Emotional Aspects Of Diet and Digestion
So far we have discussed how nutrition affects the mind—specifically, how a
nutrient deficiency may contribute to a mental or emotional illness. It is
equally important to realize that, while diet does affect our mental and
emotional well-being, our emotional state in, turn, in influences both our
choice of diet and how well our food is digested and assimilated.
How Negative Emotions Inhibit Digestion
Depressions, worry, nervousness, anxiety, tension and other negative emotions
are all based on the primary emotion of fear. Worry is fear of the unknown;
anxiety is fear of upcoming situations; tension is fear of people or demands
made by people; nervousness is fear of one's own inability to adequately handle
the responsibilities of daily living, and so on.
When primitive man was afraid, he usually tried to run away from the source of
the fear. When animals are afraid, their first impulse is to flee. Modern man,
however, has fears about the intangibles in life. Most of his fears are due to
internal factors, not external, and he cannot run away from them.
Although human fears have moved away from concern about the wild jungle animals
to worries over mortgage payments, etc., the physiological responses to these
fears have not changed in millions of years.
Panic is an extreme manifestation of fear, and it is instructive to trace the
physiological changes in the organism that accompany this emotion.
As soon as a threat to the organism is manifested as a strong fear, a complex
chain of events begins that eventually affects every cell in the body.
First, the hypothalamus gland near the brain transmits a series of strong
signals through the spinal column to nerve centers throughout the body. In the
throat, large amounts of thyrotopic hormone is released into the system to
stimulate the organism. Near the kidneys, a flood of adrenocorticotropic hormone
is produced as the adrenal glands are called into action. These hormones then
trigger a series of programmed responses throughout the body.
The blood vessels in the skin and the digestive system undergo a rapid
constriction to direct the blood to the muscles in the arms and legs (hence, the
term "pale with fright"). This prepares the body for the "flight or fight"
response to the fear.
Simultaneously, the spleen is contracting and pouring out a large amount of
white corpuscles and platelets into the bloodstream in order to take care of any
anticipated injuries. The liver also forces out a stream of blood sugar to feed
the extreme demands made by the aroused system.
The saliva in the mouth dries up since there is no desire for food in the
presence of fear. The nostrils expand to take in more oxygen and the eyes dilate
to take in more visual stimuli. In extreme fear, the abdominal gases move
downward and force any stool or urine in the system out, thus lightening the
body and preparing it for flight.
The emotion of fear produces the proper physiological reactions in the body so
that it may run quickly away or fight if it is cornered. These types of changes
in the body are actually very beneficial if there is an imminent danger of
These same reactions occur, usually to a lesser degree, for an intangible fear
as for a physical threat.
If we worry about bill collectors or rush-hour traffic, our bodies go through
similar physiological reactions to when our lives are physically threatened.
Now let's look a little closer at the relationship between fear and
First, it is obvious that no one whose life is in danger is going to have an
Dr. Herbert M. Shelton once described an experiment performed on a cat that
had just finished eating. The cat's stomach was observed with X rays, and
digestion was proceeding normally. A dog was then brought into the room and the
cat took notice.
Immediately all digestive processes in the cat halted. Its stomach ceased moving
and the digestive juices stopped secreting. When the dog was removed, the cat's
Food cannot be digested or assimilated in the presence of fear. If we eat when
we are worried, depressed, tense or fearful, the digestive system cannot handle
the food properly. It may be only partially digested and lay fermenting or
putrefying in the stomach.
We should never eat when we are emotionally upset or "out of sorts." If we are
uncomfortable in body or mind, we should not eat until we feel better and regain
Additionally, it is not a good idea to try to eat while driving a car,
discussing business or personal problems, reading disturbing news, watching
television or in any situation that may give rise to intense emotions.
How Positive Emotions Enhance Digestion
Several years ago, a man was diagnosed by the medical profession as having
terminal cancer. He was told that he probably had about six months to live.
He was released from the hospital and he ended his medical treatment as he went
back home to live. For the first month or so, he was very depressed and laid in
bed all day watching television. He was in constant pain.
Each day in the late afternoon he watched the cartoon programs on television
before the evening news. He always laughed at the cartoons and noticed that by
the end of the show his pain was not as noticable. It did return, however, as he
watched the evening news.
He decided that there might be a relationship between his laughing and the
subsidence of pain. He installed a videotape machine and then bought all the
funny movies that he remembered from his youth.
