You're a pretty healthy eater, right? Whole grains, seasonal produce, and free-trade dark chocolate line your pantry—and you often snack on fresh fruit and enjoy trips to the farmers market. This is all good.
Establishing healthy habits is hard work, for sure, and despite life's busyness and the ongoing intensity of work, you've succeeded in making important strides toward a healthier diet over the years.
So how is it then, that with all that good food in your bento box, you're still suffering from digestive discomforts or feeling unsatisfied after eating lunch at work?
What's likely missing in your healthy eating routine is your fine-tuned attention on how to eat, which ensures optimal digestion and gratification.
According to Ayurveda (yoga's sister science and 5,000-year-old system of healing that focuses on healthy diet and lifestyle techniques to maintain health and prevent disease), how we eat is just as important as what we eat, and the how of eating is all about slowing down and heightening mindfulness.
The mind in the middle
For a happy belly, it's important to understand and connect with the different states of the nervous system. Why? Because roughly a third of the nervous system runs through the gut (a third!), identifying whether the body-mind is in "fight or flight" mode or "rest and digest" mode.
This direct connection from the brain to the intelligence of the gut is often referred to as the "second brain"—the mind in the middle. It helps distinguish which nervous system is in charge and how to respond.
"Fight or flight" vs. "rest and digest"
If you've ever noticed a sudden lack of appetite when co-workers were complaining or debating over lunch, then you've experienced the sympathetic nervous system—or fight or flight—kick into gear, which is a state of heightened mental exertion that demands inhibiting digestion in order to prioritize blood and energy flow to other parts of the body.
This reaction will move you away from a relaxed state of enjoying lunch to a revved-up state for either fleeing or joining the argument.
When we're on the go, multitasking, angry, or stressed, the sympathetic nervous system influences everything, increasing mental activity and heart rate to get things done while simultaneously reducing intestinal movement and digestive strength (because the mind is focused intently on something else, the body recognizes that it's not a good time to enjoy a meal).
Essentially, your body shuts down digestive power until the stressors are gone and the coast is clear.
If you're eating extremely healthy food but the meal environment is tense or nerve-racking (e.g., amid quarreling colleagues, agitating noise, or while trying to get intense work done), the digestive strength is dramatically reduced, and the result is often indigestion, gas and bloating, acid reflux, constipation, mental agitation, and a host of other discomforts.
You might spend precious time and money getting the best local, organic, seasonal, and well-prepared food in an effort to eat healthy during the workweek, but if you're eating it while stressed out, unfortunately, you just won't be able to digest it well.
The good news is that if we sit down in a relaxed manner to enjoy a meal, then the parasympathetic nervous system—or "rest and digest" mode—which is a relaxed mental and physical state that allows proper digestion and rest to occur will take over.
When we're in the rest-and-digest state, there is proper and timely flow of digestion, good assimilation of nutrients, and correct filtering out of waste. So, when eating in a peaceful setting, appreciating the company of cheery co-workers, or having a quiet meal alone, the positive atmosphere supports ease in the mind, which allows for a calm nervous system and thus supports optimal digestive strength.
Increasing mindfulness at work
Now that you know how environment affects digestion, I encourage you to transform a busy work environment into a spacious, satisfying one and to take your healthy food habits to the next level with these tips:
Put aside rousing political and world news until after you've eaten. Savor organic veggies and herbal tea while flipping through your favorite outdoor adventure or travel magazine, filling your belly with healthy food while filling your mind with uplifting information.
Co-workers may think twice about interrupting when your headphones are on, so put on some soothing music as your mealtime soundtrack and drop into the zone.
Sit with optimists
Seek out like-minded co-workers who uplift and inspire. Guide lunchtime conversations toward highlights from recent vacations and amusing adventure stories, or ask about the workout routines or healthy restaurants they recommend.
Try eating alone
Find a quiet table by the window or a comfy bench outside. Sit comfortably and eat slowly, savoring the aroma, taste, and texture of each healthy bite.
If your office is the only place you can eat without being interrupted, then put your desktop to sleep and turn away from the computer.
Let out a sigh of relief
Before eating, ensure the "rest and digest" nervous system is in charge by taking a few moments to settle in for your nourishing meal. Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Take in a big refreshing breath through the nose, and exhale through the mouth—taking twice as long to exhale. Repeat a few times, inviting your body and mind to relax with each long, audible, soothing sigh.
Take in the view
Fill your mind with positive impressions during your meal. If your view isn't a sweeping natural landscape, then bring nature inside! Keep a flowering plant on your desk, or set your screensaver to enchanting and beautiful nature scenes.