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One of the most fundamental building blocks of nutritional metabolism is neither vitamin, mineral, nor molecule. It’s our relationship with food. It’s the sum total of our innermost thoughts and feelings about what we eat. This relationship with food is as deep and revealing as any we might ever have. The great Sufi poet Rumi once remarked: “The satiated man and the hungry man do not see the same thing when they look upon a loaf of bread.” And Al Capone, noted gangster, astutely observed, “When I sell liquor, it’s called bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on silver trays on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality.” Indeed, how each of us thinks about eating is so profoundly relative that if a group of us were looking at the same plate of food, no two people would see the same thing, or metabolize it the same way.
Say, for example, we were examining a plate of pasta, chicken, and salad. A woman wanting to lose weight might see calories and fat. She’d respond favorably to the salad or chicken but would view the pasta with fear. An athlete trying to gain muscle mass might look at the same meal and see protein. She’d focus on the chicken and look past the other foods. A pure vegetarian could see the distasteful sight of a dead animal and wouldn’t touch anything on the plate. A chicken farmer, on the other hand, would likely be proud to see a good piece of meat. Someone trying to heal a disease through diet would see either potential medicine or potential poison, depending upon whether or not the plate of food is permissible on her chosen diet. A scientist studying nutrient content in food would see a collection of chemicals.
What’s amazing is that each of these eaters will metabolize this same meal quite differently in response to her unique thoughts. In other words, what you think and feel about a food can be as important a determinant of its nutritional value and its effect on body weight as the actual nutrients themselves.
Here’s a bit about how the science works:
How Your Brain Eats
The information highway of brain, spinal cord, and nerves is like a telephone system through which your mind communicates with your digestive organs. Let’s say you’re about to eat an ice cream cone. The notion and image of that ice cream occurs in the higher center of the brain – the cerebral cortex. From there, information is relayed electrochemically to the limbic system, which is considered the “lower” portion of the brain. The limbic system regulates emotions and key physiological functions such as hunger, thirst, temperature, sex drive, heart rate, and blood pressure. Within the limbic system is a pea-sized collection of tissues known as the hypothalamus, which integrates the activities of the mind with the biology of the body. In other worlds, it takes sensory, emotional, and thought input and transduces this information into physiological responses. This is nothing short of a miracle.
If the ice cream is your favorite flavor – say, chocolate – and you consume it with a full measure of delight, the hypothalamus will modulate this positive input by sending activation signals via parasympathetic nerve fibers to the salivary glands, esophagus, stomach, intestines, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder. Digestion will be stimulated and you’ll have a fuller metabolic breakdown of the ice cream while burning its calories more efficiently.
If you’re feeling guilty about eating the ice cream or judging yourself for eating it, the hypothalamus will take this negative input and send signals down the sympathetic fibers of the autonomic nervous system. This initiates inhibitory responses in the digestive organs, which means you’ll be eating your ice cream but not fully metabolizing it. It may stay in your digestive system longer, which can diminish your population of healthy gut bacteria and increase the release of toxic by-products into the bloodstream. Furthermore, inhibitory signals in the nervous system can decrease your calorie-burning efficiency via increased insulin and cortisol, which would cause you to store more of your guilt-infused ice cream as body fat. So the thoughts you think about the food you eat instantly become reality in your body via the central nervous system.
The brain doesn’t distinguish between a real stressor or an imagined one. If you sat in a room all by yourself, happy and content, and started thinking about the guy who did you wrong years ago, and if that story still carries a charge for you – your body would quickly shift into the physiologic stress-state – increased heart rate and blood pressure, followed by decreased digestive function.
Any guilt about food, shame about the body, or judgment about health are considered stressors by the brain and are immediately transduced into their electrochemical equivalents in the body. You could eat the healthiest meal on the planet, but if you’re thinking toxic thoughts the digestion of your food goes down and your fat storage metabolism can go up. Likewise, you could be eating a nutritionally challenged meal, but if your head and heart are in the right place, the nutritive power of your food will be increased.
Placebo on a Plate
To fully appreciate the power of mind over metabolism, let’s take a fresh look at one of the most compelling phenomenon in science: the placebo effect. Here’s my favorite example of this extraordinary force.
In 1983, medical researchers were testing a new chemotherapy treatment. One group of cancer patients received the actual drug being tested while another group received a placebo – a fake harmless, inert chemical substance. As you may know, pharmaceutical companies are required by law to test all new drugs against a placebo to determine the true effectiveness, if any, of the product in question. In the course of this study, no one thought twice when 74 percent of the cancer patients receiving the real chemotherapy exhibited one of the more common side effects of this treatment: they lost their hair. Yet, quite remarkably, 31 percent of the patients on the placebo chemotherapy – an inert saltwater injection – also had an interesting side effect: they lost their hair too. Such is the power of expectation. The only reason that those placebo patients lost their hair is because they believed they would. Like many people, they associated chemotherapy with going bald.
So if the power of the mind is strong enough to make our hair fall out when taking a placebo, what do you think happens when we think to ourselves “This cake is fattening, I really shouldn’t be eating it,” or “I’m going to eat this fried chicken but I know it’s bad for me,” or “I enjoy eating my salad because it’s really healthy?”
Certainly I’m not saying we can eat poison without any harm if we believe it’s good for us. I’m suggesting that what we believe about any substance we consume can powerfully influence how it affects the body. Every day, millions of people eat and drink while thinking strong and convincing thoughts about their meal.
Consider some of the foods you’ve given strong associations to:
“Salt will raise my blood pressure.”
“Fat will make me fatter.”
“Sugar will rot my teeth.”
“I can’t make it through the day without my cup of coffee.”
“This meat will raise my cholesterol level.”
“This calcium will build my bones.”
To a certain degree, some of these statements may be true. But is it possible that we are instigating these effects? And if these effects are the inherent result of eating these foods, can you see how we can enhance those results with the potency of our expectations?
The placebo effect is not some rare and unusual creature.
Its appearance is quite commonplace. Researchers have estimated that 35 to 45 percent of all prescription drugs may owe their effectiveness to placebo power and that 67 percent of all over-the-counter medications, such as headache remedies, cough medicines, and appetite suppressants, are also placebo based. In some studies the response to placebos is as high as 90 percent.
It amazes me that very few in the scientific community have made the obvious connection between placebo power and food. Indeed, the placebo effect is built into the nutritional process. It’s profoundly present on a day-to-day basis every time we eat. It’s like phoning in a prescription to your own inner nutritional pharmacy. What we believe is alchemically translated into the body through nerve pathways, the endocrine system, neuropeptide circulation, the immune network, and the digestive tract.
Can you see the importance of your inner world when it comes to metabolizing a meal? Are you ready to bring your happier and more relaxed self to the table?
Feel free to share your own stories about the power of the mind to influence a meal.
My warmest regards,
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating