Mindful Eating at Work: Healthy Digestion Tips
By Larissa Hall Carlson
You're a fairly healthy eater, right? Fresh produce, organic grains, and dark chocolate are at home in your kitchen--and you regularly snack on fruit and take trips to the farmers market. This is fabulous.
Establishing healthy habits is hard work, indeed, and despite life's fast tempo and the ongoing intensity of work, you've succeeded in making important strides toward a healthier diet over the years.
So how is it then, that with all those healthy food choices, you're still suffering from digestive challenges or feeling unsatisfied after eating lunch at work?
What's likely missing in your healthy eating routine is mindful attention on how to eat, which ensures optimal digestion and gratification.
According to Ayurveda (yoga's sister science and 5,000-year-old health system which teaches healthy diet and lifestyle techniques to maintain health and prevent disease), how we eat is just as important as what we eat, and the how of eating is all about slowing down and heightening mindfulness.
The mind in the middle
For a satisfied belly, it's important to understand and connect with the various states of the nervous system. Why? Because roughly a third of the nervous system runs through the gut (a third!), designating whether the body-mind is in a revved up "fight or flight" mode or in a serene "rest and digest" mode.
This direct connection from the brain to the intelligence of the gut is often referred to as the "second brain"—the mind in the middle. It helps distinguish which nervous system is in charge and how to respond.
"Fight or flight" vs. "rest and digest"
If you've ever noticed a sudden lack of appetite over lunch when co-workers started complaining or debating, then you've experienced the sympathetic nervous system—the "fight or flight” system—kick into gear. It’s a state of heightened mental exertion that triggers inhibiting digestion in order to prioritize blood and energy flow to other parts of the body.
This knee-jerk reaction to social commotion and turmoil will instantaneously shift your nervous and digestive systems from a relaxed state of enjoying lunch to an overly-aroused state for either fleeing or joining the quarrel.
When we're stressed, agitated, multitasking, or on the go, the sympathetic nervous system appropriately influences everything--increasing mental activity and heart rate to get things done, while simultaneously reducing intestinal movement and digestive strength (because as the mind concentrates on identifying whether or not the environment is safe and secure, the “mind in the middle” receives the alert signals and recognizes that it's not a good time to enjoy a meal).
Essentially, the body shuts down digestive power until the stressors are gone and the coast is clear.
If you're eating healthy food but the meal environment is tense or nerve-racking (e.g., amid squabbling colleagues, irritating noise, or while trying to get focused work done), the digestive strength is considerably reduced, and the result is often indigestion, acid reflux, gas and bloating, constipation, mental agitation, and a host of other digestive aches and pains.
You might spend precious time and money procuring the best organic, local, seasonal, and well-prepared food in an effort to eat healthy during the work week, but if you're eating it while stressed out, unfortunately, you just won't be able to digest it well.
The good news is that when sitting down to enjoy a meal in a comfortable environment and in a relaxed manner, the parasympathetic nervous system, or "rest and digest" mode, will take over--supporting a relaxed physical state for proper digestion and a calm mental state for enhanced gratification and contentment.
When we're in the rest-and-digest state, there is proper and timely flow of digestive juices and functions, good assimilation of nutrients, and correct filtering out of waste. So, when eating in a relatively peaceful setting, appreciating the company of affable co-workers, or having a relaxed meal alone, the positive atmosphere supports ease in the mind, which allows for a calm nervous system, and thus supports optimal digestive strength.
Increase mindfulness at work
With this knowledge of how environment affects digestion, I encourage you to transform a hectic work environment into a spacious, satisfying one and to take your healthy eating practices to the next level with these tips:
1. Keep good company - Surround yourself with uplifting and inspiring colleagues. Guide lunchtime conversations toward highlights from recent vacations, amusing adventure stories, workout routines, and healthy restaurant recommendations.
2. Table for one - If you’ve been talking all morning and just need to eat in peace, choose a secluded window table or a quiet bench outside. Sit comfortably and eat slowly, savoring the aroma, taste, and texture of each nourishing bite.
