It’s no secret that there are all kinds of fascinating ways to get more nutrition into your body – take some supplements, eat organic produce, or just load up on the latest super-foods. For most of us, when we think about better nutrition, we focus on the outer world – food, but many don’t realize the power that our inner world has – our thoughts, feelings and beliefs. So when it comes to nutritional health, the secret to improving the nutrient profile of a meal without changing anything about the meal itself is to change you, the eater. And the way to accomplish this is through the untapped power of mind over metabolism.
To understand the simple science behind the power of thought to influence the nutritional profile of our food, let’s take a fresh look at one of the most compelling phenomenon in science: the placebo effect. Here’s my favorite example of this extraordinary force.
In 1983, medical researchers were testing a new chemotherapy treatment. One group of cancer patients received the actual drug being tested while another group received a placebo—a fake, harmless, inert chemical substance. As you may know, pharmaceutical companies are required by law to test all new drugs against a placebo to determine the true effectiveness, if any, of the product in question. In the course of this study, no one thought twice when 74% of the cancer patients receiving the real chemotherapy exhibited one of the more common side effects of this treatment: they lost their hair. Yet, quite remarkably, 31% of the patients on the placebo chemotherapy—an inert saltwater injection—also had an interesting side effect: they lost their hair too. Such is the power of expectation. The only reason that those placebo patients lost their hair is because they believed they would. Like many people, they associated having cancer and receiving chemotherapy with going bald.
So if the power of the mind is strong enough to make our hair fall out when taking a placebo, what do you think happens when we think to ourselves “This cake is fattening. I really shouldn’t be eating it,” or “I’m going to eat this fried chicken but I know it’s bad for me,” or “I enjoy eating my salad because it’s really healthy”?
Certainly I’m not saying we can eat poison without harm if we believe it’s good for us. I’m suggesting that what we believe about any substance we consume can powerfully influence how it affects the body. Every day, millions of people eat and drink while thinking strong and convincing thoughts about their meal.
Consider some of the foods you’ve given strong associations to:
“Salt will raise my blood pressure.”
“Fat will make me fatter.”
“Dairy will congest me.”
“Sugar will rot my teeth.”
“I can’t make it through the day without my cup of coffee.”
“This meat will raise my cholesterol level.”
“This calcium will build my bones.”
“This herb will boost my immunity.”
To a certain degree, any of these statements may be true. But is it possible that we are instigating these effects with the power of the placebo effect? And if these effects are the inherent result of eating these foods, can you see how we can enhance those results with the potency of our expectations?
The placebo effect is not some rare and unusual creature. Its appearance is quite commonplace. Researchers have estimated that 35 to 45% of all prescription drugs owe their effectiveness to placebo power and that 67% of all over-the-counter medications, such as headache remedies, cough medicines, and appetite suppressants are also placebo based. In some studies, the response to placebos is as high as 90%.
It amazes me that no one in the scientific community has made the obvious connection between placebo power and food. Indeed, the placebo effect is built into the nutritional process. It is profoundly present on a day-to-day basis every time we eat. Simply put, the placebo force is how your metabolism responds to thoughts, feelings, and expectations. It’s like phoning in a prescription to your own inner nutritional pharmacy. What we believe is alchemically translated into the body through nerve pathways, the endocrine system, neuropeptide circulation, the immune network, and the digestive tract.
In one fascinating study researchers found that subjects who were given a placebo and were told it was vitamin C had significantly fewer colds than subjects who were given the real vitamin C and told it was a placebo. In a Cornell University study of an appetite-suppressing drug, patients who were given this drug were told nothing about its effects – and showed no change in calorie intake or body weight. When they were told the drug would suppress their appetites they began to eat less and shed pounds. In fact, numerous studies have shown that placebos are as effective in reducing appetite as any over-the-counter drug.
So, it’s time to fully consider the thoughts and beliefs and intense feelings you bring to the table when it comes to food and body. Are they positive and life affirming? Are they fearful and judgmental? And finally, can you see the potential connections between your nutritional health and the story you tell yourself about food and body?
Excerpted, in part, from The Slow Down Diet by Marc David
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