THE EFFECTS OF "UNLEASHING YOUR BETTER NATURE": A LITERATURE REVIEW

 

Overview

VERJ, the behavioural science unit of LAB Group, conducted a literature review for Better Nature to focus on the physical, psychological, and cultural effects of “Unleashing Your Better Nature” when eating. All findings were gathered from academic papers. Evidence was compiled and interpreted objectively to help determine the multifaceted effects of losing yourself in food, feeling relaxed, and not worrying about social norms when eating. 

 

What are the Physical Health Effects of Unleashing YourBetter Nature?

Evidence that ‘Unleashing Your Better Nature’ is healthier for our bodies, through processes such as absorption of nutrients and digestion.

Stress can be viewed as the opposite of feeling carefree or relaxed. There is evidence that stress affects how your digestive system absorbs nutrients (Kiecolt Glaser, 2010). In a literature review, Lopresti (2019) found that, whilst further investigation is needed to draw more definitive conclusions, stress reduces micronutrient absorption concentration. This indicates that there may be positive effects on metabolic health when we worry less about eating (e.g. related social pressures/norms). When stress levels are lower, our bodies will absorb more micronutrients. 

Our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol when we are stressed (e.g. being concerned with eating-related social pressures). High cortisol levels create the triggers for craving salty, sweet, and high-energy foods (Torres and Nowson, 2007). Problematically, our digestive system can be significantly affected when we feel stressed. If we worry about how we are eating and other associated social norms, then this can create stress which activates the sympathetic nervous system causing interference with the regulated muscle contractions needed for digestion. This can lead to indigestion, bloating, and cramping. In more severe cases, it has been linked to functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGID), like that of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (Mayer, 2000; Murray et al., 2004), irritable bowel disease (Levenstein et al., 2000) and intestinal barrier dysfunction (Cameron and Perdue, 2005). 

On the other hand, worrying less about eating experiences can help people feel more relaxed and less stressed which can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The main purpose of the parasympathetic nervous system is to conserve energy to be used later to regulate bodily functions like digestion and urination (McCorry, 2007). In the stomach and intestines, parasympathetic stimulation of M receptors increases relaxation of sphincters and motility (i.e. the contraction of the muscles that mix and propel contents in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract). M receptor stimulation also aids digestion by increasing gastric secretions (Tindle and Tandi, 2020). Parasympathetic stimulation of M3 receptors in the pancreas leads to the release of digestive enzymes and insulin (Tindle and Tandi, 2020). Parasympathetic disruption within the gut can lead to dysmotility and decreased secretions, which can disrupt nutrient processing and absorption (Sánchez-Manso, Muppidi, and Varacallo, 2020). 

 

What are the Psychological Effects of Unleashing Your Better Nature?

Evidence that ‘Unleashing Your Better Nature’ is healthier for our bodies and minds, through listening to our bodies.

Losing yourself in food and eating mindfully can have positive effects on how you eat. Roesler and Nishi (2020) found that decreasing busyness was the most effective intervention to help people more healthily. This shows that being present while eating, rather than being distracted or rushing through the experience, can help people adjust their eating habits to eat what's best for them. 

Brief mindfulness (e.g. taking a breath before biting, focussing on food, etc.), akin to savouring the moment when consuming foods, can improve health and subjective eating experiences. In a laboratory study on 319 undergraduates, brief mindfulness instructions (e.g. “focus your attention on the sensory experience of tasting the chocolate”) increased the enjoyment of commonly pleasurable food like chocolate (Arch et al., 2014), relative to participants who were distracted while sampling. It also increased enjoyment for food generally associated with more mixed opinions (raisins). In a third study, brief mindfulness instructions led to lower calorie consumption of unhealthy foods, compared to distracted or no-instruction participants. These findings indicate that savouring sensory experiences associated with eating can have positive health effects and create higher enjoyment. 

People use their eyes to guide their level of satiation, not just their stomachs (Wansink et al., 2005). This holds important implications for those not fully relaxed and savouring the moment while eating. In a clever study using 54 participants, self-refilling soup bowls resulted in participants eating 73% more soup on average than those eating from normal bowls. Participants didn’t believe they had consumed more nor were they more satiated. This study reinforces the idea that visual attention is an important mediating factor that influences our sense of satiation. 

