Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Food, Mood and Exercise

Based on a talk given at Weight Watchers, Bradenton, FL June 2013

The life cycle of every cell in the human body goes through three processes, namely creation, preservation and destruction. Food is the main source of energy for creative processes in cells. One of the main goals of life is the preservation of happiness, the human mind ceaselessly pursues happiness from birth to death. Exercise, by promoting healthy blood circulation helps in the elimination and destruction of cellular toxins.

Both humans and animals have the need for food. However, obesity is a problem unique to the human species. In the wilderness, you don’t come across obese animals or birds. An overweight tiger will not be able to hunt for food, an obese deer will not be able to escape predators and a bird that puts on a few extra pounds may not be able to take flight. Animals are instinctual eaters whereas humans are predominantly emotional eaters.

Hunger instinct is a basic survival mechanism for the body. The human mind, by turning this survival instinct into a social and emotional concept, has made food a source of comfort. Right from our infancy, we either eat to live or live to eat. Eating to live generally promotes good health and living to eat ultimately results in disease.

Instinctive eating caters to the body and emotional eating caters to the mind. Have you ever wondered at each meal, what proportion of the food we eat is essential for the body for its growth and survival and how much of what we eat at each meal is excess caloric intake? We feed both the body and mind with the food we eat. Even if the body satiated and cannot accommodate any more food, the mind usually is not satisfied. The body is a silent eater, going about the process of digestion, absorption and storage of food in a systematic way. The mind is a disorganized eater. It does not stay in sync with the digestive process in the body. It is also a noisy eater. Just ask the mind to remain silent when you eat and see the response you get from the mind! When we eat alone, the mind “talks” through our thoughts, in a group, the mind eats and talks through the tongue, and when we eat in front of the TV, the mind “talks” through our ears. There is no bad time for the intake of food as far as the mind is concerned. When we eat for the sake of providing adequate nutrition to the body commensurate with our age and activity level, the mind is unhappy. To placate the mind, (for example “comfort food”) we eat to excess and the body suffers the ill effects of overeating.

Every meal takes about twelve to twenty four hours to fully digest. It takes hours for the body to extract the required nutrients from food, sort them out and parcel them into transport vehicles for delivery to the various cells and organs of the body. There is a long orderly procession of food particles through the body starting with the mouth. Once food is chewed in the mouth it makes its way down a vertical passage called the esophagus, into the stomach. The stomach acts like a dam and slowly releases food that is mixed and processed with digestive juices into the small intestine. The digestive tract extracts molecules of “living nutrition” out of food. Humans are the only creatures that love dead and denatured food. Nature is a large factory that manufactures nutritious food in abundance. It is a lot easier on the body when we eat freshly prepared food that incorporates vegetables and fruit. We instead prefer “remanufactured”, processed, refined and preserved food to more natural sources of nutrition. Once we ingest processed food, the body has only a matter of hours to extract nutrients from this unnatural food. The natural process of digestion is not designed for processed food. This type of food is a recent invention of man, whereas the digestive process is as old as mankind.

Processed foods are rich in sugar and salt which the body is able to extract easily. It has a very hard time, if they are to be found in this type of food, in extracting more essential micronutrients. Excessive sugar and salt please the mind but is harmful to the body. The nature of the mind is to bounce all over the place just like the sugar levels in a poorly controlled diabetic. The mind seems to closely track the highs and lows in blood sugars. We feel good when the blood sugar peaks after a meal and when we are hungry and blood sugar level is relatively low, we tend to feel irritable. Carbohydrates in the form of sugar are universally loved, not necessarily because of its nutrient value, but the pleasurable sensation the mind derives from eating sugar. Salt is “sweet poison”. Man can give up a lot of things, but it is nearly impossible to adhere to a completely salt-free diet for extended periods of time.

When food comes in contact with the tongue, the taste buds predominantly detect sugar and salt. Taste buds are nerve endings that send messages directly to the brain. If the taste buds are constantly exposed to a lot of sugar and salt, it takes greater and greater quantities to elicit the same response from these nerves. For example, if you gradually decrease the salt and sugar content of the food that you eat, you may find food that previously did not taste sweet or salty to be unpalatable. Since sugar and salt are embedded in food, we start to increase the quantity of food intake to extract the same responses from the nerve endings on the taste buds.

Sugar and salt mask the other finer flavors of food. Since the brain is overwhelmed with impulses from sugar and salt sensitive taste buds, the mind quickly becomes used to the taste of sugar and salt. The mind likes repetition of patterns. The other word for this is habit. Once a habit forms, it is very difficult to break it. We have all been habit-free at one point in our lives. This is when we were children. If we look at our craving for sugar and salt as an addiction that brings with it excess of harmful calories, we can develop approaches to a healthier body. Intellectually, we all can agree about this, but how does one prod the mind to act?   

The mind also rejects the thought of exercise just as easily as the mind accepts food that may be harmful for the body. Back when we were children, long before our minds were beginning to develop strong likes and dislikes, we were naturally active. Remaining idle is unnatural to a child. As we get older, the physical exertion that the body is put through is small compared to the perceived exertion that the mind feels. Natural activity becomes unnatural to the mind. When we eat, the mind is numb to the exertion of the digestive process that the body is put through. When we exercise, the mind is very sensitive to the amount of exertion that the body is put through.

The mind is the link between food and exercise. No matter how healthy our diet is or how much we exercise, if the mind does not change it has the power to draw us back to our old habits of unhealthy eating and sedentary habits.

Eating and exercising with the mind

The mind can be moulded into a very usefully ally when it comes to eating and exercising. In general diets don’t work as they end up fighting the mind. It is a battle that the mind wins every time. It is hard for the mind to stay in touch with the digestive processes once food leaves the tongue. The mind has unlimited power of imagination and this may be employed to think about food even before it enters the body. Ideally, the mind should deal with food before it enters the body and the body should deal with it after it enters the body. While the food is on the tongue, the mind and body should be in harmony with the common goal of a healthy and happy existence. One way to turn food from an after-thought to something of great importance is to think about everything that happens in the food chain before it arrives on our dinner plate. This will turn food from a medication for the mind to a meditation for the mind.

For example, a common habit is to drink coffee first thing in the morning, which helps wake the mind up and make it alert. Let’s say you are standing in line at your favorite coffee shop. While awaiting your turn, think of where the coffee bean starts its journey long before it meets the grinder in the hands of the barista. Perhaps it started off on a plant in Ethiopia or some other far off place. Farmers that tended to the crop and harvested it, the middlemen that trade in coffee beans , the buyer for your favorite coffee chain and the barista that fills your cup have all put their efforts into making your morning cup of coffee a pleasurable experience. This is a small example, but every bit of food that we eat at every meal has passed through several hands before your taste buds experience its flavor and taste. If you think about food in this way, it helps build a sense of gratitude before you eat a meal and the mind can then be more easily coaxed into concentrating on food and excluding other thoughts at mealtime.

When food meets the tongue, both the body and the mind are experiencing it. At this stage, the mind should be urged to quit thinking about food and letting the body do the rest. The sense of gratitude that the mind feels when we eat is returned to us as happiness. The energy that the body derives from food is returned to us in the form of good health and vitality.

When food is on the tongue, we see its creative power. This creative energy of food is transformed into fuel that we use during exercise. When we exercise, we indirectly see the power of food in destroying toxins and ill health. If the mind feels the same sense of gratitude towards food energy as it leaves the body during exercise as it does when we eat food, it completes the cycle of creating energy, maintaining happiness and destroying ill health.