Perhaps there is no greater food than love. Human beings thrive on it. The meaning of the word “love” can be stretched out to a long continuum, going all the way from romantic love to platonic love to familial love. Without a doubt, the heart is front and center of our lives. In fact, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the heart is referred to as the “sovereign,” or the ruler of the body, and is claimed to house the spirit of the person.
All the emphasis that has been placed on the intellect for so many years is now proving to be misplaced. Research from the HeartMath Institute shows that the heart generates a more significant field than the brain, making it the “most powerful electromagnetic field produced by the body.”1 In fact, a 2014 study suggests the heart may even be “smarter” than the brain because of its precognitive abilities. “Prestimulus information” is processed and decoded by the heart before it is relayed to conventional sensory channels in the brain.2
Our heart is our inner fulcrum, bringing joy to our eating experiences. In many cultures, food is used to express love. Dating couples typically spend their time together eating a meal. Mothers bake for their children. The message being delivered on many levels is that if we care about someone, we share food with them, whether preparing it for them, serving it, or even eating with them. Our love travels not only through the act of sharing food, but through the act of consuming it. The act of eating and what we eat shows how much we value and love our bodies. Eating behaviors often reveal how connected we are to the greatest form of love – self-compassion. Through loving ourselves, we are able to form a healthy relationship with food.
Many suffer from disordered eating – over-eating, starvation, or fixated eating – and have a damaged self-image that doesn’t allow them to love their bodies. Obesity is a global epidemic and anorexia continues to be one of the leading chronic illnesses among adolescents.3 4 Is it time to be concentrating an equal amount of attention on the emotional aspects of eating and not just the quality of food itself?
Cultivating compassion is a primary focus in current research on disordered eating. Low self-compassion was the strongest predictor in eating disorder pathology in several recent studies.5 6 7 Additionally, building self-compassion has been shown to be the most effective means by which to prevent disordered eating.8 Feelings of shame, failure, self-disgust, resentment, and contempt are commonly exacerbated in those with eating disorders and in turn food is used as punishment rather than nourishment.9 The “I’m not good enough” outlook has been mediated with techniques like Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT), shown to not only help to cultivate compassion for the self, but for others as well.10 11
Here are a few easy ways to cultivate more heart-focused eating on a daily basis:
Tune into the love you have for you. We live in a culture that tells us that focusing on ourselves means that we are selfish. However, nothing can be further from the truth. When we come from a place of self-love, we might make better choices for ourselves when it comes to our eating. Poor dietary choices have been directly linked to issues with self-esteem. The less regard ones holds for his or herself the more likely he/she will engage in unhealthy eating habits and behaviors.12 Disordered eating research highlights how self-criticism is one of the leading causes of dysfunctional eating behavior.13 When we hold ourselves in high regard, we are less likely engage in behaviors that could potentially hurt our health. It would also follow that we can more effectively care for others with a foundation of love within.
Share meals with others. Love grows when we share it. Invite others over to eat and try new recipes. Eating in a communal setting is important for us as human beings as we are interdependent. Studies show that our social networks can determine what we eat14 15 16, so we need to pick our tribes carefully. Living arrangements, frequency of social contact, and relationship/marital status have all been shown to impact level of fruit and vegetable intake.17 When we build walls of isolation or separation around us, we close off the heart. Eating with others has the potential to fill the heart with joy, especially when the meals are prepared and eaten together. Sharing meals has been used as a therapeutic modality in the treatment of eating disorders among adolescents because, among other things, it creates a sense of belonging.18 Studies have shown that sharing meals benefits elderly populations as well. Out of a group of 130 elderly adults, those who more regularly shared meals with others or ate in a social setting had the best overall health and nutrient intake.19 Those with the lowest nutrient intake maintained a more isolated lifestyle in the community.
Eat plant foods for cardiovascular-protective antioxidants. On a nutritional level, plant foods are nourishing to the heart because of the phytonutrient complexity they provide. It has been estimated that there are several thousand phytonutrients in nature. Green-colored plant foods contain high levels of thousands of potent nutrients like chlorophyll, bitter alkaloids, carotenoids, phytoestrogens, and more. These greens also contain dietary nitrates that can convert into nitrites, and, further, into nitric oxide, a compound that helps blood vessels to dilate. Furthermore, select green vegetables also contain dietary folates, which may help in lowering levels of homocysteine in the blood, an important marker to consider in those with cardiovascular disease risk.
1 McCraty, R., Atkinson, P. D. M., & Tomasino, D. (2003). Modulation of DNA conformation by heart-focused intention. HeartMath Research Center, Institute of HeartMath, Publication, (03-008), 2.
2 McCraty, R., & Atkinson, M. (2014). Electrophysiology of intuition: pre-stimulus responses in group and individual participants using a Roulette paradigm.Global Advances in Health and Medicine, 3(2), 16-27.
3 Speakman, J. R. (2014). If Body Fatness is Under Physiological Regulation, Then How Come We Have an Obesity Epidemic?. Physiology, 29(2), 88-98.
4 Lang, K., Stahl, D., Espie, J., Treasure, J., & Tchanturia, K. (2014). Set shifting in children and adolescents with anorexia nervosa: An exploratory systematic review and meta‐analysis. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 47(4), 394-399.
5 Goss, K., & Allan, S. (2014). The development and application of compassion focused therapy for eating disorders (CFT?E). British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53(1), 62-77.
6 Gale, C., Gilbert, P., Read, N., & Goss, K. (2014). An evaluation of the impact of introducing compassion focused therapy to a standard treatment programme for people with eating disorders. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 21(1), 1-12
7 Kelly, A. C., Vimalakanthan, K., & Carter, J. C. (2014). Understanding the roles of self-esteem, self-compassion, and fear of self-compassion in eating disorder pathology: An examination of female students and eating disorder patients.Eating Behaviors, 15(3), 388-391.
12 Lachance, L., Martin, M. S., Kaduri, P., Godoy-Paiz, P., Ginieniewicz, J., Tarasuk, V., & McKenzie, K. (2014). Food insecurity, diet quality, and mental health in culturally diverse adolescents. Ethnicity and Inequalities in Health and Social Care, 7(1), 14-22.
13 Noordenbos, G., Aliakbari, N., & Campbell, R. (2014). The Relationship Among Critical Inner Voices, Low Self-Esteem, and Self-Criticism in Eating Disorders.Eating disorders, (ahead-of-print), 1-15.
14 Fletcher, A., Bonell, C., & Sorhaindo, A. (2011). You are what your friends eat: systematic review of social network analyses of young people's eating behaviours and bodyweight. Journal of epidemiology and community health, jech-2010.
15 Conklin, A. I., Forouhi, N. G., Surtees, P., Khaw, K. T., Wareham, N. J., & Monsivais, P. (2014). Social relationships and healthful dietary behaviour: Evidence from over-50s in the EPIC cohort, UK. Social Science & Medicine,100, 167-175.
16 Pachucki, M. A., Jacques, P. F., & Christakis, N. A. (2011). Social network concordance in food choice among spouses, friends, and siblings. American Journal of Public Health, 101(11), 2170-2177.
17 Conklin, A. I., Forouhi, N. G., Surtees, P., Khaw, K. T., Wareham, N. J., & Monsivais, P. (2014). Social relationships and healthful dietary behaviour: Evidence from over-50s in the EPIC cohort, UK. Social Science & Medicine,100, 167-175.
18 Ogden, J. (2011). The psychology of eating: From healthy to disordered behavior. John Wiley & Sons.