Ep 95: How to Calm Down Around Food - Part 1

Oct 15, 2019


Today we want to give you some strategies for how to calm down around food. This will be the first of a 2-part series on How to Calm Down Around food, and today we’ll focus on the physical side of calming down around food. We’re going to give you 3 strategies to help you physically calm down around food.

We know from our work with many women that stress, guilt, and anxiety are very common when it comes to food. And we might think all of that impacts us only emotionally, but it actually takes a huge physical toll as well.

Anxiety around food can bring about physical symptoms, especially digestive ones. When we’re stressed out about food, that manifests in our body’s ability to digest and absorb the food we eat, leading to digestive issues that we’ll go more into depth on in a few minutes.

In a typical mealtime scenario, which happens for many of us and that might sound familiar to you, you might be eating quickly or under some amount of stress. When you are in a stress response, that means your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. You may remember this from middle school science class, but we’ll give you a quick reminder here. This brilliant mechanism, built into our hard-wiring to protect us and save our lives, can cause lots of problems when it’s employed too often. 

Here’s a quick rundown of the physiological stress response and how it plays out in our bodies. Our heart rate speeds up, blood pressure increases, breathing quickens, hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) that provide a burst of immediate energy are released, blood flow is rerouted away from your midsection toward your head (quick thinking), arms and legs (fighting or running away).

Most importantly, the digestive system totally shuts down. Which makes sense - if you’re fighting for your life, you don’t need to waste energy digesting your pancakes. All the body’s metabolic functions are directed toward survival.

So when you’re anxiously rushing around getting the kids ready for school while grabbing random, hurried bites of food, or eating in the car while driving to soccer practice, your body is most likely in a stress response. You’re hurried, you’re rushed, and your body is picking up on all of that.

Your body has no idea that what you’re experiencing isn’t life-threatening, because it is genetically programmed to initiate the fight or flight response the instant the mind perceives stress. Which means that all those pieces we mentioned (heart rate, etc.) kicks in and that inevitably includes some degree of digestive shut-down.

This can lead to heartburn, cramping, gas, stomach pains, belching, intense hunger, a slowed metabolism, an inability to burn calories efficiently.

If you are in a stress response, it’s impossible to digest + metabolize your food. When you eat in a stress response, no matter what you’re eating, your body literally cannot digest it. It can’t absorb the nutrients, no matter how many there are.

Saliva is reduced (which doesn’t sound like a big deal but saliva begins the process of breaking down your food), your stomach can’t effectively break down carbs, proteins, or fats, and blood flow to the small intestine is dramatically reduced - that’s where the digestive magic happens, and if there’s no blood flow, those amazing cells can’t assimilate the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from your meal

It’s not just important what we eat - it’s important how we eat it. Particularly, how we feel when we eat it. So how can we switch our bodies quickly and easily out of a stress response? With all that we have going on, is it even possible to relax?

Well, there’s actually a VERY simple way to instantly switch your body from a physiological stress response into a parasympathetic relaxation response where you’re primed and ready to digest and absorb your food, and this is the first of the 3 strategies we want to give you today to help you calm down around food.

The first strategy to help you calm down around food is to BREATHE. The shortcut out of stress and into a relaxation response is slow, conscious breathing. The breathing pattern of stress is shallow and arrhythmic. If you’ve ever been in a car accident or some other traumatic situation, you may remember that you hold your breath.

The body’s natural response in stress or danger is to speed up the breath. When we are stressed out, if we consciously employ the deep breathing patterns of the relaxed state, we can essentially trick our central nervous system. The brain is like, “Hey! I thought I was about to die, but now I’m breathing like nothing is wrong. I guess I must be relaxed after all!” A signal is sent from the frontal cortex to the spinal nerves to organs throughout the body. The endocrine system kicks in and deactivates the stress hormones. The result? A shift into relaxation and full digestive capacity.

Practice slow deep breathing right now as you listen. Sit in a comfortable position, spine straight, feet flat on the floor. Close your eyes (although that doesn’t always have to be). Optional - place one hand on your belly. Deeply inhale, filling your lungs to about ⅔ full. Hold your breath for about 5-7 seconds. Exhale fully, deeper than you inhaled, pushing out all the stale air from the bottom of your lungs. Repeat this 10 times.

This simple practice can shortcut the stress response in as little as one minute, depending on the intensity of the stress response. Even if you’re in a social situation or eating with other people, you can still do this. Remain focused on your breathing while keeping your eyes open, looking normal.

The second strategy to help you calm down around food is to practice the PAUSE. Tara Brach calls this “the art of the pause” or “the sacred art of pausing” and we love that phrase.

