Food Psychology & The Limits of Nutrition Science
Food Psychology – Can Thoughts Impact Our Metabolism?
The Surprising Links Between Nutrition and Psychology
In Western society, there’s so much focus on our physiology and nutrition science, from calories to macronutrients to energy expenditure. But, emerging research in food psychology reveals how relevant and important our thoughts are in relation to our health. The links between nutrition and psychology may surprise you—including that our thoughts can impact how we metabolize food.
At this point in the course, these insights from food psychology research may not surprise you all that much! So far, we’ve discussed the mind-body connection, including the importance of cultivating inner wisdom and emotional intelligence for optimum health. And, we’ve explored how dysregulation in the body leads to stress, which can keep us stuck in binge eating cycles.
Clearly, the physiological body and the mind are connected. And our overall health depends on a balance between the physical, mental, and emotional components of our bodily system. So, while the relationship between nutrition and psychology may surprise us to learn about, it also makes sense within the framework of the mind-body connection.
Ultimately, the takeaway from this course is that “being healthy” isn’t as simple as we thought. The physiological body is just one component of our health. And, the complexity of what “being healthy” entails is all supported by food psychology and nutrition science research—as discussed in today’s video.
Food Psychology Research
In the video, I discuss 3 food psychology studies, examining the links between nutrition and psychology in terms of how our thoughts impact our bodies. When I came across the last study, Mind Over Milkshakes, my brain almost exploded.
On the surface, it felt like a universe moment and that I was meant to come across it. (After all, it’s all a matter of Mind Over Munch!) But, on a deeper level, it also felt like it validated all of my struggles with health over the years—and how so much of what I’d learned just didn’t “make sense.”
I was doing all of the “right” things. And yet, what was supposed to happen (weight loss, as well as success and happiness) was just not happening for me.
See the Full Study
Also, it’s worth noting that Peter Salovey—one of the pioneer researchers of emotional intelligence—was a head author on this paper… It’s all related and connected: the body, our thoughts, and our emotions!!
You can check out the full study here.
Mind Over Milkshakes
So, let’s unpack this food psychology study just a bit. Here’s a summary of the details:
First, people were given milkshakes that they were told were either “sensible” (140 calories) or “indulgent” (620 calories). These milkshakes were packaged and designed to look like shakes you’d buy at the store, with a nutrition label and all.
Of course, the people in the study consuming the shakes had no idea that these labels were fake. In fact, each milkshake was 380 calories, regardless of the label! Everyone consumed the same shake—but some people thought they were consuming the “sensible” shake with fewer calories, and some people thought they were consuming the “indulgent” shake with more calories.
The primary measure the study used was the hunger hormone, ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hormone secreted by the brain when the body is hungry, as a signal that nutrients are needed. (Remember, the brain + body connection?)
Ultimately, what the study found was that how satisfied people were after the shake, as measured by ghrelin levels, was consistent with how many calories they believed they consumed—NOT the nutritional value.
In other words, people who believed they consumed the “sensible” shake with fewer calories were less satisfied, evidenced by higher levels of the hunger hormone. In contrast, people who believed they consumed the “indulgent” shake with more calories were more satisfied, evidenced by lower levels of the hunger hormone.
Take a second and let your mind blow.
So, what does this mean? It means that 1 + 1 ≠ 2—at least when it comes to calories and nutrition. What we’ve all thought and/or been told by the diet industry about how calories and nutrition work just isn’t the whole truth. Nutrition, metabolism, and weight loss are not reducible to ‘simple math.’
It means that our bodies are complex organisms, and they cannot be reduced to separate, ‘mechanical’ parts of a whole. There are complex interactions occurring between nutrition and psychology that have measurable impacts on our physiology.
And, it reaffirms that the mind and body are connected. So, focusing on ONLY the physical component severely neglects the other major components that are necessary to achieve health (and happiness).
The Connections Between Stress, Food, and Health
Personally, I spent years trying to lose weight, be healthy, and “find” success and happiness. And, the entire time, I was stressed out. Not just with regular stressors of daily life and the world, but I was also so stressed about health and food.
I reached a breaking point where I couldn’t “care” anymore about my weight. From there, I turned to mindfulness as a refuge, without realizing what it could really do for my health. As I learned to manage my stress, my emotional intelligence increased, and my relationships to food and health shifted. In the midst of all of this, the weight started to come off—and stay off—with almost no effort at all, and without struggle or resistance.
I wasn’t forcing myself to eat salad, nor depriving myself from enjoying pizza and doughnuts. Instead, I was meeting myself where I was at in that moment, as many moments as I could throughout the day. So, what happened?
My emotions and stress were regulated, so I didn’t need to turn to food to cope. I didn’t need food rules. I could eat pizza and enjoy it fully, until I was satisfied, and then return to normal life. And, I could eat this way without bringing along the guilt or anxiety that formerly had built up additional stress in my body.
Nutrition and Psychology Interact
What I think happened to me for so long—and what might be happening to you—was I kept getting caught in a cycle, in which nutrition and psychology were interacting.
I would eat an “unhealthy” food (or many), and, on the physiological level, I was left with a bunch of of calories and processed sugar or fat that my body didn’t appreciate. But, on top of that, I was also left with the guilt, remorse and shame. Then, this would physiologically manifest as stress. And, in a stressed state, our bodies begin clinging to our fat as a protective mechanism.
Then, we add restriction and dieting into the cycle, and the pendulum keeps swinging back and forth between restriction and bingeing. This all becomes a very messy tangle that’s hard to confront, and hard to understand. Especially when we aren’t aware of the power of food psychology and instead we think it’s all about calories and nutrition science.
The truth is, we know a lot less about nutrition science than we think. Yes, it’s 2021, but we don’t know everything. And, yes, I’m committed to science and continuing to let outer wisdom inform my decisions. But, always from a foundation of inner wisdom—because that’s not going anywhere, and it’s the best possible guide to point to what’s right for me!
Managing Stress for Optimum Health
Mindfulness was one of my main tools for learning, growth, and support in getting through that tangled web. So, I made time and space every day to sit down and practice being present through mindfulness meditation. And, in the process, I practiced changing my inner dialogue, which cultivated self-compassion. I was able to let go of self-judgment and shame. And, I learned how to manage my stress and increase my emotional intelligence.
Through mindfulness meditation, I was able to be more present in my life more often, and to make decisions that served me. And, it became easier for me to build habits, because I could see clearly what was happening without judgment as a block. Little by little, my web started to untangle itself—even without me focusing on the food.
At the end of the day, we must be patient with this process. We’ve spent our entire lives building up the conditioning that’s created this tangled mess, and it’s not going to be unlearned overnight. But, that doesn’t mean it needs to take another lifetime to undo. In fact, we can start to experience peace relatively soon! If we are, in fact, committed to peace as the goal, and not merely striving for weight loss.
Our bodies, and that triangle of health, are most supported in an environment where stress is managed. If we aim to achieve that balance, the rest will be able to fall into place with less struggle and strain. Be kind to yourself, and keep trying your best.
Mindfulness in Daily Life
Guided Walking Meditation
Remember, mindfulness doesn’t need to ONLY be practiced while sitting and meditating. There are many ways to integrate mindfulness in daily life, and I shared some exercises earlier in the course.
Today, I also wanted to share a guided meditation that can be done while walking! Grab your headphones and head outside for 10 minutes, or feel free to pace back and forth over a space inside if preferred.
Try the guided track once or twice, but also feel free to try this out on your own. And, keep in mind, you can practice being mindful with any kind of movement—you just have to remember to tune in!
Today’s Journal Prompt:
What are some of your ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food labels?
- Why have you learned to label certain foods ‘good’ and others ‘bad?’ Use specific examples & reasons (i.e., kale is ‘good’ because it’s a superfood; cookies are ‘bad’ because they’re high in calories and sugar).
- Now, after learning about the studies in today’s video and lesson, how do you think these mental labels might impact how our physical bodies process the foods we eat?
- Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach by Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch
- Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice by Gyorgy Scrinis
Food Psychology Studies:
- The pudding study: Perception of calories and regulation of intake (Polivy, 1976)
- The milkshake study: Restrained and unrestrained eating (Herman & Mack, 1975)
- Mind over milkshakes (Crum et al., 2011)