Rules for better eating habits

You can do much to minimise the damage that your eating habits do to your stomach by following these simple rules.

1. Eat Slowly.

People often stuff food into their mouths at an unbelievable rate when they are under stress. A medical friend of mine, with whom I worked in a hospital, used to be spooning up the last smear of custard while the rest of us were still finishing our soup. He always had indigestion afterwards and had to sit for half an hour to allow the pain to disappear.

Try and put small forkfuls into your mouth. Stuff huge amounts of food onto your fork and you'll end up failing to chew your food properly. Chewing is an essential part of the digestive process and the saliva in your mouth contains enzymes which help prepare your food for the secretions produced by the stomach.

Try to taste each mouthful of food that you eat. That way you're far less likely to eat unnecessarily or too quickly.

If you are a fast eater put down your knife anf fork between mouthfuls. That will slow you down effectively.

2. Concentrate On What You Are Doing

Don't try eating while you're reading or watching television. A little mild and gentle conversation probably won't do much harm but you should concentrate as much as you can when you're eating. Only by concentrating on what you are doing will you be able to tell when your stomach is talking to you. And if you listen it will talk to you, and tell you when you're eating something that is going to upset you, or eating too much. Incidentally, it's a good idea to keep a notebook in which you jot down the details of any foods or drinks which upset you. Anything which appears in your notebook (i.e. upsets you) more than once should disappear from your regular diet.

3. Be In Charge Of Your Own Stomach

Don't let other people push you into eating when you aren't hungry or when you don't want a second helping. And do be prepared to leave food on the side of your plate if you've had enough to eat.

4. Rest After Eating

When you've finished a meal have a short rest. Give your stomach time to do its job before you start chasing around again. But don't lie down. You should not eat a large meal before you to bed. Give your stomach an hour or two to digest food before you lie down.

5. Find Out What Upsets You

Try to find out what sort of foods upset your stomach most - and avoid them. Different people are badly affected by different foods, so it is impossible to offer a comprehensive list of foods to avoid but if you do have a "weak" stomach it is likely that any of the foods on the list below will exacerbate your symptoms:
All fried foods
Strong tea or coffee
Fizzy drinks
Fatty foods
Spicy foods
Pickles, curry, peppers, mustard
Broad beans, brussels sprouts, radishes and cucumber
Unripe fruit
Very hot or very cold fruits
Coarse bread, biscuits or cereals
Nuts or dried fruit
Any tough food (meat for example) that can't be chewed easily

You do not have to avoid all these foods if you have stomach symptoms. But do be aware that these foods can cause problems. The important thing is to find out which foods upset you and avoid them. Do remember that when and how you eat probably affects your stomach more than what you eat.

6. Listen To Your Appetite Control Centre

Your body has an impressive appetite control centre which can make sure that you never get overweight or underweight. It can even make sure that you eat the right mix of foods - so that your body obtains all the protein it needs and the right mix of vitamins and minerals.

You can do a lot to look after your stomach and keep it healthy.

To begin with it is a good idea to learn to listen to your stomach and to get into the habit of eating when you are hungry rather than just because the clock tells you that it is time to eat.

You may not know it but you have an appetite control centre which is designed to control your eating habits quite accurately.

A study published in America some years ago showed that when newly weaned infants just a few months old were allowed to choose what they ate from a range of simple, natural foods they selected balanced diets which were just as good in nutritional value as the carefully balanced ideal diets worked out by nutritional experts.

Another study published in America showed that young children automatically choose foods that enable them to avoid digestive upsets and constipation.

A third study, done on soldiers during the Second World War, showed that when allowed access to unlimited supplies of food, troops ate what their bodies needed according to the outside temperature and that they automatically chose an ideal mixture of protein, fat and carbohydrate.

Unfortunately, most of us have lost the art of listening to our own bodies and we tend to eat three meals a day whether we are hungry or not, stuffing our bodies with food not because we need it but because the clock says it is time to eat. In practice the stomach does not adapt well to huge meals taken at lengthy intervals and it can cope far more effectively with smaller meals taken at shorter intervals.

The existence of the appetite control centre in your brain was first identified in research work done by Dr Clara M Davis of Chicago in the 1920s. Dr Davis's initial aim was to find out whether newly weaned children could choose their own food and eat enough to stay alive, select a good balance of different types of food without being told what to eat and pick foods designed to keep them healthy.

The infants in Dr Davis's experiment chose excellent and well varied diets. Their growth rates, development and appearance were just as good as those of babies who had been given foods selected by nutritionists. The babies chose the right food - and just as important - ate them in the right quantities. And they stayed healthy.

Later Dr Davis reported that in an additional research project she had studied 15 infants for between 6 months and 4 and a half years and had come to the conclusion that they all were able to select a good variety of satisfying foods, ensuring that they ate neither too much nor too little. Their eating habits were, of course, unplanned and may have looked rather chaotic to the trained eye but none of the infants ever developed stomach ache or became constipated. None of the children who were allowed to choose their own diets became chubby or fat.

Subsequently further research, this time done with soldiers, showed that when adults were allowed access to unlimited supplies of food they ate just what their bodies needed. Even more startling was the fact that the soldiers varied their diet according to their environment, quite naturally selecting a mixture of protein, fat and carbohydrate that was ideal for their circumstances and needs.

The conclusion has to be that the presence of the appetite control centre means that if you listen to your body when it tells you what - and how much - you need to eat and you will stay slim and well fed for life.

Despite the existence of this astonishing appetite control centre most of us do get fat, of course. We eat the wrong types of food. And we eat the wrong quantities. There are several reasons for this.

Some people eat because they are depressed or anxious or miserable. They eat because they are bored. And they don't stop eating when they are no longer hungry. They become overweight - or ill - because they have overridden their appetite control centres.

There is evidence that babies who are bottle fed are more likely to put on excess weight than babies who are breast fed. And, of course, fat babies often grow into fat children who then grow into fat adults.

The appetite control centre is directly controlled by the amount of sugar circulating in your blood and is designed to ensure that you eat what your body needs, when your body needs it and in the quantities required. Things go wrong because you ignore your appetite control centre and instead of eating according to your needs eat according to behavioural patterns imposed on you by the society in which you live.

Our eating habits are usually established when we are very small. We are taught to eat at meal times (whether or not we are hungry). We are told off if we don't clear up all the food on our plates (whether or not we need it). We learn bad habits and we learn to ignore our appetite control centre.

These distorted behavioural patterns all help to ensure that your appetite control centre is ignored and overruled. Your eating habits are controlled not by your body's genuine need for food but by a totally artificial conception of its requirements. By the time we reach adulthood most of us have learned to eat for all sorts of bizarre reasons. We have learnt to eat when we are sad or lonely. We have learned to eat when we are happy or want to celebrate. We have learned to eat simply because it is an official meal time and everyone else around us is eating. We eat what the advertising copywriters want us to eat and we eat it when the boss says we should eat it.

However, you can break all these bad habits. By nibbling instead of gorging you can allow your appetite control centre to re-establish itself.

Copyright Vernon Coleman 2004

You can find out more about healthy eating from Vernon Coleman's book Food for Thought - available from all good bookshops or directly from the shop on this Web site.