The type of food waste nobody ever seems to talk about

There is a lot of talk about food waste and for a good reason. Collectively, from farm to table, we currently throw away between 30-50% of the food we produce. This is not only a slap in the face of those dying of hunger, but also of all those who worked hard to produce the plants or raise the animals – and of course the plants and animals themselves. Depending on the country and the type of food, biggest losses occur during harvest and transport in developing countries, and during distribution (supermarkets) and households in developed countries. Just observe how much food you yourself end up throwing away every week, either because you didn’t use it in time and it is perished, or because the “best before” date has passed and you don’t trust it anymore, or simply leftovers on your plate that you don’t want to keep.

However, there is another type of food waste that nobody ever seems to talk about. It is a less obvious type, because at first sight the food is used as it should be. I am talking about the food waste that occurs in your gut, after you’ve ingested the food. No, I am not talking about that unavoidable and natural part of digestion, called elimination. Some unusable parts of the food (e.g. fiber) will always be excreted. What I am talking about are those nutrients that normally would be of use to the body, but that you do not assimilate because your body is not in the ideal state of digestion, which is relaxation.

If you eat under any kind of stress or tension, whether it is time pressure, feelings of fear, guilt or self-hate, eating in an unpleasant environment or surrounded by people you don’t like, or simply eating too fast and/or too much, your body goes into “fight-or-flight” mode, which is the opposite of the “rest-and-digest” mode. In this stress response, digestion always shuts down partially or even completely, depending on the degree of stress. This means, that your food is either just sitting around, not being digested, or only partially digested. Those partially digested food particles are irritant to the gut and can cause immune reactions, since they are considered toxic by our immune system. Rather than being carried to the cells to be turned into energy or to be used for other important metabolic processes (such as tissue repair or reproduction), they use up our energy by making the immune system and detoxification organs work overtime. Eventually, they get excreted unused.

Even though mainly invisible (except for maybe undigested food particles in your stool), this type of food waste goes largely unnoticed. However, this doesn’t make it any less real. You could literally be eating the healthiest, most sustainable, most expensive food – if you are eating it in a state of stress, you are not going to get all its goodies out of it.

So if you want to reduce food waste not only in your kitchen, but in your body, make an effort to put yourself into relaxation before and while you eat. At home, you can set the table nicely. At the very least, sit down. Put aside your laptop, mobile phone or magazine and turn off the TV. Take 5-10 long deep breaths before each meal. Notice your food. Imagine its story and all that was necessary to get it on your plate. Say thanks to everybody involved, the farmer, the animals, the distributors, the cook, the sun, the rain… Eat slowly. Notice your food. Check in with your body and notice how you feel. Is this food indeed good for you? Put down the fork or spoon from time to time and simply breathe or feel (oxygen by the way is another crucial part in digestion that will increase the efficiency at which food is turned into energy). When you’re done, try to maintain the relaxed state as long as you can, even if you have to get back to work. Breathe consciously. Choose your battles.

I know all of this is easier said than done. I am still practicing it myself every day. Yet it is one of the key strategies for better digestion and assimilation and as such more energy and well-being. We are so much focused on WHAT to eat, that we easily overlook the HOW we eat, probably because it confronts us so much with our internal world. In the end, the way we eat is very similar to the way we do life… One thing that helps me tremendously to slow down with food is to see it as a form of gratitude. Doing the best I can to not only select, buy, prepare and ingest, but also to assimilate and digest my food and to eventually turn it into usable energy, is another way to honor and respect it and all the efforts and sacrifices that it took to get it on my plate. 

May you too not waste your food energy, but use it for projects that are close to your heart and so much needed in this world! It’s a way of giving back to the animals, plants and the Universe. If anything, we owe them that!

Scientific References

Scientific References related to the Stress Response:

  • Konturek PC1, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ.: “Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical
    consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options” Journal of Physiol Pharmacol. 2011 Dec;62(6):591-9.:
  • A. Hanck, “Stress and Vitamin Deficiency”, International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research 26 (1984)
  • S. Porta, “Interactions between Magnesium and Stress Hormonse in Stress”, Mengen und Spurenelemente (December 1991)
  • R.A. Anderson “Stress effects on Chromium Nutrition”, Proceedings of Alltech’s Tenth Annual Symposium (Nottingham University Press, 1994)
  • A. Singh, “Biochemical indices of selected trace minerals: Effects of stress”, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 67, no 1 (1991)
  • N. Mei “Role of the Autonomic Nervous System in the Regulation of Transit, Absorption and Storage of Nutrients”, Reproduction, Nutrition, Development 26, no. 5B (1986)
  • G.A. Bray, “The Nutrient Balance Hypothesis: Peptides, Sympathetic Activity, and Food Intake”, Annals of The New York Academy of Sciences 676 (March 15, 1993)
  • W.J. Kort, “The Effect of Chrnoic Stress on the Immune Response” Advances in Neuroimmunology 4, no 1 (1994)
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  • D. Pignatell, “Direct Effect of Stress on Adrenocortical Function”, Hormone Metabolism Research, 30, no. 6/7 (June/July 1998)
  • J.L. Cuevas “Spontaneous Swallowing Rate and Emotional State”, Digestive Diseases and Sciences 40, no.2 (Feb 1995)
  • J.E. Dimsdale, “Variability of Plasma Lipids in Response to Emotional Arousal”, Psychosomatic Medicine 44, no. 5 (1982)
  • S. Kaplan, “Effects of Cortisol on Amino Acid in Skeletal Muscle and Plasma”, Endocrinology 72 (Feb, 1963)
  • P. Havel, “The Contribution of the Autonomic Nervous System to changes of Glucagons and Insulin Secretion during Hypoglycemic Stress”, Endocrine Reviews 10, no. 3 (Aug 1989)
  • H. Seyle, “The Stress of Life”, 1984

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