Regardless of WHAT you put in your mouth, the circumstances in which you eat have a huge effect on the goodness you can extract from your food. I went to a really interesting seminar this week, and the presenter reminded us that the digestive system starts in the brain, and without the correct conditions around our consumption of food, our poor guts are always going to be playing catch-up.
This all sounds a bit woo, although we do have the very obvious example of Pavlov’s dog, who not only started to drool at the sight of food, but also when he hung out with the technician who brought the food, and then later at the sound of a bell that also rang while he ate. In humans, it’s been discovered that significant amounts of our pancreatic juices, and the enzymes that break down food in our small intestine are released simply by THINKING about food.
As ever, the big enemy to this process is stress, but also a general lack of focus on what we are doing when we eat. In stress, of course our blood and body functions are directed to support our muscles and brain so that we can run away from that sabre-tooth tiger that’s chasing us, thus bringing our digestive systems to a grinding halt (perhaps following a quick pit-stop behind a bush). Mindless eating, when we are concentrating on something else, like work emails, Game of Thrones or desperate attempts to teach children table manners, might not have such a detrimental effect, but does mean that the actual substances and processes that break down and digest our food are being hamstrung. It also leads to greater food intake, often of the crap variety…
There is huge room for me to improve with this stuff. Although I do cook the vast majority of my own food, which sets things up well, it goes rapidly downhill from there. The breakfast smoothie is chugged as I wrangle the junior members of the household out the door, lunch is usually in front of my laptop, and dinner en famille is not quite the joyous time of togetherness that it’s made out to be.
With these environmental factors running in the background, there are another couple of tweaks to our eating habits that can make a huge difference, like the timing of meals, being hydrated, and chewing. So what might a list of the important things to focus on look like?
- Have a routine around mealtimes that makes food the focus. Much in the manner of Pavlov’s dog, our brains will recognise rituals around mealtimes and prime our bodies to get ready for some chow. This might involve cooking the meal; for kids it might mean setting the table, switching off the tv and sitting in a certain place. By excluding other distractions at this time hopefully we’ll be lining our digestive processes up for maximum effectiveness.
- Take a moment to think about what you are about to eat. Even if it’s not super-tasty, if you’re hungry, hopefully you can muster some enthusiasm just for the fact that you are going to have some food. Who knows, after a few days of doing this, you might find yourself changing your eating habits so you feel more positive about your meals? There’s a good article about mindful eating here. (I like his suggestion of occasionally having 5 minutes of silence at the start of a family meal – i.e. a small period of respite from the usual bickering and critiques of the menu…).
- Chew your food really well. As well as the obvious benefits of chopping food up and increasing the surface area for stomach acid, enzymes and bile to work their magic and release the nutrients from your food, the basic act of chewing triggers hormones that control appetite, hunger and feelings of fullness. For people who experience discomfort after meals, making sure that they take time to chew can be a great starting point.
- Have clearly defined mealtimes and aim for at least a 12 hour fast in every 24 hours. Processing food is a hugely energy-intensive process for your body and recent research points to the gut benefiting from windows in the day without food so that a wave-like muscular process called the ‘migrating motor complex’ can sweep through the intestines and get rid of anything that’s hanging about. Also, cells in the gut are turned over every 2-4 days, but this regeneration can’t happen if there is a constant input of food to be digested.The idea of ‘time restricted feeding’ (a term I hate because it makes us sound like lab rats) is growing in popularity as it seems to have positive effects on blood sugar balance and the microbiome. Building in a 12 hour window without food isn’t too difficult if you stop eating at 7pm. Now that I’ve been experimenting with this habit for about 3 weeks (Sunday to Thursday only!), I’ve found that I need to add more food to my evening meal to make it work, but once in the swing of it, it hasn’t been as difficult as I expected.
- Drink at least 2 litres of water each day – but don’t drink loads of water with meals! We all know the importance of water to good health (but here’s a nice refresher), and when we think about the digestive system, the importance of hydration to prevent constipation is probably the biggest issue. We also need water to make good quality mucous, which, although not really a topic of polite conversation, is vital to our digestive health; protecting tissue, and providing a lovely home for our friendly bacteria. The problem with drinking lots of water with meals is simply that it dilutes the power of stomach acid, reducing its capacity to break down proteins and kill pathogens. There are various ‘rules’ about what drinks count as water towards your daily target, but basically, if your pee is a pale, strawlike colour in the daytime you’re getting it right.
My big takeaway from this topic is to pay more attention to food as I eat it and to make mealtimes more fun for everybody. If anyone has any good ideas for this, please hit me with them. We do occasionally go round the table with a ‘Best thing, Worst thing’ review of the day as a conversation starter, but it usually degenerates into a power struggle over who gets to go last (sigh). I also get a bit hung up about table manners – not to any great standard, I just thought that by this age the kids wouldn’t still want to eat as if raised by wolves. Maybe my new mantra just needs to be to unclench and enjoy…
Roasted Cauliflower steaks with Chimichurri Sauce.
This is a gorgeous dish – I serve it with sweet potato wedges plus a big handful of leaves with feta sprinkled on top and it is so good. The chimichurri sauce comes from Argentina and is totally addictive (and very garlicky!). Skip the feta and it’s gluten free, dairy-free and vegan!
Roasted Cauliflower Steaks
- 1 head of cauliflower sliced through the core to make chunky slices about 1 inch thick. If you’re lucky you can get about 3 slices per cauliflower plus some trimmings from the outside.
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil.
- 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice.
- 2 crushed garlic cloves.
- Pinch of chilli flakes.
- Salt and pepper.
- Heat the oven to 200 degrees C.
- Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and lay the cauliflower on the sheet.
- Mix all of the non-cauliflower ingredients together and generously brush the mixture on top of the cauliflower.
- Roast the cauliflower for 20 mins on each side, brushing the marinade on again when you turn the steaks over.
- 1 small supermarket pack of coriander (around 25g) chopped (include the stalks).
- 1 supermarket pack of parsley (usually around 25g) chopped (leaves only).
- 2 cloves of crushed garlic.
- 125ml or ½ a cup of good quality olive oil.
- 1 and ½ tbsp of red wine vinegar.
- 1 teaspoon of dried oregano, or 2 tablespoons of fresh.
- 1 finely chopped shallot (you can use finely chopped spring onions at a push).
- A pinch of chilli flakes (or more to taste).
- Pinch or two of salt and a good grind of black pepper.
Mix all ingredients together. If you like things to be neat, make sure that the herbs are chopped finely, but if you are happy with the rustic look, you don’t need to be too fussy.
The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners by Margaret Visser. I read this book years ago and it is totally fascinating with loads of examples, anecdotes and social history. Read it before the festive season and you’ll get even more out of your Christmas dinner.