Amazing Grace

The digestive and emotional benefits of mealtime grace

Posted Nov 25, 2010

When our eldest son was five, we started to say grace at mealtime. Untrained in matters of gastronomic spirituality, we began by rolling a wooden cube inscribed with six child-friendly, non-denominational prayers: whichever verse landed face-up was recited.

Soon we got bored of rattling off the same six prayers and decided to wing it. Now we no longer call it 'grace' and we don't usually couch it in religious terms (though the children like to finish with a rousing 'Amen!' every now and then.) But we find it hard to begin a meal without at least a brief moment of calm.

Grace and gratitude are closely related (the Latin gratia means 'good will' or 'gratitude'). At home, we now refer to mealtime grace as the 'Thankfulness Moment.' Much like a Thanksgiving dinner, every person at the table expresses his or her gratitude for something.

When we are eating meat or fish, for instance, our 8-year-old son always thanks the animal for giving its life for us. His twin sister often gives thanks for family and friends. Our teenage son is often grateful for the fact that we are all together at the table, or that it's Friday. My husband and I give thanks for children, health and a comfortable home. Occasionally, someone thanks the cook for preparing the meal.

When children are jittery or parents tired, we sometimes hold a 'silent grace' where we link hands and sit quietly for as long as the children can bear (about one or two minutes). A note of caution: when young children are present, make sure you keep your food warm; their thanksgiving can go on for quite a while as they express gratitude for friends, teachers, the weather, pets, a snuggly pyjama or a favourite soft toy.

Mealtime grace doesn't have to be a religious act. If for no other reason, saying grace - some would prefer to call it 'meditating/relaxing before a meal' - is worth adopting because it has a strong bearing on nutritional health. For as we settle for the moment of calm that precedes the meal, our body relaxes and our organs prepare to digest and absorb the food we are about to eat.

At the thought, sight and smell of food, gastric juices start flowing, enzymes are secreted, and the body stops whatever it is doing to relax and welcome the incoming nourishment. Our in-built fight-or-flight stress response, which dates back to our hunter-gatherer days and which halts digestive processes at times of stress, is suspended, making way for digestion and absorption.

Indeed, scientists have found that eating in a relaxed state may be even more healthful than chewing one's food thoroughly! In one study, subjects who ate complex carbohydrates under stressful conditions secreted less of the carbohydrate-digesting enzyme amylase than those eating under relaxed conditions. The study's authors conclude that "deep relaxation was significantly more important than thorough chewing in the oral digestion of complex carbohydrates." Stress has also been shown to cause trouble further down the digestive tract, disrupting the gut flora and contributing to the development of food allergies (see this study).

Grace doesn't just boost your digestive system though. In recent years, psychologists have turned their attention to the study of gratitude, and not surprisingly, they have found that our ability to experience and express gratitude is a key determinant of our overall health and happiness.

"Gratitude leads people to act in virtuous or more selfless ways," according to Northeastern University psychologist David de Steno. "And it builds social support, which we know is tied to both physical and psychological well being."

But there's a catch: gratitude only ‘works' if you express it on a regular basis. "If you don't do it regularly you're not going to get the benefits," notes Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside. "It's kind of like if you went to the gym once a year. What would be the good of that?"

According to Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, people who express gratitude are less resentful, experience longer and better-quality sleep, exercise more and report a drop in blood pressure. "The practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%," he estimates.

For many people I know, the past few years have been difficult. Some have experienced economic hardship and employment worries, others have endured ill health and troubled personal relationships.

When life is tough, it's hard to feel grateful. But it's precisely when we feel down that it may be most helpful to tap into feelings of gratitude. When I sit down and focus on things to be grateful for (people who are more organised than me keep a 'gratitude diary,' something I may start in the New Year...), I usually begin by being thankful for small blessings: the purring of the cat on my lap or the comforting warmth of my sweater.

This quickly brings me to big blessings: the food on my table, the chatter of my children, my husband who shares my burdens, hopes and dreams, friends who will listen on the phone or over a cup of tea. As I consider these gifts, I feel suffused by a warm glow of gratitude, and feelings of sadness, hurt and anger recede.

For this is the beauty of gratitude: you can't be simultaneously angry and grateful, or depressed and grateful, or selfish and grateful. Gratitude is the most potent counterforce to egoism, ruthlessness, greed and the many other masks behind which unhappiness hides. By forcing ourselves to experience, and to express, gratitude -- if only once a day, at mealtimes -- we can rise above the darker side of human nature.

So why can't we all show a little more gratitude? According Emmons, "some people feel uncomfortable talking about these topics, since they may sound too spiritual, or religious. Others simply don't want to feel obligated to the person who helped them, and never come to realize the boost in energy, enthusiasm, and social benefits that come from a more grateful, connected life."

Here's wishing you a Thanksgiving filled with light, peace and a healthy digestion!

Copyright Conner Middelmann Whitney. See her website, Conner is a nutritionist and health writer and teaches health-cookery classes. She is the author of Zest for Life, The Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet, a cancer-prevention nutrition guide and cookbook published recently in the UK and soon to be available in the US.