there’s a price to pay. You cannot be selective. You cannot say, “I’m not going to feel anxiety, I’m not going to feel anger but I am going to feel happiness and I’m going feel togetherness.” These “positive” and negative” emotions are often interconnected, and one wouldn’t be possible without the other. It makes it hard for people to open up about “negative” emotions like anxiety. Learn more about Six Seconds’ model of emotional intelligence + acceptance of all emotions.
When you’re asking me, “How can you get people to go on a path of healing?” You have to find balance and acceptance. A part of acceptance is to move beyond this duality of “positive” and “negative.” There are experiences in your life that aren’t pleasant and there are experiences in your life that are completely euphoric. But both are part of your life, and you need to accept them both. You must not judge them as good or bad. You must accept them as they are, and treat them as a learning opportunity.
If you suppress these challenging feelings right away when they come up, you’re missing out on valuable data about yourself. Feeling that anxiety could become like a bell reminding you to take care of yourself before you feel the physical symptoms of that anxiety, like an ulcer.
If you suppress these challenging feelings right away when they come up, you’re missing out on valuable data about yourself.
WHAT ABOUT THE ACTUAL PROCESS OF HOW WE EAT?
The actual process how we eat is deeply connected with our digestive health and overall physical health. Eating mindfully – and by that I mean literally how you eat your food but also the bigger context in which you eat it – has a host of physical and emotional benefits.
Here are 7 ways to eat mindfully:
1. TAKE THE TIME
If you eat up to three times a day, try as often as you can to sit down. Relax and turn off the distractions.
2. FIND FRIENDS
Too often these days, we don’t eat our meals together. We eat in the car, we eat on the go, or just choose to be alone. I know families where the mother will text from the kitchen and the father and the children will run from their respective rooms, come get food and go back to their respective rooms again. It’s important to eat together, and…
If you can, sit down with other people, and hold hands before your meal. It turns out that when we hold hands, when we make physical contact with other human beings, our stress response goes down. Our fight response goes down. Because, in a way, you’re signaling to your body: “I’m in a community, I’m safe.” Humans are herd animals. We’ve grown up in communities. If you are with your tribe, you’re safe. If you are on your own in the Savanna, you might be in danger. So, togetherness represents safety for us. So, you hold hands and your stress level goes down, which helps with the entire process of digestion.
Sharing a meal actually protects us from depression, too. There’s plenty of data that supports that the prime reason for depression is a lack of connection. When people feel lonely, isolated and not part of the community, that is a huge trigger for depression. When you share meals and you have this ritualistic sharing, you have a neurochemical marker that tells you that I am now in community, I am now safe, I am now loved because oxytocin is being released.
4. SLOW DOWN
Once you sit down, look at the food for a moment before you start scarfing it down. Actually look at it with respect. Have some gratitude to the fact that it’s there. Look at the colors, look at the shapes. Take it in with all your senses. There’s already association starting just from seeing it. Then, you salivate, and when your glands start salivating, you start this whole process of digestion before you have even taken a bite. The amylase enzyme in your saliva gets ready to turn carbohydrates into sugars, which makes you enjoy your food more. Then you take your first bite and you eat slowly. The way that the flavor molecules communicate to your brain is through the synaptic connections on your tongue on your taste buds. But, just like any electricity, it works better when it’s wet. So when you eat slowly, there’s enough saliva in your tongue that those markers can communicate effectively. And you have much more flavor and sensation. Which makes you, again, satiated faster because you have had a lot of flavor, a lot of taste. Then you chew your food well. This is the basic formula of the meal.
5. DON’T OVER-EAT
Never overeat. Only eat 60% of your capacity. That way, the stomach can mix the digestive fluids properly through the chewed food. Peristalsis is the process by which your stomach stirs, and wants to do this wave-like motion where it mashes stomach acids through the food. If your stomach is really filled because you completely over-ate, then there’s no flex, there’s no give in the stomach walls, so it can’t mix the food. If you chew your food well and don’t overeat, it burns, dissolves quickly. You don’t have a lump in your stomach because it doesn’t get putrid while it’s sitting there.
Next thing is breath. Breath is really important in burning our fats. We are a complex, carbon-based life form. If you bind carbon with oxygen, then it becomes carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. If you have a campfire, for example, you’re not going to get a good flame if the campfire is choked. At the end, you’re going to have big coals left. Whereas if you have a good oxygen flow, you have very clean exhaust, you also have a very good roaring fire, in other words, a lot of energy, and at the end, you’ll only have really fine white ash left. We burn our food. It’s very much like that. You need proper oxygen supply to really have a lot of energy available, to not have a lot of dirty exhaust.
Laughter is amazing, too. There are these old sayings, “laughter is the best medicine.” It is. In my opinion, crack a joke. Have a laugh. Have some joy. Joy is such a healing energy. That should be a part of your meal, too.
Whether your goal with food is to lose weight, have more energy, or alleviate uncomfortable symptoms, how you eat matters at least as much as what you eat. Paying attention to the emotions behind your eating patterns coupled with mindful eating practices could be just the ticket you need to reach your goals in a healthy and sustainable way.