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Access to healthy food is growing along with a wider understanding of what it means to eat well. Perhaps you’ve experimented with one (or five) diets, fads or supplements which promise to make you a thinner! fitter! more energetic! version of yourself.
Maybe you’ve cut out wheat, dairy and sugar – yes, definitely sugar – and you feel great. Or maybe you’ve done all that and you still feel deprived and sluggish. But let me ask you this: have you ever been on vacation, thrown caution to the wind, indulged in as many pastas and desserts as your heart desired and emerged on the other side feeling…great? Why does the body respond so well to vacation diets? And with the holidays underway, how do we apply a vacation state of mind to our dining choices?
We have an average of 2,000-8,000 tastebuds to help us distinguish between salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami and fat. What’s more – the sight, smell, sound, touch and taste of food can soothe or excite us, help us experience the present and even take us back in time. Pleasure is an important appetite regulator. With every meal, the body registers feelings of fullness (the stomach expanding) and levels of satisfaction (has the body received what it was hungry for?). When we deprive ourselves of pleasure, our brain continuously signals the one command it knows how to give: “Hungry!” This is why diet foods, especially those free of essential fat, can leave us full yet hungry, and have been linked to overeating and constant cravings for more.
The cephalic phase (meaning ‘head phase’) of the digestion kicks in before we have even started eating. When we see food and anticipate a meal, our body gets ready for digestion. Our mouth waters, our tummy rumbles. We can eat the healthiest meal on the planet but if the body isn’t ready to receive it, food is likely to sit in the stomach undigested, causing bloating and feelings of heaviness and fatigue. Which means, paradoxically, that the meals that turn you on the least stay with you for the longest.
So what makes a meal nourishing? Food can be nutritionally dense – packed with vitamins and minerals – but others factors influence how much we actually receive from the food we eat. Personal thoughts, feelings and beliefs, as well as the ways in which we relate our social, emotional and cultural environments, all play a part in the nourishment equation. In the 1980s, scientists discovered what was later termed the French paradox. France is a country filled with beautiful cheeses, wines and white bread, yet its population had a healthy BMI and comparatively low rate of heart disease. When on holiday, we do as the French do – we don’t just eat, we nourish. We choose the thing on the menu that most appeals to us, which in “real life” might be considered splurging. We generally eat a little more slowly, savoring the experience, the company, the environment and the new flavors.
So we’re on vacation, we’re eating what we want, digesting well and (unless we’re wildly indulgent), we don’t gain weight. Beyond our minds and bodies being ready to eat and the satisfaction we derive from eating what we’re actually craving, this is all about oxygen and time. Like a tank needs oxygen to burn fuel, our body needs oxygen to burn the food we consume. The less time we spend on a particular meal or snack, the less oxygen we allow into our system and the harder it is for our body to turn the food into energy. ‘On the go’ snacks – healthy or not – may suit your busy lifestyle, but real nourishment requires us to show up and slow down. In fact, oxygen should be considered the number one superfood.
Danish philosopher Soren Kirkegaard once said “Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.” He may have been onto something 200 years ago, but surely things don’t need to be this way. The holidays are a perfect time to remember this. Life is hectic, but shouldn’t we make time for pleasure? If you make conscious choices in what you eat and commit to experiencing it with all your senses, you’ll get the most out of it. If you only have five minutes for lunch, be present for those five minutes. Let go of the endless to-do lists, texts and emails, take a bite and enjoy.