Eating is a biological habit which ensures survival. Without eating, you simply won’t exist for long. Things taste yummy because they provide energy and nutrients, allowing you to live your magical life. This pleasurable aspect of eating, however, has transformed food from a mere survival mechanism, to a form of entertainment. While this is all fine and dandy in healthy eating patterns (I simply adore salivating and lingering over a nice steak), it can pose quite a problem when mealtime becomes only an activity.
Like the title of my book, eating can quickly go astray in both the WHAT and the WHEN. The WHAT problems arise when unhealthy foods tap into our pleasure pathways, becoming addictions. (Oh hey junk foods!) The WHEN problems happen with improper meal timing, like when your body simply isn’t needing food (munching out of mere habit), or isn’t in the right “mindset” for it. It is this second circumstance which makes dinner dates, at least in the initiatory butterfly stage of romance, not so ideal.
There are two “versions” of yourself that your brain and body can “be in” (for lack of a better term) at anytime: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. These are big words for a fairly understandable concept.
The sympathetic nervous system refers to the “fight or flight mode.” From the ancestral perspective, it’s the alert and active state in which you have to deal with stressful stuff (like running away from an attacker, or hunting food.) In the sympathetic state, your heartbeat speeds up, adrenaline kicks in, and fatty acids are up-regulated for use as energy. Appetite dies, because really, who has time for digestion when you’re being chased by a tiger? Interestingly, one’s sense of time is altered during this state: it seems to be “running out,” Muse style. (Again, Who has timmmeeee?) In other words, the sympathetic nervous system is like, let’s be fast and active and awesome and survive and DO THIS. NOW.
The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. It’s a time of rest and relaxation. Your heartbeat slows, and digestion and nutrient assimilation kick in. This includes release of saliva and bile for digestion of food in your mouth and body. In other words, the parasympathetic nervous system is like, let’s chill and rest and process and enjoy the relaxing moment.
In the ancient world, the sympathetic nervous system suited the time of hunting and escaping predators in the wilderness. Once you safely tracked down your meal in this fight or flight mode, you’d slow down and switch over to the parasympathetic nervous system, and effectively digest that huge feast in a relaxed state. Perfect.
Today, however, things are different. We constantly activate the alert sympathetic state in our crazy, stimulating, modern life. To make things worse during these stressful times, we tend to eat nonstop throughout the day, without properly transitioning into the parasympathetic system. We’re like “HAVE TO FINISH THIS PROJECT!” and then scarf down a burrito to “keep our energy going.” Not only is this eating often unnecessary, it is also problematic from a digestion standpoint. If the body is not in a state to digest the food, it can yield digestive problems and more bodily stress.
Beyond that, we tend to eat fast (Oh hey fast food!), which is actually a stressor to the brain, and a sign of aggression. It’s why football coaches furiously chew gum, and why some people tear into a piece of meat like it’s going out of style. This is not good for healthy digestion and assimilation of nutrients. And since it takes around 20 minutes for your gut to evaluate the situation and tell your brain it’s full, scarfing down food easily leads to overconsumption.
So when you’re in the active Go Go Go state, you should not just jump into eating. Instead, wait till you’re truly hungry, and then take things slow and easy. This is why I love intermittent fasting. During the day, I stay in the active state, with no energy wasted on digestion. Then at night, I eat slowly and for a few hours, taking my time and reveling in the parasympathetic state.
To go back to the beginning, this is also why dinner on first dates isn’t the best. In such a situation, you’re likely a bit nervous, and thus rocking the adrenaline-filled sympathetic system. Since the sympathetic system is not conducive to food processing, you likely have no appetite. Furthermore, you are literally not in a proper state for a meal, so digestive distress may be in the near future. (And who needs that on a date?) Of course, a glass or two of wine can help with that 🙂