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Little Jitters: Why Stress and Dinner Don't Mix.

Posted Nov 17 2009 6:14pm
stress kid lensbug chandru
Photo: Lensbug Chandru

Yesterday I ate leftover veggie hotcakes in one hand while loading the dishwasher with the other.  No, I’m not proud.  It was as ugly as it sounds.  I’m embarrassed to admit this kind of mealtime behavior happens far too often in our house.  Between raising Kula Baby (15 months old), managing a never ending home remodel (going on a year now…awesome), and starting a new project (Kula Mama), the idea of sitting down to eat dinner together as a family is almost laughable.  I assumed I wasn’t alone in this struggle until yesterday when a new AP poll found 60% of families sit down to eat together at least 5 nights a week.

You can imagine my disappointment.

But before I could beat myself up for lacking any June Cleaver skills whatsoever, I decided to read the fine print.  It seems that while families eat together they also watch TV, answer ringing telephones, and secretly text their friends under the table.   Families may be sitting down together more frequently, but the level of distraction at the dinner table has reached a new high, too.  Suddenly I don’t feel so bad about my snacking and cleaning self.

Today we are often, if not always, on the go.  It’s inevitable with all the over-scheduling going on these days, isn’t it?  Whether racing to practice, music lessons, school, or work, families today are struggling to make it all happen before bedtime.  With all these pressures, I can see how the family meal easily turns into “multi tasking hour.”  However, SLOWING DOWN during dinner has its own benefits too.

Why is the Family Meal Important?

Research continues to support the idea that families who eat together (without distractions) have better communication and stronger family relationships.  Children especially benefit from the family meal with:

  • Better vocabulary and reading skills.
  • Enhanced emotional maturity and self esteem.
  • Better nutrition habits.

However, these benefits won’t happen if parents are harping on John for skipping school or criticizing Sally about the state of her messy bedroom.  Criticizing children will only lead to negative mealtime associations and could cause rebellion about food and eating.  Instead, the family dinner table is a place to teach children life skills including the art of conversation and table manners (maybe I could teach Kula Baby that throwing food on the floor is NOT the best way to tell mama you don’t like something?).

So does muting the TV during commercials and “talking” as a family count?  Nope, because watching TV while eating causes you to: STRESS OUT.

Why Stress Can Leave You Malnourished.

What most people don’t know is that eating while under stress actually decreases the body’s ability to digest food and absorb nutrients.  When a person is under stress (whether due to a stressful environment or a stressed mind), the body automatically turns on the sympathetic nervous system and kicks into “survival mode” by increasing heart rate, blood pressure and respiration.  At the same time, the body shuts down all biological systems not needed for immediate survival: this includes digestion.  Digesting food under stress impedes the stomach’s ability to breakdown carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and reduces blood flow to the small intestine.  Reduced blood flow to the small intestine causes decreased absorption of vitamins and minerals.  Simply put, our state of mind directly affects our ability to digest and assimilate food.

You’re thinking, “Really?  Stress from watching my favorite TV drama?”  Lord knows I don't feel well if I watch the evening news during dinner but does this really affect my digestion?  Unfortunately yes, because as much as we would like it to, the human body cannot differentiate between different types of stress.  The body will elicit the same digestive stress response regardless of whether a person is facing a major car accident or merely anxious about attending elementary school.  Stress can also be caused by the surrounding environment or activity.  Eating a bagel while running around the house trying to get ready for school will create a stress response in the body just as quickly as eating lunch hurriedly at work under a looming deadline.  What’s the lesson here? Slow down and relax before you eat.  For parents, this piece of information may cause them to reconsider letting children eat in the car, in front of the TV or computer, or while running late for school or soccer practice.  We have a saying in our house: eat it or leave it. Obviously I have trouble following my own mealtime rules (see veggie hotcake example above.)  I’m human... it happens.  Full disclosure?  I ate a bowl of soup while editing this article.

Kula Mama Relaxation Tip:  You can bring your body into a relaxation response by closing your eyes and taking 3 slow, deep breaths.  Try doing it as a family before dinner--what a great way to start off a family meal together!

Check out the new Kula Mama Bite of the Week: Baby Black Bean Burgers!

Like what you just read?  Check out my website:  www.kulamama.com

Sign up to receive the Kula Mama Bite of the Week via email every Tuesday (check out the upper right hand corner of the website).  Tell your mama friends!

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