Are We What We Eat?

The world is full of different cuisines and thousands of different meals. Yet when we reduce them to their essence, there are just a handful of ingredients that our bodies absolutely need to survive. These basic molecules come in a series of groups we’re all familiar with — carbohydrates, fat, protein — each class of molecule is very important for the way our bodies work. So, what to choose?

Our physical and mental well-being is directly linked to what we eat and drink. The nutritional content of what we eat determines the composition of our cell membranes, bone marrow, blood, hormones, tissue, organs, skin, and hair. Our bodies are replacing billions of cells every day — and using the foods we consume as the source.

Researchers at the University of Oxford have demonstrated that the diets of organisms can even affect the composition of their genes. Since organisms construct their DNA using building blocks they get from food, Dr. Steven Kelly, of Oxford’s Department of Plant Sciences, and his colleagues hypothesized that the composition of food could alter an organism’s DNA. The results revealed a previously hidden relationship between cellular metabolism and evolution, and provided new insights into how DNA sequences can be influenced by adaptation to different diets. The team also found it is possible to predict the diets of related organisms by analyzing the DNA sequence of their genes.

A well-balanced diet not only results in better health and overall body composition, but because of the “brain-gut connection” — can also make us feel great. Eating well is part of the strategy that can reduce our risk of any chronic disease and even improve the condition of our very genes. There is not “one rule fits all” when it comes to eating well. Applying the commonly accepted recommendations such as low sugar, low salt, and a good variety of nutrients might be the most advisable for all of us.

Paying attention to how much we are eating is another very important aspect of healthy nutrition — that naturally concerns us all. What we eat and how much we eat is critical, but how we process it is perhaps even more important. Through thousands of little sensors, the gut has the immense task of managing all the information contained in the food we intake. Food alone will not promise a thriving gut.

If you are eating a nutritious and delicious meal with a friend, but all of a sudden you start to fight with each other — your stomach is going to shut off, and you’ll probably experience indigestion, pain, or nausea. Even when eating by ourselves, most of us have an ongoing internal dialogue going on in our brains. We are filled with countless thoughts and emotions that distract all our attention from the food in front of us. We also eat while on the phone, with the TV on, and at our desk. There is reason to believe that eating while we’re emotional, confused, or simply distracted may slow down or stop digestion.

When we feel an emotion intensely, such as stress or anxiety, our regular, mechanical, digestive process in the gut — which mostly works independently — will be influenced and altered. Stress hormones, such as adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol, will interact with the cells in our gut, making us alert and ready for fight or flight. By paying attention to our mental state when eating, we can improve our food processing. All of our body parts are connected to our emotions, but the gut sends the strongest signaling to our brain’s emotional centers.

It can be as simple as becoming more aware of the act of eating itself — including seeing, smelling, chewing, and swallowing. We can also extend our attentiveness to the influence the food has on our bodies and mood. Going even further, we can be considerate of the earth, which provides us with this driving force we call food. In fact, researchers have found that teaching such “mindful eating” skills can change bad eating patterns. Trials using the mindful eating approach have shown that participants significantly reduced compulsive eating habits, improved self-control, diminished depressive symptoms, lost weight, and maintained their weight loss for long periods of time.

By paying attention to all the details and layers of information involved in our eating, we can also awaken our gut senses — in turn helping us make better choices of the things we eat, and the amounts we eat in the future.

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Winter 2018 issue.

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