When you hear the words “food hygiene” you probably think about washed hands, clean utensils, the FDA, and USDA approved internal food temperatures. While important, this is not what a naturopathic doctor is usually referring to when one speaks of Food Hygiene.
What is food hygiene?
Food Hygiene is a set of guidelines for eating that promote optimal digestion and nutrient assimilation, as described by the naturopathic practitioners of yesteryear. While the concepts of food hygiene were developed from common sense, they are validated by modern science. We would all do well to adopt them and share them among our friends and family.
Food Hygiene tells us it doesn’t only matter what you eat, it matters how you eat. Proper food hygiene optimizes the digestive process along the entire digestive tract. Poor digestion is uncomfortable. Belly aches, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, reflux and even problems like systemic inflammation and autoimmune disease stem from impaired digestion. It is worth it to be conscious of good eating practices in order to avoid those things, or to heal them if they are currently part of your health picture.
Eight Food Hygiene Tips
Prep your food right before you eat it, or take 1 teaspoon of apple cider vinegar before meals. Once upon a time, bodies knew meals were coming because of the sights and smells of extended meal prep. Smoke in a chimney, broth simmering, bread baking. Even for those who were not in the kitchen, there were daily routines, sights and smells that let the body know food would be coming. Now, we can eat in any place at any time, with food appearing seemingly from nowhere. Try this: think about crunching into a crisp juicy apple, or a tangy vinaigrette laden salad. Did your mouth begin to water? That increase in saliva is the first step of good digestion, and it can be a learned response. Through the principles of Classical Conditioning (remember Pavlov’s Dogs?) your body can learn to associate the taste and smell of apple cider vinegar with an oncoming meal, and prepare itself accordingly. That apple cider vinegar carries a host of its own benefits and that your mouth probably starts watering just thinking about it is a bonus. Many people find it easiest to pour some apple cider vinegar into a 2 oz glass dropper bottle and then take a dropperful or two up to 15 minutes before a meal, mixed with a small amount of water or taken directly.
Eat your meals at about the same time each day. Eating at reliable times trains your body that food is coming; it can relax and it will be fed. Eating at consistent times reduces stress, which in turn improves digestion. As a bonus, similar to Tip #1, the body becomes accustomed to eating at the same time each day and may begin secreting digestive enzymes and preparing for digestion just based on the time of day.
Sit down to eat your food–in a calm, quiet place if possible. Digestion is governed by the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of the sympathetic fight-or-flight system. Sitting down in a relaxed way tells the body you are safe, allowing a parasympathetic activity to take over.
On a similar note, do not eat when you are feeling stressed or emotional. It is impossible to digest well under pressure, and a poorly digested meal ferments and putrefies in the gut where discomfort and inflammation follow. Generally speaking, it is better to hold off on eating until one feels calm than to eat a tense meal.
Before you begin, take a deep breath. This is a great opportunity to say a grace or to list things for which you are grateful – a practice with wide reaching benefits! Pausing before a meal and taking a deep breath are yet more ways to increase the parasympathetic activity needed for strong digestion.
Chew your food until it is liquid or at least, chew your food well. The name for this is Fletcherization. The mouth is the only place where strong mechanical digestion occurs. After the teeth and tongue break food down, the body relies primarily on chemical digestion–which can only happen on exposed surfaces. More chewing = more exposed surfaces = better digestion. Added benefit? Chewing well requires slowing down, which–drumroll, please–increases parasympathetic tone. Fletcherizing one’s food has also been shown to reduce total caloric intake.
Drink water, but drink it between meals, not during them. When we consume beverages at the same time as food, we tend to use the drink to wash down the food, rather than to chew the food well. Don’t believe me? Go observe the eating habits at a nearby fast food restaurant: bite, slurp, swallow, repeat. In some circles it is also thought that drinking during meals dilutes stomach acid and digestive enzymes, slowing chemical digestion. Small sips of water or tea are okay.
Stop when you are full. An overfed digestive system is an inefficient digestive system. If you follow food hygiene tips 1 to 7 you might be surprised how much more you enjoy your food–and how much sooner you are full. Stop when you feel satisfied and you’ll likely find that your meal has left you feeling energized and light rather than stuffed and ready for a nap.
Our suggestion: work on one of these per week until all eight are natural to you. Which do you think will be easiest for you? Hardest? When you have tried them, let us know which made the biggest difference in how you feel!