As a medical doctor this is embarrassing to admit. Until I began to teach mindful eating, I did not realize that the stomach has no taste buds. I just didn’t think about it. As I ate something delicious, I might think, ‘Oh, my stomach is going to really like this!” But then I realized that isn’t true. Only the mouth is concerned with flavors. The stomach does not care about the taste of the food it receives. It cares about volume, the volume of food it must work with after we’ve sent it down from the mouth.
The stomach has a lot of work to do with the food we send down. Stomach muscles contract and relax rhythmically, breaking up the food into small particles that can be digested by the enzymes and acid that the stomach secretes. It takes time for our stomachs to do their work and become empty again — from 2 hours to more than 4 hours depending upon whether we take in liquids or solids.
The stomach has stretch receptors that register volume. When we eat until we are overfull, those stretch receptors give out strong signals that we call “uncomfortable” or “ bloated” or “ stuffed.”
In mindful eating we encourage people to stop eating when they are 4/5ths full. Many Asian countries where people live long and healthy lives have a saying something like, “The first four fifths are to nourish you, the last fifth will make the doctor wealthy,” However, research shows that most people can only detect “empty” or “full” or “stuffed’, but nothing in between. To assess 4/5ths full, we have to develop a more refined awareness of how full our stomach is.This is a skill that we all had in childhood, and thus we can all re-learn.
Here is how I attend to my stomach. Before eating, I ask my stomach how full it is: empty, ¼ full, ½ full, 4/5ths full, full or over-full? Then I ask it how much volume it would be comfortable holding and working with: ½ cup, 1 cup, 1.5 cups, 2 cups or 3 cups? (The average stomach holds about 4 cups when stretched full, which is not my goal).
When I serve myself I am careful not to exceed what my stomach told me would be a comfortable amount. After eating 4/5ths full, I take a break, have something to drink, relax, and wait to see if that was a happy amount for my stomach. This pause allows time for satiety hormones to be released and travel to the brain, and also time to assess both satisfaction (an emotional feeling) and fullness (a physical feeling).
As one man exclaimed after a Mindful Eating workshop, “ My stomach works hard to keep me healthy day and night. I should be more kind to it!” That is a beautiful mindful eating resolution.
How do you habitually think of your stomach? Positively? (I’m happy you are working so well, thank you!), or negatively? (You are causing me so much trouble lately!) or neutrally? (I don’t really have any feelings about my stomach)
What do you do if you check in with your stomach before eating a meal and discover that it already feels full?
Jan Chozen Bays, MD USA