By Marc David

“Thoughts rule the world.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the most fundamental building blocks of nutritional metabolism is neither vitamin, mineral, nor molecule. It’s our psychological relationship with food. It’s the sum total of our innermost thoughts and feelings about what we eat. Consider the word relationship.

Each of us, whether we know it or not, is in an intimate, lifelong, committed union with eating. It’s not by accident that the same words that describe our relationships with people equally characterize our relationships with food—love, hate, pleasure, pain, expectations, disappointments, excitement, boredom, uncertainty, change. This relationship with food is as deep and revealing as any we might ever have.

The great Sufi poet Rumi once remarked “The satiated man and the hungry man do not see the same thing when they look upon a loaf of bread.” And Al Capone, noted gangster, astutely observed, “When I sell liquor, it’s called bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on silver trays on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality.” Indeed, how each of us thinks about eating (known as eating psychology or food psychology) is so profoundly relative that if a group of us were looking at the same plate of food, no two people would see the same thing.

Say, for example, we were examining a plate of pasta, chicken, and salad. A woman wanting to lose weight would see calories and fat. She’d respond favorably to the salad or chicken but would view the pasta with fear. An athlete trying to gain muscle mass would look at the same meal and see protein. She’d focus on the chicken and look past the other foods. A pure vegetarian would see the distasteful sight of a dead animal and wouldn’t touch anything on the plate. A chicken farmer, on the other hand, would be proud to see a good piece of meat. Someone trying to heal a disease through diet would see either potential medicine or potential poison, depending upon whether or not the plate of food is permissible on her chosen diet. A scientist studying nutrient content in food would see a collection of chemicals. All of these are reflections of our perceptions, our unique nutritional and food psychology.

What’s amazing is that each of these eaters will metabolize this same meal quite differently in response to her unique psychology and thoughts. In other words, what you think and feel about a food is as important a determinant of its nutritional value and its effect on body weight as the actual nutrients themselves.

Does this sound unbelievable? Here’s how the science works.

How Your Brain Eats

The information highway of brain, spinal cord, and nerves is like a telephone system through which your mind communicates with your digestive organs. Let’s say you’re about to eat an ice cream cone. The notion and image of that ice cream occurs in the higher center of the brain—the cerebral cortex. From there, information is relayed electrochemically to the limbic system, which is considered the “lower” portion of the brain. The limbic system regulates emotions and key physiological functions such as hunger, thirst, temperature, sex drive, heart rate, and blood pressure. Within the limbic system is a pea-sized collection of tissues known as the hypothalamus, which integrates the activities of the mind with the biology of the body and plays a big role in eating psychology. In other words, it takes sensory, emotional, and thought input and transduces this information into physiological responses. This is nothing short of a miracle.

aziz ozgur

If the ice cream is your favorite flavor—say, chocolate—and you consume it with a full measure of delight, the hypothalamus will modulate this positive input by sending activation signals via parasympathetic nerve fibers to the salivary glands, esophagus, stomach, intestines, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder. Digestion will be stimulated and you’ll have a fuller metabolic breakdown of the ice cream while burning its calories more efficiently.

If you’re feeling guilty about eating the ice cream or judging yourself for eating it, the hypothalamus will take this negative input and send signals down the sympathetic fibers of the autonomic nervous system. This initiates inhibitory responses in the digestive organs, which means you’ll be eating your ice cream but not fully metabolizing it. It may stay in your digestive system longer, which can diminish your population of healthy gut bacteria and increase the release of toxic by-products into the bloodstream. Furthermore, inhibitory signals in the nervous system can decrease your calorie-burning efficiency, which would cause you to store more of your guilt-infused ice cream as body fat. So the thoughts you think about the food you eat instantly become reality in your body via the central nervous system and the mind-body aspects of food psychology.

Read the full article here: Nutritional Psychology: Is Your Mind Ruining Your Food?

This article is excerpted from :
The Slow Down Diet: Eating for Pleasure, Energy, and Weight Loss
by Marc David 10th Anniversary Edition © 2015 Healing Arts Press.
Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International.

Featured artwork:
All the images used in this excerpt are made by Aziz Ozgur. Check out his work on Instagram.