(The third of 10 blogs on behaviors that affect eating)
Happy people choose healthier foods, eat less and enjoy it more.
The rhythm of life is becoming faster and faster, so we really don’t have the same awareness and the same ability to check into ourselves.
(Dr. Cheung, Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.)
Most people have busy lives with a lot of things on their mind. One consequence is that the typical American dinner now takes about 20 minutes, which is barely long enough for our stomach to signal our brain that we are full. To be blunt, the tendency is to mindlessly eat – our minds are distracted and not on the food.
Mindless eating or eating in a down mood is a problem for several reasons.
One, we let external factors dictate how much we eat (see Food Portions: What You Are Served and What You Serve Yourself).
Two, when we are in a negative emotional state we head for the high-calorie, high-sugar, high-fat food – the donut over the banana. This post discusses the impact of mood on eating. Stress or emotional eating will be covered in an upcoming blog.
Consider the immediate impact of mood. People who are exposed to messages about tough times eat about 40 percent more than those who received neutral messages just before eating. In one study, the people were given the option of eating M&M’s from bowls containing high-calorie chocolate or one they were told had low-calorie chocolate. In reality, the M&M’s were the same. The people receiving the “bad news” not only ate more; they ate 70 percent more from the high-calorie bowl.
Three, our ability to taste is impacted by our mood. When people are in a good mood their taste buds detect salt, sugar, sour and bitter at lower concentrations. As a consequence, the pleasure of eating is higher and our sense of when “enough is enough” comes with less food. Conventional wisdom says that our sense of taste and smell declines with age, but now we know that there is a connection to mood and non-clinical depression.
Everyday Ways to Enhance Your Mood and Eat Right
Reduce Your Baseline Stress Level
Here are three suggestions to reduce stress.
Exercise. You should be doing it for your cardiovascular system and brain health but it can help you reduce stress and improve the quality of your sleep – both contribute to poor eating habits.
Be Mindful. Mindfulness is a hot topic these days. The most direct application to eating right is paying attention to the food. See my suggestions below under Eat Happy. The less direct but also important is mindful meditation. These exercise help deal with chronic stress and anxiety and improve one’s ability to stay focused on the present. Sit down at for a meal and stay mindful of every bite – it is not easy, the mind tends to wander. Mindful meditation can help improve the self-control required in being mindful in daily life. I recommend the 12 minute program called Kritan Kriya available from the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation.
Positivity Ratio. A negativity bias is associated with depression, anxiety and mood suppression. People with a ratio of 3 positive emotions to 1 negative are generally flourishing and in a great mental framework to eat right and enjoy it fully. But this is not the norm; many people have more negative emotions than positive on a daily basis. I highly recommend the approach of Barbara Fredickson on enhancing your positivity ratio. Check out her book Positivity (our link to amazon) or here YouTube video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hFzxfQpLjM
Emergency and Preventative Medicine for Emotional Eating
I like the approach to emotional eating proposed by Dean Anderson in his article
Tame the Emotional Eating Beast for Good. http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/wellness_articles.asp?id=693
To succeed at taming emotional eating he makes it clear that while important, just focusing on the root cause may not lead to success. If you are an emotional eater there are going to be emergencies when you need to eat. Be prepared to deal with these situations while you are working on the bigger and longer-term issue of prevention. His short article will get you rolling.
Create a Ritual That Promotes Positive Emotions Before You Start a Meal
Here is my new routine and the rationale behind it. You can put the principles into action is ways that suit you.
When I first sit down I take a few minutes to reflect on my day. I try to bring to mind a positive experience. It could be that I had a particularly good workout at the gym and am pleased with my progress. Or, it might be the pleasure of seeing an old friend even if it were a brief encounter. As I think about it I smile.
The idea is to trigger a positive emotional state before eating. Remembering an even small positive experience from the day is like winning the Trifecta.
- First, reminisence is like reliving the real thing. It activates the same brain area so you get virtually the same emotional experience.
- Second, you are double dipping the positive experience and increasing your positivity ratio.
- Third, you are mindfully directing your attention to a particular experience and, in the process, blocking the negativity that might be impacting your state of mind.
Smiling is like an insurance policy. Smiling releases oxytocin in the brain, a mood-elevating hormone that makes us feel safe, happy and more trusting. The smiling causes the release rather than the release causing the smiling. If you are dining with others, smile at them as you tell them about your experience. Smiles are reciprocal, so you help them out as well. (see Similes are Serious Medicine)
Have a Sure Thing to Counteract a Strong Negative Bias
Sometimes the ritual above comes easy and produces the desired outcome. I believe it will get easier with time. It is part of a process of learning to control mindfulness. But, in addition to the learning curves, there are days that the negative emotional forces are stronger than usual. Be prepared.
My sure thing is pictures or short videos of my grandchildren. When needed, I whip out my iPhone and go straight to a series of photos where they are smiling. I mentioned before that smiles are reciprocal; well theirs are contagious to me.
To ramp-up positivity one more notch, I express gratitude. As the impact of the smiling faces hits and I am still looking at the faces, I think of how grateful I am that they are both so healthy. When gratitude is genuine, like it is here, it improves one’s mood and positively impacts health (See Gratitude Works by psychologist Robert Emmons http://www.amazon.com/Gratitude-Works-Creating-Emotional-Prosperity/dp/1118131290/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1369232939&sr=8-6&keywords=Gratitude or check out his video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRV8AhCntXc
If I am eating alone, the routine is silent. If I am eating with my wife, I get her involved in every step. I know that she shares my love for the grandchildren and will smile and reaffirm my verbal expression of gratitude, usually with an added comment that re-enforces the effect.
The Other Sure Thing
Hugs! A brief hug with a loved one reduces the harmful effects of stress. The effect is almost immediate ( see A Hug-a-Day Keeps…).
Hugging is a consistent part of my wife’s and my efforts to up our Positivity Ratio. The great thing is that it feels good. We hug for about 30 seconds when we depart and when we greet each other. We also use hugs as needed, so some times before we head to the table, we take time out for a hug.
Gluttony is an emotional escape, a sign something is eating us. Peter De Varies