Be a Happy Eater and live longer

In a nutshell being a happy eater is guilt-free and stress-free eating. It's eating with joy - in a way that makes your heart sing! When I interview centenarians and people who achieve healthy longevity, I'm always interested in their eating habits and what I inevitably find is that they have not been overly concerned about their diets, but they do eat heartily.

There is research to show that happy eating helps you absorb more nutrients (more on this later). Too often I hear this: "my eating is out of control, I want to eat without worrying; I want to stop binge-eating;  how do I stop berating myself for eating bad food?"  I've even had a 4-year old (!) tell me she can't eat popcorn because it'll make her fat! 

happy eater

But sometimes it's easier to explain something by what it isn't.

  • Happy eating is not is fear-filled or frantic eating.  
  • It's also not obsessively tracking or calories or points or worrying endlessly about how healthy or unhealthy something is.  
  • But it can also be something much more subtle than that. It can also be taking in food but without any real enjoyment. To be a happy eater, you need to actively enjoy each mouthful.

I often hear fear-filled eaters saying they wish they just didn't have to eat. Oh my gosh, that sounds like a life sentence! As far as I'm concerned, eating with joy should be one of life's absolute pleasures! One of my aims is to help you enjoy food more (yes really!) - not less.

Dr. Susan Albers, psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Family Health Center author of Eating Mindfully, suggests that in our fast-paced world, eating while under whilst experiencing a negative emotion, or stressing or when we are busily multitasking it affects not only what we eat, but how we digest what we eat.

The Sympathetic nervous system shuts down the parasympathetic system. This means that growth processes like immunity, digestion and detoxification are put on hold. When the digestive system is shut down, fewer digestive enzymes are released and less hydrochloric acid is secreted to aid in the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats and protein. Without this stomach acid, many vitamins and minerals can't be broken down and made available to the body to be absorbed.

When we're stressed, additional glucose is released. This provides the for additional energy but also causes the pancreas to release additional insulin in order to deliver this extra glucose. Some researchers believe this can create cravings for foods that are high in sugar.

Your body is wise enough not to give priority to digesting if you're giving it messages that there is something fearful to deal with. If you really were in danger, this would not be a good time to stop and eat.  During stress, our fatty acid metabolism is impaired and fat is deposited. As as the cell's ability to metabolize fatty acids are impaired, your body breaks down muscle and replaces it with stored fat and excess fluid. 

When our body's processes are affected in this way for any length of time - so is your health, and so is your longevity.

Fear-filled eating 

If you are treating food as if it is an enemy - your body knows that.

If I had just described a relationship, that would sound like a pretty dysfunctional one - wouldn't it? Well if that's what your relationship with food feels like then you're not in a good space with food.

Do you have a short list of ‘legal’ and a very list of ‘illegal’ foods. The so-called 'good' foods being the ones you know you should eat and a list of bad foods you often want but feel you aren't allowed to eat and then feel guilt about.  Does eating with joy feel like it's an unnatainable lifetime away for you? Do you feel as if food is something to be stressed about, rather than to relax about? Something you have to be ever-vigilent around because you apparently can't trust yourself around it?

happy eater, eat with joyDo you eat with joy?
eat with guiltDo you eat with guilt?

What attitudes does a happy centenarian eater have?

  • Food is pleasure, they can go anywhere, anytime and be faced with any food choices and feel calm and eat with joy. They can really relish and savour the flavours.

  • They eat in the open, and with  obvious enjoyment. They think about how beautiful the food looks, they focus on it's textures and let everyone know how fabulous it is.  This is happy eating.

  • They leave food they don't enjoy.  It's as if those people who live to over 100 believe that life is too short to eat food they don't enjoy.  

  • They don't skip over their hunger because food has its rightful place as fuel (vitamins and minerals) - something they need to keep their bodies happy and healthy. 

  • Most of the time when those people who live longest and strongest earthy usually stop when they've had enough. Notice I said, 'most of the time' and 'usually'. Centenarians aren't obsessive about this. 

  • They approach food with a sense of curiosity – what does this food really taste like? Happy eating means savouring and getting the maximum enjoyment from eating.  

  • Centenarians appreciate food, and there is nothing they love more than sitting around a table sharing a meal and good conversation.  Looks at all those Italians and Greeks that live in the blue ones where a high percentage of centenarians are found - sit down food gatherings are common 

Does being a happy eater help your health?

Feeling stressed, guilty and fear-filled about food, raises the secretion of stress hormones and changes how our body digests food.

When we're stressed our body diverts the energy usually utilized for digestion and other bodily processes to help us cope with the stress. So our digestion system doesn't operate at it's optimum level. Thus, under chronic stress your normal digestion of food is impaired.

And eating what you enjoy has other benefits too according to this article in the National Geographic:  "....research supports that people actually absorb more nutrients from meals that appeal to them than from meals they find less appetizing.   “In one interesting study, researchers fed a traditional Thai meal of rice and vegetables spiked with chili paste, fish sauce, and coconut cream to two groups of women, one Swedish and one Thai. The Thai women, who presumably liked the meal better than the Swedish women, absorbed 50 percent more iron from the same food than the Swedish women. And when the meal was blended together and turned to an unfamiliar and unpalatable paste, the Thai women’s absorption of iron from the meal decreased by 70 percent! So choking down the plate of steamed broccoli (if you hate steamed broccoli) is not likely to do you as much good as you think. Enjoying your food is an important nutritional practice."

Now add that to the fact that research shows that we consume more snack foods and sweet foods when we are in a negative state. Seventy three percent of the participants in one study reported an increase in non-nutritious snacking behavior during stress and a corresponding decrease in intake of vegetables, meat and fish.

So let's say you're a fear-filled eating dieter and you spot chocolate cake or you spot a juicy steak on the grill. You'd love some, but know you can't or shouldn't have it. You feel stressed and guilty but take a piece anyway. Just thinking those guilty and stressed out thoughts impairs your digestion so that your body can't digest it as well as it could.

Now let's say you're a happy eater. You see that piece of chocolate cake, take it without guilt and then savour each morself. Because you're not stressed about it, you don't shut down your digestion and it works much better.

Same piece of chocolate cake - but your body accepts it and digests it better and you have a very different health and longevity outcome! Yay for that!

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