He watched all the slapstick comedies he could find for hours at a time. He
bought dozens of joke books and read them. He made it a point to laugh as much
as possible during his waking hours.
Gradually, his pain left him. After six months, he was still alive and his
cancer had been arrested.
Happy emotions do influence physiological processes in the body, just as do
negative emotions. When we are cheerful, carefree and happy, we rarely become
sick. One of the results of a happy disposition is improved digestion.
When we feel positive about ourselves and our surroundings, we relish our food
more and it is more easily assimilated. Surrounding ourselves with good
companionship, pleasant conversation and a wholesome environment makes eating a
pleasure, and digestion progresses easily.
When we are relaxed, our stomach and other organs are less tense; they feel less
constrained and can perform their tasks more easily. In fact, the physical act
of laughing after a meal allows the food to pass more readily through the
We should make every effort to surround ourselves with pleasant emotions and
thoughts before and during meals. Prayer, meditation or a period of silence
before beginning a meal can help us to "wind down" our activities. By
establishing a quiet period before we begin eating, we remove ourselves from the
hurried emotions and past thoughts of the day. We take time to renew ourselves
spiritually before we renew ourselves physically. Regardless of one's religious
beliefs or lack of beliefs, it is simply common sense to observe a period of
emotional poise and mental quiet before eating. This may take the form of a
prayer, an affirmation about the food we are about to eat, or simply a period of
quiet silence where we anticipate the enjoyment of the upcoming meal.
Emotional Factors and the Foods We Choose
Eating an optimum diet would be simple if we were all rational beings, freed
from emotional conditioning. However, in the realm of diet, it is often the
emotions and past habits that are king and queen instead of reason and clear
We eat ice cream, spicy foods, candy and other destructive foods primarily
because of emotional needs and emotional associations with these foods—not
because of any true physiological need or premeditated reason.
People form emotional attachments to foods as a result of childhood experiences,
past associations or self-conditioning. Consequently, certain foods are often
eaten during particular emotional states, such as depression, etc., or in hopes
of inducing a specific emotion, such as contentment or happiness.
For instance, ice cream is often associated with the rewards of childhood. When
we were children, ice cream represented a treat or perhaps a sign of parental
approval or indulgence. "If you'll be good, I'll buy you an ice cream cone," is
a common promise of harried parents.
Thus, at an early age, ice cream is associated with "being good" and with
parental approval. Consequently, when we have been good (such as staying on a
good diet for a few weeks), we decide to play both parent and child and reward
ourselves with a bowl of ice cream. Similarly, if we are feeling depressed or
overwhelmed by life's problems, we may eat other childhood "reward" foods to
temporarily escape our adult troubles.
Holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving are intimately associated with
strong emotions and certain festive foods. So strong is this emotional
association of food with holiday fun that some health-conscious individuals may
eat turkey, pastries and sweets on a holiday in an effort to capture the
childhood memories of days long past, as well as for parental approval in the
Please note that no value judgement is placed upon the emotional associations
and attachments to food. To a certain extent, all of our food likes and dislikes
are based upon emotions. Few people eat out of purely rational reasons, nor is
it necessary to do so. What is necessary, however, is to be aware of the role
emotions play in our food choices. If we are eating certain foods that are not
conducive to health because of a disturbed emotional state, we should be aware
of our behavior and try to approach our problems in some other manner besides
Foods themselves cannot satisfy emotional needs. If we are depressed, eating
chocolate chip cookies may stir the memories of a carefree childhood, but they
do not remove the cause of that depression. Indeed, the foods we are eating may
be creating the emotional problems we are trying to escape from.
For example, in our culture, most children are brought up to associate sweet,
sugary foods with approval, love, affection, etc. A child is often given candy
as a reward. This type of conditioning becomes an internal pattern which is
carried over into adulthood.
When grown-up people feel lonely, bored or in need of reinforcement, they may
buy an ice cream cone or put money in the nearest carbonated drink machine. They
eat the sugary reward food and feel somewhat better emotionally for a few
minutes. This illustrates that a negative emotional state, (boredom, insecurity,
loneliness, etc.) may influence the selection of and eating of nonfood items
(candy, cookies, snack foods, etc.).
These nonfood items then contribute to a nutritional imbalance which may, in
turn, re-create the emotional state that one is trying to escape from. For
instance, the refined sugar in sweet foods gives a temporary rise in energy and
a false emotional "high." After this energy surge, the sugar has the effect of
depleting the body of B-vitamins and other nutrients. This sugar-created
depletion then sets the stage for additional emotional distress and depression.
