How many times have you heard someone say that nutrition is as simple as “calories in, calories out”? You can’t see me right now, but I’m rolling my eyes at the thought of this terribly lazy and reductionist nutrition advice.
I can’t stand this saying not only because it’s false, but also because it gaslights people into feeling shameful that they can’t change their weight following this seemingly “simple” formula 🙄
The reality is, there are so many components that contribute to our health and weight outcomes including social determinants of health, genetics, weight stigma, weight cycling, age, ethnicity, and stress, to name a few.
One of the lesser known factors that influences health and weight outcomes (and in my opinion, one of the most fascinating ones) is the connection between our emotional state while eating and our metabolism.
In this blog post, we’ll explore how your mindset during a meal can affect your metabolic response and why your relationship with food matters on a physiological level.
The Bagel Scenario
In order to illustrate how exactly your relationship with food can impact metabolism and digestion, I like to use what I have deemed “The Bagel Metaphor.”
Imagine this scenario: You and your friend go out for bagels together. You’re on a guilt trip because you feel like you’re breaking a food rule and being “bad” by eating the bagel, while your friend has no such rules and is savoring the bagel with sheer pleasure. The surprising twist here is that your metabolic responses can be entirely different, due to your respective emotional states during the meal. (For the sake of this thought experiment, pretend that you and your friend have the same baseline metabolic rate, and the only independent variable is the differences in your mindset around food).
The Role of Stress
Feeling guilty about eating that bagel triggers a physiological stress response in your body. This stress response activates the sympathetic nervous system, commonly known as the “fight or flight” system. This activation can lead to inhibited digestion and a slowed metabolism.
The stress from feeling like you’re breaking a rule makes your body think that you are in danger, which sets off a cascade of effects. The body shuttles blood to the heart and extremities in preparation to fight or flee from the perceived predator. When blood is sent to the heart and limbs, in turn, it moves away from the GI tract which can lead to inhibited metabolism and digestion.
The stress response also leads to increased presence of cortisol, the stress hormone. Chronically high cortisol levels have been linked to various downstream outcomes such as inhibited immune response, high blood pressure, and increased fat storage in the abdominal region. (To be clear: fat in the abdominal region, or fat anywhere on the body, is not inherently bad; it’s just one example of how stress can impact your metabolism).
We are exposed to food and eating decisions multiple times a day every single day. So if food is a trigger for stress for you, the problem becomes that you might be chronically setting off your body’s sympathetic nervous system.
Acute activation of the sympathetic nervous system doesn’t lead to longterm harm. However, chronically activating the stress response can lead to systemic dysregulation and dysfunction.
The Power of a Peaceful Mindset
On the flip side, when you approach the bagel from a calm, guilt-free place, your body enters a state conducive to optimal digestion. This state is regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system, often nicknamed the “rest and digest” system. It puts you in the optimal state for metabolizing your food and enhances your sensitivity and responsiveness to your body’s cues (a key component of intuitive eating).
Your mindset and emotional state while eating can significantly impact your metabolism, digestion, and in turn, your health.
When you approach food from a place of fear, stress, and guilt, your body struggles to metabolize and digest effectively. In contrast, a calm, shame-free approach to food allows your body to optimize its metabolic processes.
Shifting your deeply internalized diet rules and food beliefs is easier said than done. That’s why mindset is one of the five pillars in my proven framework, that I teach inside my signature online course, The Return.
Ready to rewire your neural pathways around food and overcome the guilt, shame and stress connected to eating? Enroll in The Return now and get immediate and lifetime access to my entire proven framework in video module format.
Questions about if The Return is right for you? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set up a free discovery call to chat.
Curious about the research supporting how relationship with food impacts physiological processes? Click here to download my free, curated Research Guide PDF.
For a deeper dive on this topic, checkout our solo episode on Shoulders Down Podcast, “How Intuitive Eating Impacts Metabolism and Digestion.”
Last modified: November 4, 2023