Would you believe that research shows it’s more important to care about what you eat than what you’re actually eating? In fact, when you care about what you eat, you tend to eat better, anyway.
But what if you’re eating “right,” or right for you, working out three times a week, avoiding processed foods as much as possible, and you’re still gaining weight, feel bloated or gassy most of the time, and spend way more time in the bathroom than is humanly fair?
What if no matter what you eat, nothing feels right, and you’re sick of feeling tired, grumpy, and having a constant pain in your belly?
If this sounds familiar to you, chances are you’re one of millions who suffer with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, more commonly known as IBS.
This condition is frustrating for sufferers because doctors have such a hard time diagnosing and treating it. They tend to dole out pills that are intended to solve one problem with awful side effects; I spoke to one guy on a Facebook forum, and he hadn’t had a bowel movement in a month due to medication given to him by his GP. A month!
Doctors want to help but they’re just looking in the wrong places, and the system is not set up to accommodate a change in approach, not yet anyway. In the meantime, they suggest lifestyle changes to patients, but people don’t often know what that looks like, or how to maintain it. Plus, it’s hard to sustain change if you’re not seeing results, hating how you look in Lycra, or generally feeling like a beached whale.
Big lifestyle changes like joining a gym or quitting tobacco demand a real commitment whereas deciding to eat mindfully is easy by comparison. Rather than asking you to dump foods you like, it asks that you think about ingredients only, where food comes from, and how it’s prepared. On top, there’s some real science behind why it works.
The following are five ways to use mindful eating to treat IBS to improve your overall wellbeing as well as the quality of food in your fridge.
1. THINK ABOUT WHEN YOU EAT
Hunger is an important signal that tells your brain to get up, move around, and get some food. This is not something to take for granted. Staying put where it’s safe and warm is the natural instinct of every human on the planet. Problem is, that’s a sure road to nowhere, or death. To survive, we must get up, move around, brave the elements, find food, prepare and eat it.
However, your GI tract is a bit of a control freak, and likes to know in advance when food is coming so it can get ready. Even when we see or think about food, it triggers the body to prepare for digestion.
In preparation for digestion, the mouth begins to salivate, and the stomach releases enzymes, along with many other chemical reactions unknown to you. This means that the constant presence of food can send the workaholic digestive system into overdrive.
Today, those of us living in western cultures surrounded by street delis, fast food outlets, and billboard sized ads for everything from hamburgers to salad dressing are basically assaulted at a cellular level on a daily basis without realising it.
You can try to control the number of ads you see every day, or you can minimise their effects by taking charge of when you eat.
While most contemporary diets focus on the content of the diet i.e. food, focusing on WHEN YOU EAT has been shown to have serious health benefits. This idea is currently part of a new health and wellness trend called Intermittent Fasting. Like most new trends, it’s been around for millennia, and is actually how humans evolved to eat.
Various studies have demonstrated many benefits including improved brain health, insulin levels, cell repair, muscle growth, gene expression, weight loss, and inflammation.
As excess weight and inflammation can contribute to the severity of IBS symptoms, fasting can be a powerful way to control them; FYI speaking from personal experience, it’s the most effective way I’ve found to manage bloating, gas and inflammation.
There are different levels of fasting but at it’s most basic, fasting means leaving a 12-hour gap between your last meal in the evening, and breakfast the next day: Finish eating at 7pm, and don’t eat again till 7am. This schedule gives you a 12-hour eating window, and a 12-hour fasting window, and it’s possibly to increase the intensity and results by shortening the eating window while lengthening the fasting window.
Today, we’re surrounded by food so much it’s impossible to conceive a past where there was none. But times of famine were common until recent history (and continue in some countries), and the human body evolved to accommodate shifts in food availability enabling it to survive and function on stored fat for a long time.
The body is so smart that not only has it figured out how to survive on nothing but water, it also figure out how to use those lean times to give the internal organs a make-over. That said scientists still don’t know what the ideal length of time to fast is.
However, if the idea of fasting is completely new to you, start with a 12/12 split, see how you feel, and go from there. The longest fast I’ve done is 24 hours, which I now do regularly – it’s recommended to do a 24-hour fast once a month.
2. FOOD IS A RITUAL THAT BEGINS WITH SMELL
Smelling food, known as olfaction, is an important part of eating. Smell not only tells your ever-vigilant digestive system that food is on the way, it also helps you decide whether or not you want to eat what’s on offer.
Using scent to tell the difference between food that is or isn’t edible is another essential evolutionary tool that kept us alive for millennia, though today it’s used by brands to tempt you into eating food that will probably kill you. Taking time to smell food is an important part of your digestive process, so it’s a good habit to develop.
Retronasal olfaction is another type of smelling but this time it’s the flavours you taste as you chew and swallow your food. The creamy tang of peanut butter, zest of lime, or sweetness of honey that you taste in the back of your throat after you swallow plays an important role in letting your body know it’s satiated and full.
3. TAKE YOUR TIME AND CHEW
There are a lot of things going on in your mouth when you eat, a whole city’s worth of activity: teeth, jaw, palate, tongue, taste buds, mucous membranes, salivary glands and oral microbiome all serve a vital function every time food enters the mouth.
Teeth are uniquely adapted to our omnivore diet, a mix of cutters, choppers, and grinders, enabling us to chew food into tiny particles for swallowing. Jaw muscles are amongst the strongest in the body, and when we chew, it stimulates pleasurable neurotransmitters – one reason we enjoy eating, or chew on something when we’re anxious.
The tongue is covered with papillae, tiny bumps that help move food around the mouth and contain taste buds. Because the mucous membrane is porous, some substances can be absorbed in the mouth, such as drugs. The saliva, which is 95% water, contains enzymes and antimicrobial chemicals that stop pathogens entering the body.
While saliva gets rid of unwanted bacteria, the mouth is far from sterile. On the contrary, it’s home to anywhere between 300 and 700 species of bacteria, each one existing in its own neighbourhood, be it the gum-line or under the tongue.
Your mouth is effectively the gatekeeper of your gut, and when you take care of your mouth, you’re taking care of your whole body. When one of the mouth’s functions fails, it can have drastic effects on overall health.
For example, older people with tooth erosion may not be able to chew properly, which reduces the nutrients extracted from food. And while most of us think bad breath is a mouth problem, it’s really a sign of something more serious in the gut. Gum disease can be a sign of untreated diabetes, inflammatory conditions, or even potential cardiovascular problems.
Bottom line: do not swallow your lunch in one go, or wolf down your dinner. Take your time, chew, and give the mouth a chance to do its job. Also, science shows that keeping food in the mouth for longer improves satiety, which is why eating slowly is such an important tool for anyone who wants to lose or maintain weight.
4. WHAT’S IN YOUR FRIDGE?
Do you know what’s in your fridge? Do you know where that food actually came from? What’s in it? How much fat, sugar, salt, preservatives, emulsifiers, and additives each item contains? What’s driving your decision-making process: Calories? Convenience? Cost? Do you read labels? Do they mean anything to you?
Product labels are supposed to be there to guide us, and make the decision-making process easier. They’re also there to ensure manufacturers are accountable and transparent, which is why strict regulations apply. Having clear rules and laws ensures that product labels are standardised, accurate, honest and based on scientific evidence – in theory.
In reality, most people don’t read labels, or don’t understand them, opting instead to be seduced by the colourful pictures or tag-lines on the front of the package. Brands know this, and exploit it to the max. There are moves underway to explore different types of labelling, and put nutritional info on the front of packaging.
Brands also take advantage by using misleading or unclear words such as “light-tasting,” “part of a healthy breakfast,” and “made with real fruit,” terms that are hard to qualify, or descriptive terms that are actually trademarks.
Even calorie labelling can’t be trusted because the methods used to calculate calorie content share absolutely nothing in common with how the human body digests food. The body is not a controlled environment like a lab test; it’s a dynamic, adaptive organism that’s affected by infinite internal and external factors that determine how food is digested.
FYI This is why counting calories is such an ineffective way to control weight long-term; not to mention it makes eating torture! I counted calories for two months, and though it was hugely beneficial in identifying the ways I overeat, once I’d figured that out, I shelved it, and will never do it again. Pure torture!
The easiest way to get around this problem is to buy food that doesn’t have a label, a bunch of asparagus or a head of cabbage from a local fruit and veg; a side of beef or breast of chicken from a free-range butcher; a loaf of bread from a bakery.
If you can think about one thing, or check one piece of info on the label, check the food source. Know where your food comes from. Aim to eat food that comes from the same place you do, or as close as possible.
Yes, shopping like this takes more effort and planning but the rewards are worth it. Plus, there are hacks. For example, I buy 1 kilo of ground pork and chicken, and use it to make burgers that I freeze, and use as needed. I buy free-range eggs in bulk, and peeled almonds to make almond butter. I go to the whole food shop in the evening so I can take more time.
When you reach the day that you open your fridge, and know what the food in it is, and where it comes from, you will have an achieved a primal connection to your health.
5. SAY GOODBYE TO PROCESSED FOOD
Here’s the thing, once you become more aware of food, and what tastes better, you want the real thing. We’re so caught up in this mad rush to go organic, eat fresh, and be natural that most of us can’t tell our bananas from our bok choi.
Most of us think of processed food as Doritos and Dunkin’ Donuts, or frozen sausage rolls and ready meals. While those things are not food (from a nutrition standpoint they’re literally dead) the reality is every packaged form of food is processed in some way.
Ketchup, mayonnaise, marmalade, jam, honey, cheese, yoghurt, yoghurt drinks, juices, peanut butter, roasted nuts, chips, salt, spices, cooked meats, cold meats, meal sauces and tinned foods, and every other thing we use on a regular basis has been modified in some way that does strange things to the body.
Need more perspective? Homemade bread has three ingredients. The bread you buy in the supermarket has up to 30.
Rather than thinking about going on a diet and cutting out the food you love, think about the food you love and how you can eat a healthier version of it. For example, I love bread, so for years I made homemade bread with almond or coconut flour as a substitute to store-bought bread. It became my Sunday ritual, a quiet moment to take care of my nutrition for the week ahead.
Changes like this are not instant. Rather they’re a process that’s part of an overall shift in how you view food and what you want from it. If you care about your health, or live in constant fear of a flare up and are eating processed foods, it’s a problem because these foods are drivers for conditions including IBS, obesity, and depression.
The good news is that the problem has an easy fix: say goodbye to process foods.
The main goals of mindful eating are to reduce processed foods in the diet and be conscious of where food comes from – this is not easy. Despite my best efforts, I recently discovered a supermarket meat I like is more processed than frozen pizza. I like it for its convenience as well as taste but I’m going to have to learn how to make my own version of it. Chances are, I’ll make it even better, and I’ll make it mindfully.