Sunday, September 5, 2010

Food v Pleasure- what is more nourishing?

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Today I'm trialling a new approach to writing, I am going to write on a specific and somewhat factual topic. The somewhat is my official disclaimer. Ok, there are some facts here and lots of opinion. I'm not a scientist, I'm a philosopher.

The question is, Food V Pleasure, what is more nourishing?

Last Christmas I asked my partner to buy me a book called 'The Power of Pleasure'. It was a book that suggested that the way in which we consume our food has much more to do with our health than the actual food we consume.

It was a theory I was very much interested in before stumbling across the book in a second hand book shop in Bendigo; I'd been mulling the idea over in my own mind for a few months previously.

I have tried many kinds of diets and approaches, I have seen naturopaths, nutritionists and psychologists to discuss food. I have obsessed over such ideas from the age of 18, perhaps earlier. Why did I start? To oversimplify it, because I put on weight and had low energy as a result of too many carbs and too much alcohol in my first year of Uni. Why haven't I stopped? Because it is clearly such a passion for me. It started as an interest while in school, food and health were my favourite classes, then turned into an obsession and is now one of my great passions.

At times I have desperately wanted THE answer. Are the vegetarians right? Is the naturopath correct in suggesting eliminating most of my staple foods- wheat, dairy and sugar? Is the dietitian right when she feels sorry for this confused young woman with all her ideas and recommends she get straight back into that food pyramid (weet-bix and cow's milk for brekky)? Is my Dad right when he tells me balance is key? As he washes down his manufactured and refined jam fancy biscuits for his morning and afternoon snack with a good old cow's milk latte.
I find myself wondering (worrying?) could I have coeliacs and not know it? Am I just wheat intolerant? Or is it just the extra nasties added to many wheat products that's not good for me.. or anyone; but I'm just super sensitive to them. Ok, I admit I am still quite confused about what's really good for you. I am channelling this energy into a healthy appetite for learning about all things nutrition, whilst keeping an open mind.

I know that much of our well-being is affected by our thoughts and feelings, it leads me to wonder if the answer to good health does lie in pleasure? Is it as simple as the book suggested? Is it the way we feel and think about our food that is key to our health?

The book suggests enjoying our food and all sorts of pleasures courtesy of our 5  senses. I question whether we truly only have five senses, but I digress, that discussion is for another time. Now, back to pleasure, I believe that our emotional and mental state when it comes to food is a vital factor in our well-being. For example, if we truly believe that something is bad for us or the food is 'naughty' it then becomes guilt inducing, hence we are likely to become uptight during the meal.

So what happens when the body is anxious? Our muscles tense and adrenaline courses through the body to aid with the fight or flight response. The wonderful flight or fight response is essential for if and when we encounter real danger. It helps us to be super strong to fight and survive or super quick to run away. It is an overused and overstimulated response in our modern western world. An imminent deadline, an intimidating boss or a stressful driving situation among many others is enough to trigger our body's natural response to danger- adrenaline.

Adrenaline is a hormone secreted by our adrenal glands when we feel under threat. The brain can not distinguish between real and imagined danger; therefore it may send signals to the adrenals to start 'doing their thing' just because we have an irrational fear of birds and a sparrow lands at our feet.

Consequently, if we are stressed or anxious at meal times our body is preparing to fight whatever is about to be consumed, or run away with fear. Here's a little science from someone who has basically been studying humanities and languages since Year 11; when adrenaline is present in the body, our digestion ceases to function. Think about it, the whole point of the 'fight or flight' response was so as way back in the day, if we were confronted by a dangerous situation we would be able to defend ourselves, or run very quickly. Adrenaline helped our bodies to make us capable of more strength, speed and agility aswell as stopping the organs such as the digestive system from working during this time so as all the body's energy could be used solely for survival purposes.

The key here is that when we feel anxious and are not in a state of pleasure, perhaps because just looking at pizza elicits feelings guilt and remorse, perhaps causing an anxious response. Even if the adrenals don't kick into action, when we feel uptight our organs and muscles are no longer relaxed and won't function at their optimal; hence digestion will not be 100%. The same would apply if you are stressed and anxious for other reasons; our digestion is just not going to work nearly as effectively as if we were in a state of relaxation and pleasure.

This is why I think there's truly something in the teachings offered in 'French Women Don't Get Fat'. The book teaches us to source the finest and freshest produce and to make wonderful food from using herbs and other wonderful natural sources of flavour. It encourages using all the senses, for example, when shopping at the market for food the books discusses engaging with stall holders, listening to the wonderful hustle and bustle of shoppers, smelling the wonderful scent of a ready to eat peach and touching your produce. It seems to me it is the French woman's version of mindfulness.

According to my reading, French women prepare their food mindfully and it follows that they eat in the same way. They are aware that eating too much bread in one day or gorging on pain au chocolate is not true pleasure. Pleasure is about all 5 senses being engaged in the sourcing, preparation and consumption of food. The table is set, food can be consumed with beautiful music and or company and it is done so at a table that is set to honour the meal time. There is no rush, no tv, no fast food. Meal times are to be treated with respect. In understanding this I suspect that it is far more likely that the French can enjoy their food, stimulating the senses, rather than with feelings of fear or guilt attached. I propose that consumption of a meal in such a way means that ones digestive organs would be relaxed and functioning, as opposed to 'shut down' in a state of anxiety.

Having explored how the emotional and mental aspects can impact on our physical being, let us now return to question the importance of the quality or type of food we choose to eat. Is our good health truly all tied up in eating in a state of pleasure or is there more to it?

I believe that if all we ever consumed was pizza and beer with great delight, we would probably digest these ok, at least as best as is possible and should consequently absorb nutrients as best as possible (this is in the case of those without wheat or gluten intolerance/allergies).

However, if we were to find ways to consume a wide range of foods, the most part being those that are provided to us from the earth, in a state of pleasure and gratitude, following something similar to the French approach to food, I propose that we could then absorb many wonderful nutrients and sources of energy from our food. Now this could just be the ideal approach.

I have certainly not developed a definitive answer to how we can eat in order to achieve optimal health, but I believe that pleasure is a significant clue, as is the types of foods we consume and how close they are to their natural state. I must say I think different approaches work for different people; so there is no one answer. Stay tuned for further questions and musings on the energetics of food eg. manufactured, processed, natural, fresh, canned etc. and their effect on our health.

If you've got thoughts on the topic please leave a comment, I'd love to hear them.

Like The Answer Is Writing? You might also like Inner Beam.

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