10 Tips on How To Eat Well + Support Digestion
Food is so much more than just the fuel our body needs to keep going. Each item we eat plays an important role in our body and the balance we all need to stay healthy. However, it's not just what you eat, but HOW you eat that is equally influential.
We'll begin by discussing the spleen, the central organ of digestion in Chinese medicine. It is the means by which we meet our nutritional needs. Through the digestion process the spleen adapts food to nourish and support our system by converting food into usable substances within our bodies and sending them to where they are needed. The following guidelines for eating well are ways we can support and keep our spleen strong, healthy, and working properly.
Enjoying the food we consume is the first step to being fully nourished by what we eat. If we are happy when we eat and happy in our relationship with food, then guess what? Our bodies will actually accept the food more effectively into our system! For many of us, it can be more important to heal our relationship with food than it is to change what we eat.
2. POSITIVE ATTITUDE
Do you feel guilty when you eat a piece of cheesecake? Or dead inside because you’re “forced” to eat kale? (Am I the only one who actually enjoys eating kale?!)
Each of us have these beliefs of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ foods. The foods that may be ‘good for us,’ you may not enjoy eating, and the ones that are ‘bad for us,’ you eat with guilt or avoid them with resentment. But did you know that eating is just as much of a mind game as it is a stomach filler? The attitude that we have towards the food we eat will instruct our Spleen what to do with it.
The Spleen is the mother of digestion, it extracts nourishment from all the food we eat to support our body’s needs. The stronger our Spleen function, the better it is at extracting nourishment from all the food we consume, whether it be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for you. To get the most out of eating, try to accept the food with a positive attitude once you have made the choice to eat it.
We’ve all heard it before. Slow down, take a break, sit and enjoy your meal. Our digestion works best when we are focused on our meal, not working, driving, or watching TV. (Guilty!) This is more than just an ancient tradition. It’s science!
In order for our bodies to properly digest food, it must be in parasympathetic mode. This fancy phrase means your nervous system needs to be in a relaxed state in order to turn on all the digestive processes–from stomach acid production to the muscle contractions of the intestines. If you eat in a rush or while busy doing other things and your body can’t reach the parasympathetic mode, over time it can cause damage because it’s not able to digest your food properly and extract all of the nutrients from your food to support your body.
Before your next meal, try taking a little time to relax your posture and maybe take a few quiet breaths. It is helpful to uncross your legs and sit up straight. Hunching over compresses our digestive organs and hinders the passage of food through our body.
4. CHEW WELL
There is a saying, “The stomach has no teeth.” Thorough chewing allows foods to be mixed with saliva and chewed until liquid to release their full nutritional value. This lessens the work our digestive organs have to do. Without adequate chewing you can feel heavy or dull, develop gas, and even be undernourished.
Chewing also warms chilled or raw foods–which can put a lot of strain on digestion due to exerting a lot of energy to warm those foods up in order to begin the digestion process.
To get started in the correct habit of chewing, try counting the chewing of each bite 30-50 times! This will be difficult to do at first. It’s a great activity to realize just how little you are chewing! I did this and couldn’t believe how long it took to eat. It over doubled the actual meal time, which I usually flew right through. But I also started to notice how much better I felt after a meal, especially one in which I was eating meat. I wasn’t getting nearly the amount of intestinal distress or burping. I don’t chew every piece 30 times now, but I make a conscious effort to chew as much as possible before swallowing. You know you've chewed enough when the food is has become enough of a liquid that it starts to slide down your throat before you've even begun to swallow.
5. RESIST STUFFING YOURSELF
I’m lookin’ at you burrito baby. I used to think I could “save” my calories. Ya know, eat less today because tomorrow you want to stuff your face with pizza and tacos? Then my trainer likened your stomach to a gas tank. It only holds so much before it just starts spilling out all over the ground.
Overeating at any one meal causes a temporary pile up of food waiting to be processed, and this causes an internal stagnation. As a result, we feel tired while our energy is being used to digest the excess food. (This is where drinking 1 tsp unfiltered apple cider vinegar in ⅓ c water throughout the day comes in handy!) If this is a habit, our spleen becomes overstrained and may produce mucus or a buildup of internal heat—otherwise known as damp heat—a very common problem in a culture of plenty. So, I challenge you to stop eating just before you are full.
6. DRINK LESS WHILE EATING
Sip–don’t gulp! In Chinese medicine the spleen is the central organ of digestion. Digestion is the process of converting food into usable substances within our bodies and sending them to where they are needed. The stronger our spleen is, the better we are able to absorb and put to use the food that we eat. The spleen does not like too much fluid with a meal. A little warm fluid while eating is helpful, but too much DILUTES THE SPLEEN’S ACTION AND WEAKENS DIGESTION. A teacupful (roughly 6 oz) is generally sufficient. Most fluid is best consumed between meals. So...are you a sipper or a gulper?
7. HOLD THE ICE
Have you ever been to Europe and were aggravated that you had to specifically ask for ice? Well, let’s flip that frown upside down and talk about why they are actually doing you a favor!
The spleen’s digestive process needs warmth. In Chinese medicine this is called the ‘Digestive Fire’. A prolonged or excessive use of chilled fluid or food (that includes raw food!) can weaken the spleen because it’s essentially dousing the fire. A weak ‘Digestive Fire’ can eventually lead to a collapse of spleen function. What does this mean for you? Simply, poor digestion. Your body won’t be able to properly extract all the nutrients from the food and use them in your body if your spleen is weak and not performing properly.
One easy win is to hold the ice, and try drinking room temperature drinks as much as possible.We keep our water filter on the counter instead of the refrigerator. At first it was an adjustment as we are conditioned to think that ‘refreshing’ = cold. After getting used to it, I feel refreshed just by consuming liquid in general. And bonus! It really helps with teeth sensitivity to stop consuming those icy beverages.
8. EAT DINNER EARLY
Well, to be honest, Chinese medicine recommends lunch being the biggest meal of the day and dinner be the smallest. For me, it’s a real struggle to overcome societal norms. I like to cook and don’t have time for it during the day, so it makes the most sense to eat my bigger meal for dinner. (Like most of us are used to, I’m sure.) But at any rate, eating dinner earlier than 6/7pm is important.
When we eat later at night, our system is naturally slowing and cooling down–the food sits around for longer in the digestive tubes, resulting in Stagnation. In an effort to burn off and get rid of this food sitting around, the body creates internal Heat which can also burn up the Stomach moisture/cooling lubricant known as Yin. When internal Heat burns up Yin, we don’t have a good reserve of quality nutrients to build new tissue and repair and maintain our bodies.
9. CHOOSE FRESH, STRONG FOODS
Buying local (and organic) isn’t just about supporting your regional farmers. It’s also healthier for you! As food gets transported to its destination it begins to lose some of its nutrients. The longer a food is stored before it is eaten the less it has to offer to our bodies. Food can also be damaged by chemical preservation, excessive processing, and genetic manipulation. So choosing local and organic foods when you can is important. I wish I could afford to buy everything that way, but the reality is, it is expensive. But being mindful of it, and doing it when you can is better than nothing! Also, keep the foods you are buying strong by not microwaving them and killing their vitality and strength with radiation.
10. TRUST YOUR BODY
Sometimes (let’s be honest, most of the time) we crave things we shouldn’t be eating, but in each of us there is a deeper level of knowing what we need. As we bring our awareness to our eating, we can begin to feel what our certain needs are, what truly nourishes us. While you’re learning what is appropriate for your body, you’ll probably need to be guided by more analytical judgments, but as we begin to listen to our bodies, we can begin to make choices from what it is telling us. What makes us feel good at the deepest level is good for us. With practice we can eventually learn to separate our cravings and addictions from our intuition and deeper levels of guidance.