The foods that clients eat will definitely affect their health and weight loss, but how they eat is equally important.  In this article, you will learn about the effects of stress and multi-tasking on digestion and why mindfully eating in a relaxed environment is important.

Learning objectives:

  1. Understand the importance of knowing how your clients eat their meals.
  2. Describe how stress affects digestion.
  3. Identify the role of the mind in the digestive process.
  4. Identify practices to help clients improve their eating environment.

Most trainers ask clients detailed information about their diets.

This typically includes:

  • What foods are you consuming?
  • How much are you consuming?
  • How often do you eat throughout the day?
  • Do you track what you eat in a food log?

These are all great questions, but an important one is missing…HOW do you eat?

This includes:

  • Do you eat on the run, in the car, while working or at a table?
  • Do you spend time slowly eating each meal and thoroughly chewing your food or do you gulp it down in the 5 minutes you have between your various activities?
  • Do you focus on enjoying your food or are you multitasking and distracted by work, the TV, your phone, social media, etc.?

Stress, the Nervous System, and Digestion

Many people never consider their eating environment or how they eat.  Eating is considered a mechanical-like process.  Food goes in, the digestive system breaks it down and absorbs the nutrients it needs, and waste is expelled.  If it were only that simple, many people might not experience digestive distress and overeating.

The digestive system is more complicated.  It functions optimally when the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) (think of the rest and digest response) is in charge and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) (think of the fight or flight response) has taken a back seat.  If you are running for your life (SNS), your body does not prioritize digesting.  Its focus is on surviving.  Therefore, blood is shunted from the digestive system to the skeletal muscles so you can flee and avoid danger.

Since the body interprets all stress similarly, the sympathetic nervous system is activated whether that stress is a tiger hunting you down, driving in heavy traffic, trying to meet a deadline at work, or even simply working on your computer or reading.  If you remember from the article, Using Vision Drills to Assess the Parasympathetic Nervous System, any activity that requires focused visual attention (reading, using an electronic device, watching television, etc.) activates the sympathetic nervous system.  Now you can see why reading, working, or watching TV is not an ideal environment for eating food.

When the SNS is stimulated, digestion is slowed down.  Stress can slow the transit time of substances moving through the small intestine.  In one study, digestion was slowed by up to 79 minutes (1). Physical stress also decreases the absorption of water, sodium and chloride and can increase susceptibility to developing digestive disorders, like IBS (2, 3). Collectively, these studies suggest that the nervous system may help control the functioning of the intestines and the ability to absorb and utilize nutrients in foods.

Psychological stress also affects digestion. Watching a horror movie can inhibit the normal digestive response (4). Psychological stress from dichotomous listening (listening to a presentation about one topic in one ear and another topic in the other ear) significantly reduces the absorption of water, sodium and chloride for an entire hour after the dichotomous listening has concluded (5).

Think about how often people eat in the following situations, all of which would constitute a stressful environment (via stress or dichotomous listening):

  • getting into an argument or talking about emotionally charged topics
  • watching the news, TV show or movie which includes conflict and/or violence
  • noisy restaurants where there are many conversations happening simultaneously
  • talking with others at a meal with the radio or TV on in the background
  • having multiple devices playing different music or television shows at the same time

In a world where everyone is on the go, distracted, and exposed to conflict and violence, few people eat in a quiet, relaxed environment.  For many, the thought of just focusing on their food creates anxiety, as they are used to having lots of stimulus going on around them constantly.  This stress-ridden environment is not beneficial for their health or digestion.

The Mind and Digestion

While stress can definitely affect digestion, so too can the focus of the mind.  It is called the cephalic phase of digestion.  Talking about appetizing food initiates the digestive response by increasing the secretion of stomach acid (6).

You may have experienced this.  Think about your favorite food and your mouth starts creating saliva.  You are triggering the digestive response.  Your body anticipates that thinking about this food means that you will soon be eating it.

But what if you aren’t thinking about food?  What if you are gulping down a protein shake while driving to your next client? What if you are shoveling food in your face while you are working? Your body is going through the motions, but your brain is not thinking about the food and may not be prepared to digest it.

By not focusing on the food you are consuming, two things happen:

  • you may not digest the meal well, as your SNS system is activated
  • you may overeat, as you are not paying attention to the signals of your body saying that it is full

Making Changes

Changing eating environments is going to take some work, but there are big payoffs.  Here are some of the benefits:

  • increased absorption of nutrients
  • less overeating, which makes weight loss easier
  • digestive issues (gas, bloating, heart burn, constipation) may decrease as the transit time of food through the digestive tract is reduced

Recommended Changes

Here are some recommendations to create an ideal eating environment:

  • Eat in a relaxing environment.  Avoid people or places that are noisy, crowded or otherwise stressful.
  • If you are eating with others, talk about inspiring and uplifting topics.  Avoid discussing anything that may be emotional or stressful, like finances, news, politics or other hot topics.
  • Focus only on eating and turn off the television, podcasts, and other things that may be distracting.  Soothing music played quietly in the background is okay and may help create a relaxing environment.
  • Slow down your meal and enjoy the flavor, aroma, and texture of your food.
  • Chew each bite thoroughly until the food is mostly liquefied.  Completely chewing up food not only makes breakdown of food easier for the digestive system, but it also slows down the consumption of food.  This will allow time for the stomach to indicate to the brain that it is full, making overeating less likely.

When working with clients to improve their nutrition plan, make sure to include HOW meals are consumed.  This will not only provide clients with the benefits listed above, but it will also decrease their overall stress levels, which will help in all areas of their lives.  Here’s to mindful eating!!


Ditto, B., Miller, S. B., & Barr, R. G. (1998). A one-hour active coping stressor reduces small bowel transit time in healthy young adults. Psychosomatic medicine, 60(1), 7-10.

Barclay, G. R., & Turnberg, L. A. (1988). Effect of cold-induced pain on salt and water transport in the human jejunum. Gastroenterology, 94(4), 994-998.

Alonso, C., Guilarte, M., Vicario, M., Ramos, L., Ramadan, Z., Antolín, M., Martínez, C., Rezzi, S., Saperas, E., Kochhar, S., Santos, J., & Malagelada, J.R. (2008). Maladaptive intestinal epithelial responses to life stress may predispose healthy women to gut mucosal inflammation. Gastroenterology, 135(1), 163-172.

Yin, J., Levanon, D., & Chen, J. D. Z. (2004). Inhibitory effects of stress on postprandial gastric myoelectrical activity and vagal tone in healthy subjects. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 16(6), 737-744.

Barclay, G. R., & Turnberg, L. A. (1987). Effect of psychological stress on salt and water transport in the human jejunum. Gastroenterology, 93(1), 91-97.

Feldman, M., & Richardson, C. T. (1986). Role of thought, sight, smell, and taste of food in the cephalic phase of gastric acid secretion in humans. Gastroenterology, 90(2), 428-433.

Öste, H. F. (2014, October 28). Mind Full v. Mindful. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from