3. Screensaver - If your cubicle or private office is the only place you can eat without being interrupted, then put your desktop to sleep and turn away from the computer. Resist cell phone usage, too. Give your sense organs a true lunch break with no screen time.
4. Positive entertainment - To ensure the mind is calm, put aside disturbing political and world news until after you've eaten. If you like to read during meals, flip through the science or arts section of the paper, or read your favorite outdoor adventure or travel magazine--filling your belly with healthy food while filling your mind with positive and uplifting information.
5. Music break - Co-workers may resist interrupting if they see you with headphones on, so pick a soothing mealtime soundtrack and drop into the zone.
6. Breathe - Before eating, ensure the "rest and digest" nervous system is in charge by taking a few moments to settle in for your meal. Sit comfortably. Close the eyes. Draw in a big refreshing breath through the nose, and exhale through the mouth—taking twice as long to exhale. Repeat a few times, inviting your body and mind to relax with each long, audible, soothing sigh.
6. Nature refreshes - During your precious lunch break, fill your mind with positive impressions. If your view isn't a sweeping natural landscape, then bring nature inside! Keep a flowering plant on your desk, or set your screensaver to enchanting and magnificent nature scenes.
Healthy Food Tips
In addition to eating mindfully at work, explore some of these tips to make healthier food choices:
1. Lunch box - To up-level healthy food intake, reduce “take-out” food while at work. Instead, pack your own healthy lunch from home. Invest in an eco-friendly bento box or stainless steel meal container to bring your own food in comfort and style. Travel containers can be a spill-proof life saver for healthy eating at work. Keep a bamboo cutlery set in your desk, to reduce plastic waste. Try a reusable straw to support the environment! And, invest in a high-quality travel thermos. A healthy work meal requires just a little planning.
2. Eat something cooked - To ease digestion amidst a busy work environment—especially for chronic digestive distress-- try favoring cooked foods over raw. Although you may not be able to reheat the food at work, room-temperature cooked food is generally easier to digest than raw. Vegan food holds up best, so you might avoid dairy and meat. Fill your lunch box with seasonal roasted veggies (in spring, try roasting kale, cabbage, brussel sprouts, carrots, and cauliflower), steamed greens (broccolini, bok choy, mustard greens, asparagus, or peas), and some organic grain. Or pack a homemade organic egg and spinach burrito. Easy foods to cook, pack, and digest.
3. Healthy snacks - Crave chocolate or chips at work? You’ll save money by avoiding high prices in the café, and you can choose healthier snack options when you pack your own. Plan for the majority of your sweet snacks to be fresh or dried organic fruits (nibble on medjool dates, cherries, apricots, and pears), which may very well satisfy your sweet craving. Keep a little organic dark chocolate on hand, too, in case that’ll satisfy you best. Along with sweet, the salty taste pacifies when feeling stressed or agitated, so pick high-quality organic chips or crackers to stash in the office pantry. Better yet—pack some homemade organic kale chips with a little sea salt!
4. Tea time - To stay hydrated at work (which is important for healthy digestion, as well as preventing headaches, agitation, and light-headedness) and save money (do you splurge at the café every afternoon?) keep your own herbal tea bags at work. Ask for hot water at the office cafeteria and steep your own tea. Try ginger tea, if you tend to feel nauseous or sluggish after eating. Hibiscus is great if you want a slightly sweet, cooling, refreshing effect. Caffeine-free tulsi tea is an excellent choice for soothing the nerves—great when feeling anxious or scattered; tulsi tea is also a digestive aid, breath freshener, and headache reducer—perfect for the office.
Explore these simple and empowering tips for enhanced mindfulness at work. Wishing you a happy belly and a peaceful mind!
Larissa Hall Carlson is an Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist, mindful living teacher, and advanced yoga training director specializing in philosophy, stress relief, women's health, and yoga for elite performers. She is a writer, co-director of Yoga Journal's online courses "Ayurveda 101" and "Ayurvedic Psychology," and the former Dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda. She is known for her exceptional knowledge, deep practice, and professionalism.