Vitamins. The tiny substances we get through food whose names resemble alphabet soup. There’s A, lots of B, C, D, E, K – but have you heard about vitamin P? Unlikely, since it’s technically not a vitamin, but it does enhance your body’s absorption of actual vitamins, and minerals too.
It’s PRESENCE. Presence is what I am calling vitamin P, and many of us are severely lacking in it. I’m specifically talking about how present, or aware you are with each meal or anytime you are eating.
Wait, you might be thinking, aren’t I always present? Physically, yes, your body does need to be there while you eat, that would be quite the feat if it weren’t. But where is your mind?
How many times do you get finished eating and wonder at the fact you’re already through, not even recalling the taste of it? Do you ever look back over the day not quite sure when or if you ate? How often do you get finished with a big meal feeling physically full but then find yourself fishing through the shelves of your pantry trying to get some satisfaction?
If any of the above sound familiar, and/or your typical lunch hour involves a computer screen, a phone, a fork one hand, a pen in the other, then you’re lacking in vitamin P. That’s right, look. There are crumbs on your laptop. Stop reading this a second and chew. Take a moment and enjoy whatever you’re eating. I’ll still be here to tell you all about how good that moment was for your body. You’re welcome.
Ok, now that you’ve eaten in peace, let’s see why presence is so important to the eating experience. The fact is, even if you eat the world’s healthiest meal – organic, local, high quality, nutrient dense, whole food, etc. – if you eat it while multitasking you are NOT getting the full benefits of that meal.
A simple experiment demonstrated how our digestion and absorption shuts down under stress or complex mental tasks, such as trying to focus attention in different areas. Researchers had a group of people drink a mineral drink and they measured the amount that was absorbed and excreted. First they drank it while relaxed, the only thing they did was drink the drink. They absorbed 100% of the nutrients.
Next they had the same subjects drink the same mineral drink while listening to two different conversations, one in each ear. One side talked about something like space travel while the other convinced you of the benefits of financial planning. This time, sipping the drink while trying to grasp at least part of these conversations led to zero absorption of the same mineral drink! Even an hour after this “dichotomous listening” was over, they still had not absorbed any of the minerals they put into their body.
You don’t even need to be solving a tough problem for your body’s digestion and absorption to shut down. Researchers tested people who showed normal digestion of a meal when not being distracted while they ate watching a movie. Simply watching a movie slowed their digestion.
When your mind is focused elsewhere while you’re eating, you are not getting anywhere near the nutrients that food contains.
Aside from poor digestion and absorption, lack of presence with your meals also promotes overeating or binge eating. There’s a part of digestion that gets started even before food hits your tongue. It’s called cephalic phase, or head phase, digestion. If you start thinking about your absolute favorite food right now, recalling how it looks, smells and tastes, you might notice that your mouth starts watering, and your stomach might start growling. That is digestion starting simply due to the thoughts in your mind. It’s estimated that 30-40% of digestion is this cephalic, or head phase digestion!
So what happens if you skip this cephalic phase digestion and get right to eating? Well, you secrete thousands of fold fewer digestive enzymes to break the food down, less blood flow and oxygen to the gut to absorb and metabolise food, less acid production to digest food and protect against harmful bacteria, and on top of that, less satisfaction from your meal, driving you to eat more than you otherwise would if you simply pay attention!
The remedy to getting enough vitamin P is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. We are driven to get as much done each day as we can, squeezing in as much as possible. But when it comes to eating, digesting, and appetite regulation, we are built for slower times.
It will likely take practice, but start incorporating the practices below and you will find yourself more satisfied, less prone to overeating, with better digestion, and better nourished.
- Anticipate your meals. This is where cooking and meal prep can allow you to prepare for digestion. Smell the aromas, build an appetite and think about the tasty meal to come. It will stimulate digestion and make it much more powerful.
- Remove distractions. While you’re eating, make it a rule to only eat and/or connect with others (in person) while you eat. No computers, TVs, work, books, magazines, phones allowed. This is your time to enjoy eating, something we all claim to love so much yet we rush through.
- Contemplate your meal. How did this food get on your plate? Did it come from a field, a farm, a factory? How many people do you think were involved in its getting to your table? How does that make you feel? Does it make you feel connected to nature or removed from it? Be more aware of the food you’re ingesting, and grateful for those who helped make it possible.
- Use all 5 senses. To really get satisfaction from your meal, immerse yourself in it. Taste it, smell it, see it, feel its texture, listen to its crunch. The more of these senses you can actively use and be aware of, the more satisfied you will feel after eating.
If it seems overwhelming to add more vitamin P, PRESENCE to all your meals, start with just once a day. Like anything else, it takes practice and consistency. But you will notice a huge difference in your digestion and appetite and general sense of satisfaction if you practice presence often.
You are not just what you eat, you are what you absorb and what you focus on!
Barclay, G.R. Effect of psychosocial stress on salt and water transport in the human jejunum. Gastroenterol. 93, no.1 July 1987.
David, Marc. The Slow Down Diet. Healing Arts Press. Rochester, VT. 2005.
Giduck, S.A. Cephalic reflexes: Their role in digestion and possible roles in absorption and metabolism. J of Nutr. 117, no. 7 July 1987.