—By Deborah Kesten, VIP Contributer at Thrive Global
Have you ever felt hungry, then lost your appetite because you were upset? Or did your food sit “like a lump” because you had eaten while agitated? Perhaps you’ve eaten to stuff down unpleasant feelings. The idea that your psychological state can influence digestion is now so familiar that it’s easy to lose sight of how amazing it is that your state-of-mind can influence digestion, and in turn, your well-being.
Our research on Whole Person Integrative Eating (WPIE) revealed this unexpected finding: both the emotional and aesthetic atmospheres in which you eat influence overeating, and in turn, weight gain.1,2 In other words, dining frequently in an unpleasant atmosphere—enveloped in car fumes because you’re eating while driving; harsh, super-bright, fluorescent lighting; or feeling anxious and angry from perhaps an argument you’re having—contribute to overeating and increased odds of growing girth. We call this overeating style “Unpleasant Atmosphere.”
Psychological and Aesthetic Surroundings
What do I mean by psychological and aesthetic atmospheres?
Psychological surroundings. Both your internal emotions, and the external mood, tone, and ambiance that surrounds you while you eat determine the psychological atmosphere. For instance, have you ever eaten in an especially pleasant place, surrounded by supportive people, convivial conversation, and beautiful accoutrements? Perhaps friends took you to a welcoming restaurant for your birthday; because they’d organized the meal to celebrate you, the evening crackled with joy, conversation, and laughter. In response, your heart is open and your soul is singing.
But the psychological atmosphere can also be negative, stress-filled, and unpleasant. Have you ever eaten while being scolded or criticized? Or while watching a horror movie or murder mystery on TV? If so, you’ve had the experience of eating in an unpleasant psychological atmosphere.
Aesthetic surroundings. The other key component of the Unpleasant Atmosphere overeating style we discovered is the aesthetics that surround you when you eat. Is the place in which you’re dining welcoming in appearance? If you’re sitting on a hard plastic bench, eating off damp paper plates on a garishly colored plastic tabletop, your dining aesthetics are less than optimal. Or perhaps you’re eating on the run in a noisy fast-food restaurant with rock music blaring and fluorescent lighting glaring overhead. Or while driving during rush hour? These are examples of aesthetically unpleasant surroundings. (Of course, it’s all in the eye of the beholder! The same aesthetics may be pleasing to some.)
Some scientists have explored the role that stress-filled atmospheres and emotions can play in the digestion process, and ultimately, your weight. What they found is quite amazing.
Molecules of Mealtime Emotions: A Two-Way Freeway
Why have we been created with an amazingly strong connection between the brain and the digestive system—a relationship so powerful that the stomach and intestines are abundant in nerve cells, even more so than the spinal cord? Why has our mind-body been designed to pay such close attention to our environment and our emotions, with the ability to respond accordingly? Researcher Candace B. Pert offers some clues.
Pert’s pioneering work presents a scientific picture about how environment may influence digestion and increase the drive to overeat. The story starts with neuropeptides that act as the biological foundation of the awareness we bring to meals— indeed, to all aspects of our lives. What’s unique about neuropeptides is that they are released into the bloodstream by nerve cells. The link to nerve cells is fascinating, because the hormones and other chemicals made by our mind-body create a two-way freeway that serves as a dynamic information network between the brain and the digestive system.
Put another way, your body is strongly influenced by your thoughts and emotions. Because of this, “the environment in which you eat has a lot to do with your emotional experience at mealtime,” writes Pert. Eat in an unappetizing atmosphere, and “it’s a kind of disintegration, a mind-body split that will lead to weight gain [italics mine] and disease conditions caused . . . by incomplete digestion.”3
Creating an Optimal Eating Atmosphere
Most of us know that eating in congenial surroundings is, at the very least, enjoyable. This is good news, since you can access or create delightful surroundings anytime. Envision a fall picnic, for instance, surrounded by the colors of the season in the leaves and in the deep orange of pumpkin soup. Or think of the soothing comfort of a homemade stew eaten in winter as candlelight flickers. Here are some suggestions for creating an affable dining milieu, as often as possible.
Cherish china. When Oprah did a show on “anti-aging breakthroughs,” a weight-loss lifestyle was one of the topics. To highlight the elements of her successful weight loss, an audience member shared her personal success story. Along with moving more and choosing fresh food, the aesthetic atmosphere she created was part of her twenty-two-pound weight loss. “I put my portion [of food] on beautiful plates, with great style, lovely linens, crystal, [and] china, and enjoyed every morsel,” she said. “No more standing in the kitchen eating out of a little container.”4 Whenever possible, eat on lovely plates with utensils you like. And sit down at a dining table to enjoy your meal even more.
Release emotions. Thanks to Candace Pert’s research on emotions and digestion, it’s safe to say that the emotional atmosphere in which you eat influences the way you metabolize food and, in turn, your weight and well-being. That’s why you’ll find it helpful to release toxic molecules of emotion when you eat. If you find yourself ruminating about something unpleasant, put your emotions on hold and press the pause button as you eat; instead, think about something agreeable. You can always return to the problem later.
A Pleasant Internal and External Environs
The psychological and aesthetic environments connected to food, eating, and weight may be one of the most over-looked aspects of overeating and weight gain, but as our Whole Person Integrative Eating research on the new-normal overeating styles revealed1,2 it can be a powerful determinant of your weight. The solution? Commit to taking charge by “designing” the most pleasant internal and external ambiance possible each time you eat.
- Scherwitz and D. Kesten, “Seven Eating Styles Linked to Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Explore: TheJournal of Science and Healing 1, no. 5 (2005): 342–59.
- Kesten and L. Scherwitz, “Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Program for Treating Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,”Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal 14, no. 5 (October/November 2015): 42-50.
- Candace B. Pert, Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel (New York: Scribner, 1997), 297–98.
- Christine Aaron in conversation with author Mireille Guiliano and Oprah Winfrey, “Anti-Aging Breakthroughs,” transcript, The Oprah Winfrey Show, May 17, 2005 (Livingston, NJ: Burrelle’s Information Services), 21.
- Scherwitz and D. Kesten, “Seven Eating Styles Linked to Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 1, no. 5 (2005): 342–59.