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  • Clare Backhouse

The power of peaceful eating

One cheap and effective way to support our health, is to sit down properly to eat, and to take our time when we do.

This might sound too good to be true. But it is!

When we take time to eat peacefully, we help ourselves digest in a way that simply can’t happen when we rush. And here’s why.

It’s all about the Cephalic phase of digestion.

Cephalic digestion

The Cephalic phase is the first and most foundational stage of the digestion process. It is everything that happens in the brain and the mouth, before food even reaches the stomach.

Skip the Cephalic stage, and you needlessly compromise your health.

Enjoy it, and you help your body squeeze every drop of goodness from the food you eat.

But first, let’s step back for a moment and understand the digestion process as a whole.

For digestion to work, our bodies need to:

1. break down food into smaller particles

2. absorb nutrients from the digestive tract for the body to use

3. excrete waste products out of the body

We often take Stages 1 and 2 for granted, assuming that if we eat an apple, for example, we’ll absorb its nutrients automatically.

But the fact is, nutrient absorption depends on the effective breakdown of food in the first place. And this can’t happen unless sufficient acid is made in the stomach and enzymes in the small intestine.

And what helps to ensure the production of these acids and enzymes? It’s everything that happens in our heads, before we even swallow the first mouthful.

As you may have experienced, the mere thought of food can cause the mouth to ‘water’, or produce extra saliva.

When we look at, smell and sample food, this encourages saliva even more.

And saliva in the mouth not only contains enzymes to begin breaking down food in the mouth, but also prompts the stomach to produce extra acid to break down the food down after swallowing.

Stomach acid and reflux

Now, you may have a bad impression of stomach acid, and worry about it becoming too high. Especially if you are one of the estimated one in ten people in the UK who suffers with acid reflux.

But, in fact, stomach acid needs to be sufficiently high if digestion is going to be effective. (And many cases of acid reflux are paradoxically due to low, not high, stomach acid – but feel free to ask me more if this is you.)

The Cephalic phase of digestion is responsible for initiating about a third of this healthy stomach acid production. And for some of my clients, simply paying attention to this phase can significantly shift their symptoms of acid reflux. This is particularly crucial for my thyroid clients, who are often more at risk of poor digestion.

At the same time, the sight and smell of food sends messages from the brain to the entire digestive tract to prepare it to receive food. This is done by means of the ‘vagus nerve’, a wonderful nerve that connects the brain with the gut (and is an important factor in the ‘gut-brain axis’ which you may have heard of).

Finally, the very motion of chewing activates chemical messengers in saliva, which, together with stomach acids, triggers the pancreas and liver to secrete the correct enzymes to break down fats, carbohydrates and protein.

So the Cephalic phase really sets us up for good digestion.

Practical tips

But how do we help this digestive phase work well? What would it look like, to eat peacefully?

Here is what I encourage my clients to do:

- Prepare your own food if possible – the sights and smells prepare you to digest

- Sit down to eat. Don’t perch, stand, or walk!

- Take 5 deep breaths before you pick up your knife and fork. Be thankful

- Smell and look at your food

- Eat without screens, phones, or work. These put you into ‘rush’ mode

- Enjoy restful things like friendly company, or a good book

- Chew a lot - and slowly

- Really savour what you eat

As we slow down to eat, and help the Cephalic phase to work well, I believe we are also communicating love to our bodies.

We’re affirming to ourselves: ‘you matter; your needs are worth taking time for; you are worth feeding in a peaceful, enjoyable manner’.

Or, put another way, ‘you are worth loving well’. And as we know, the people who love others best, are those who know how to love themselves wisely.

A mindset for eating

But this isn’t always easy! So when I am feeling tempted to rush, I mentally ring-fence my meal-time. I’ll say to myself something like,

“Until this plate is finished, there is nothing else I am supposed to do, except enjoy this food and this moment.”

For the period of the meal time, worries and stresses have to wait. It’s a tiny holiday from the working day, a moment in which no-one has to be anywhere else, a little piece of connection with others or with rest.

(At this point some of my readers may be saying to themselves 'Be restful? You must be joking! With the children at home all day on summer holiday!' And I would take your point! But I'd propose there is a world of difference between sitting down to eat with fellow human beings, however noisy they may be, and stuffing down a sandwich while hurrying to a meeting, or hunching over a spreadsheet. This is because the presence of people is, on the whole, calming to the nervous system and still conducive to digestion, whereas trying to work, generally isn't. HOWEVER - if anyone has tips for how to create calm and relaxing mealtimes in large families, feel free to let me know and I will share them!) 

So let me know if you experiment with some extra-peaceful eating this summer.

I’d love to hear what you think.

To your very best of health,


Clare Backhouse, dipION, Registered Nutritionist MBANT

Registered Nutritional Therapist CNHC


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