A seemingly inescapable cycle is thereby created: A person is continually eating
sugar-filled foods in an effort to escape the depression that the foods
themselves are helping to create.
Food Likes and Dislikes
Many of our food cravings and our dislike of certain foods arise from past
emotional associations. There are many teenagers and young adults today who
refuse to eat vegetables because, as children, they were scolded by their
parents if they did not clean their plates of all the overcooked, lifeless
vegetables served to them. Now that they are older, they associate their refusal
to eat vegetables with independence from their parents.
A man of this writer's acquaintance will not eat fresh fruit of any sort. As a
young child he was force-fed watermelon by his parents as punishment for not
eating his supper.
As another example, the widespread use of dairy products has its roots in
emotional childhood associations. Young children were told by their parents (who
were told by the dairy industry) that "milk makes you strong." School teachers
had posters of the "Basic Four" food groups, with milk prominently displayed.
The drinking of milk is also associated with being bottle-fed as an infant. Milk
drinking may then become the bridge between the emotionally stressed life of the
adult and the carefree world of the child.
Emotions and the Quantity of Food We Eat
Not only are our food choices determined in a large part by our emotions, but so
is the amount of food we eat and the manner in which we eat. When we are
stressed or nervous, we tend to bolt our food down, thereby eating "on the run"
and scarcely taking time to chew our food, properly.
Overeating, too, is chiefly an emotionally-caused problem. Food for the
overeater becomes both an escape from dissatisfaction with life and a drug to
desensitize the emotions. Compulsive eating when no true hunger is present
serves as a form of sensory indulgence little different from alcoholism, drug
addiction or sexual excess.
The compulsive eater often uses food as an emotional salve. Most commonly, it is
used as a substitute for feelings of love and affections. Chocolate candy bars
and potato chips may replace meaningful personal relationships in the
overeater's life. Food no longer is used as fuel and nutrients for the body, but
becomes an easily obtainable form of pleasure that can be indulged in with a
minimum amount of social disapproval.
Overeating results primarily from a negative self-image. Compulsive eaters often
believe that they are unworthy of being loved. To prove this to themselves, they
often become obese and unattractive. They reason, "No one wants me now because I
am unattractive. I am fat." By becoming physically unattractive, the obese
person is able to avoid facing the real problems behind their lack of love or
affection. These problems may be real or imagined psychological unattractiveness
or a personality disorder.
Since overeating is often an emotional problem, it can be effectively solved
only through a change in the emotional state of the overeater. If compulsive
eaters can change their food choices so that they are at least overeating on
healthy foods, and not "junk foods," they will at least avoid the additional
emotional problems that the "junk foods" create. The chief solution to obesity
is the development of a more positive self-image and an understanding that the
person is deserving of love and affection.
Under-eating and Dieting
Like the overeater, the compulsive dieter or under-eater also usually suffers
from emotional or psychological problems. The phenomenon of "anorexia
nervosa"—dieting to the point of starvation—has become an increasingly common
problem, especially among young women.
Whereas overeating often comes from a desire to "reward" oneself, under-eating
is often an attempt to "punish" oneself or the people living around the
under-eater (particularly the parents). By withholding needed food, the
under-eater punishes himself for either real or imagined personal shortcomings.
Under-eating becomes a method of punishing the parents in particular, because
the refusal of food is a rejection of the most basic child-parent
relationship—that of nurturing.
Of course abstaining from adequate food intake to the point of starvation is the
extreme result of an emotional disturbance. It should be pointed out that
controlled fasting undertaken for reasons of health is not the same as an
erratic and prolonged nutrient-deficient and calorie-poor diet.