Here’s a great quote from Tara Brach: “The challenge in pausing is that, when we pause...it creates a space for us to feel the vulnerability that’s there. We have to be willing to feel the hum of vigilance and anxiety that is part of our organism and make peace with that, and then we find the space that life can live through. ...Deepen your commitment to pausing. Experiment and notice, when you just stop in the middle of things, the incredible push to regroup and get back into action. There is an anxiety or restlessness in us. So, instead of pausing when we are stressed, we do the exact opposite — the primitive brain drives us into activity to defend ourselves or to grasp onto what we think we need. We end up being engaged with doings that cause harm and lock us into a doing-self. They lock us into a feeling of a self that is in trouble — deficient, separate — that needs to keep doing.” 

This can look like a 20-second pause before eating, or during eating, or after eating, or all 3. Taking a few seconds of silence around the eating experience will help you feel more calm around food and also help you enjoy your food more.

The benefit of pausing, when it comes to food, is that it allows you to connect with and sense what’s really going on. Take stock of your emotional state, your physical state, your environment, and the food you have in front of you.

The process we teach of developing food + body confidence is all about connecting back to your body, of coming home to yourself, and learning to pause is essential to that process.

The third strategy, and the last one we’ll share with you in this episode, is to pay attention to your surroundings. Eat in an ENVIRONMENT conducive to a positive eating experience. We live in a fast-paced, hectic, results-driven culture. Most of us rarely make time or space in our lives for joyful, uninterrupted eating experiences. But that’s probably to our detriment.

Not because paying attention while we eat is a rule or something we have to do to “be good,” but because it makes eating so much more enjoyable and allows us to get so much more satisfaction from each meal and snack. 

In evaluating your environment, think about distractions. Giving yourself the place and time to eat with less distractions can make all the difference in how you experience your meal. You’ll taste it more, notice the textures, and take more pleasure in your food.

It makes the most sense to eat at a table, and we’d recommend that when it’s available to you. But again, this isn’t about being rigid and inflexible and creating a rule that “you ONLY eat sitting down at a table.” You can eat anywhere, and we’d encourage you to think about places that allow you to feel calm, pleasant, and focused on the eating process. Maybe eating outside at a park or on the grass. Maybe in your car on the way to somewhere, but with the car pulled over and parked so you can focus on the food and not on the road. Maybe it’s even in front of the television, eventually! That can be a pleasant experience, although it may be helpful to wait until you’ve gotten more practice with mindful eating before you make that a staple for you. You can experiment with what feels like a pleasant, calm environment for you.

If you think about environments you may eat in, categorize them by helpful or unhelpful in helping you calm down around food. Eating while driving, probably not conducive to calm. Eating while running around the house rushing to get out the door, or standing in front of the fridge, or while working and writing emails...those are bad, but they aren’t helpful.

We recommend finding somewhere comfortable to sit, minimizing distractions (your phone, TV), and putting your body into a relaxation response by taking some deep breaths and pausing, like we talked about earlier.

So those 3 strategies to help you calm down around food are: practice breathing, practice the pause, and minimize distractions in your environment to create a positive eating experience.

Speaking of positive experiences with food, we want to let you know that we’ve released the third cookbook in our digital cookbook series, Nourished + Satisfied. This is the lunch edition, one that we’ve been excited to get into your hands because we know lunch is typically the hardest meal for many people.

We created these cookbooks because we understand the stress + guilt that surrounds food choices and meal planning these days. We know how difficult it can be to know the best way to eat. With all the nutrition advice and diet talk out there, it can feel overwhelming to know where to even start. We also believe that nobody is more qualified to make food decisions for you than you are! We believe that an essential key to a non-diet approach to eating is to find the balance between nourishment and satisfaction. We have found in our work with helping people transition away from dieting or meal plans, oftentimes individuals feel like they’ve forgotten how to eat. They feel confused and unsure how to sort out what sounds or feels good from food rules they may have learned in the past. There is no one-size-fits-all way of eating! 

In the recipes in our cookbooks, we give you guidelines and templates for some of our favorite foods, but with LOTS of room for making it your own and tailoring it to what you want. We believe that a nourishing + satisfying meal will have elements of food you love (satisfying) and that your body loves (nourishing). Healthy eating is not one or the other - it should include both!

You can check out Nourished + Satisfied: Lunch Edition in our online shop on our website at eatconfident.co/shop.

We’ll be back next week with part 2 on how to calm down around food. We hope this has been helpful for you, and we’re excited to share 3 more strategies with you. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll talk to you next week!

Want more of Eat with Confidence?

If you’d like more support + guidance in your process of becoming a Confident Eater, we’re here to help. Learn more about our group coaching program, Eat Confident Collective.

If you like this episode, we’d love to hear from you! Take a screenshot, share it on Instagram, and tag us @eatconfident.co. We’re cheering you on, and we love knowing how the podcast is helping you!


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