Although not so extreme as anorexia nervosa, millions of Americans regularly
place themselves on diets that are trumpeted in the latest magazines and
paperbacks or in mimeographed office newsletters. Often these self-prescribed
diets are so poor in vital nutrients and high in empty calories that they cause
serious damage to the kidneys, liver, stomach, etc. As a consequence, the mania
for dieting among Americans is creating a nation of mental and emotional
Let's clarify the difference between fasting and dieting for weight loss. Many
weight-loss diets as published in the popular press permit the dieter to
continue eating harmful, low-calorie foods while simultaneously reducing the
amount of beneficial foods in the diet. As a result, severe nutritional
inbalances occur that may contribute to emotional problems. In comparison,
fasting allows the body to reestablish its nutritional balance. So successful is
fasting in this regard that it has been used to treat severely
emotionally-disturbed patients who had nutrient imbalances throughout their
In many weight-reducing diets, the person is allowed to have all the coffee, tea
or diet drinks desired since these drinks have no calories. Such drinks severely
disrupt the already disturbed blood-sugar level and may plunge the dieter into
deep depression. Add to this that a dieting person usually increases his smoking
habit (if he already has one), and the stage is set for additional nutritional
One popular diet instructs the person to give up all carbohydrates (such as
fresh fruit and vegetables) and eat only protein (such as cooked meat). This
invariably results in protein poisoning, metabolic disturbance, mental
confusion, lack of emotional poise, and liver and kidney damage. Incidentally,
it is just such a diet that was used by the ancient Chinese to break down the
emotional resolve and mental health of their captured prisoners.
Most weight-loss diets make the same nutritional mistakes that lead to emotional
problems. First, they ignore the differences between refined carbohydrates
(which supply incomplete calories and little or no vitamins or minerals) and
unrefined carbohydrates (which have calories that provide essential nutrients).
Second, many of the foods recommended are "reward foods," such as a small slice
of pie, a few vanilla wafers, some raspberry jam, etc. These types of foods are
included in these diets to entice the person to stay on the diet. Literally, he
is allowed to have his cake and eat it too, although not without accompanying
What happens on many weight-loss diets is that the dieters grow irritable,
depressed and confused. They deprive themselves of needed nutrients by filling
up on low-calorie non-foods that contribute to the nutritional imbalance. The
nutrient deprivation and toxic by-products created by these diets often produce
drastic personality changes. It is not uncommon to hear the spouses of many
dieters remark: "I'd rather have you fat and happy than the way you are now."
Israeli researchers performed a study on ten men and women who were committed to
a psychiatric institution as a result of the mental and emotional problems
caused by their erratic dieting. They discovered that drastic weight reduction
through conventional dieting had its most devastating effect on the nervous
system. Six of the ten dieters had never suffered from emotional problems prior
to this first attempt at weight loss.
Weight loss and weight control can be accomplished without accompanying negative
mental and emotional changes by fasting or by consuming a proper diet.
Supervised fasting not only produces a loss in weight, but it also allows a
nutritional balance to occur in the body for continued mental and emotional
health. The eating of low-calorie, high-nutrient foods such as, fresh raw fruits
and vegetables allows the weight to normalize without denying the body needed
Diet and the Ego
One last area of dieting and the mind needs to be covered, especially since it
is most applicable to those persons who are truly concerned about their diet and
are searching for a way to improve their overall nutrition. This area is the
relationship between personal pride, or "ego," and the diet we adopt.
Almost everyone is emotionally attached to the diet they follow. I have heard
people who dine exclusively at "fast food" restaurants defend their diet with
nutritional charts of french fries and chocolate malts. Meat eaters argue that
humans are naturally carnivorous. People who follow a macrobiotic diet believe
fervently that grains should be a major part of our diet.
Each group is intensely emotional about the diet they adopt. They believe that
they exclusively are correct, and they have a lot of personal pride invested in
their chosen diet.
This is especially true of people who have actually taken the time to
investigate the effects of diet on health. When they finally discover "their
diet," they often become blinded to reason. They embrace their new diet as a
mother clutches her newborn, and they will defend it with as much emotion
(though scarcely with as much reason).
This is not to imply that there is no optimum diet. Most certainly a best diet
does exist, and it is the one that promotes physical, mental, and emotional and
spiritual health better than all others. Such a diet, however, can only be
recognized and evaluated when we divest ourselves of passionate emotion and
This is very difficult to do. We are all attached to our personal ideas and
theories. We all like to believe that we are right. No one likes to realize that
he has been mistaken about a cherished belief, be it political, religious or
However, if we are to push beyond emotional and personal identifications with
diet and understand the proper role of nutrition in health, then we must be
open-minded and be willing to let go of past beliefs when they no longer serve
Certainly, personal experience and education can help us in choosing the proper
diet. Difficult as it may seem, however, we must approach the idea of optimum
nutrition with as few preconceptions and prejudices as possible.
Only when we are mentally and emotionally "clear" will we be able to recognize
the correct path to proper diet and, indeed, proper living.
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