Scheibehenne et al. (2010) found that participants ate 36% more food than control participants when given a ‘super-size’ portion in a ‘dark’ restaurant. These studies highlight that people use visual cues to mediate levels of eating - e.g. expected portions will either decrease or increase based on the amount of food on the plate as it reduces the reliance on self-monitoring. Eating in the dark makes it more difficult to focus on our sensory cues, thus can result in greater consumption. Contrastingly, when we relish in eating experiences, we are more likely to eat what we need as attention is better directed to our internal cues related to hunger and satiation. 

Intuitive eating (IE) is an area quickly gaining academic and public attention. IE holds the premise of responding to innate hunger and satiety signals (i.e. body wisdom), as opposed to eating habits being mediated by social or cultural factors (e.g. eating times, plate size, diets, etc.). In a review, 10/11 cross-sectional studies found that IE was negatively associated with BMI, positively associated with various psychological health indicators, and possibly positively associated with improved dietary intake and/or eating behaviours, despite not being associated with higher levels of physical activity (Van Dyke and Drinkwater, 2013). This highlights the beneficial importance of losing oneself in food by listening to our bodies rather than being influenced by societal cues or pressures. Importantly, IE does not contradict the importance of visual attention on satiation; IE acts more as a method for people to help redirect their attention from visual to internal physiological cues when judging whether one feels full. 

However, it should be noted that being too lost in the moment and carefree while eating could result in unhealthy habits. Kakoschke et al., (2015) found that attentional and motor impulsivity (i.e. inability to focus and acting without thinking) interacted in predicting sweet food intake in 146 undergraduate women. This indicates that eating consumption can increase when we feel carefree and relaxed while being distracted from an eating experience. Equally, it must be caveated that for those suffering from or recovering from eating disorders, focusing purely on food may have negative consequences. 

To summarise, in social or distracted contexts (e.g. eating with friends or watching television) people may be more prone to consume more as they become less aware of their internal signals. But when we savour the moment by mindfully enjoying our food, we have an increased tendency to eat in a way that serves us better. 

 

What are the Effects on Subjective Experience and Eating Enjoyment of Unleashing Your Better Nature?

Evidence that ‘Unleashing Your Better Nature’ can make people enjoy eating more and feel more satisfied.

There is evidence that being mindful and engaged with what we’re eating can lead to higher expected liking of foods in general. Hong et al. (2011) found that, when eating raisins, mindful eating produced higher expected liking ratings of foods compared to non-mindful raisin eating. The effect was strongest for initially disliked foods. This research reveals being in the moment while we are eating can in fact heighten our expected enjoyment. 

Not only can ‘listening’ to our bodies and not attending to distractions/social pressures help people eat better, it can also increase people’s hedonic experiences with food. A study by Mustonen and Tuorila (2010) found that sensory education (akin to mindfulness) decreased food neophobia (i.e. fear of novel foods) and encouraged eating of unfamiliar foods. Shiv and Nowlis (2004) found that when participants were less distracted, they were more likely to report a higher preference for soy chocolate than milk chocolate which is typically preferred. These studies reinforce that “Unleashing Your Better Nature” can positively influence subjective eating behaviours. 

There is evidence that small portions can feel more satisfying when we savour the eating experience. In three chocolate tasting experiments, Areni and Black (2015) found that people who receive a smaller number of chocolates than initially expected compensate by eating more slowly (i.e. greater chewing). They also pay more attention to the experience, take more time to rate chocolates, and show higher levels of satiation in contrast to those who expect a larger amount of chocolates but actually receive the same amount. It can be inferred that savouring food and eating more slowly may help reduce food consumption, as satiation increases which reduces the desire for more food due to people feeling more satisfied. 

 

What are the Cultural Implications and Effects of Unleashing Your Better Nature?

Evidence and insights on the culture surrounding eating, particularly focusing on the culture around carefree eating and times when people lose themselves in their food.

Not enjoying the food and being too concerned with the related social norms might increase craving, and thus binge eating. A classic study by Herman and Mack (1975) found that ‘restrained’ eaters (i.e. those with conscious diets) had higher ice cream consumption after having a milkshake, whereas so-called ‘unrestrained’ eaters decreased their ice cream consumption after a milkshake. These findings revealwhat-the-hell-effect” where dieters show higher disinhibition to food intake when they violate their dietary rules (Herman and Polivy, 1983; Stroebe et al., 2013). As a result, in some cases labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and trying to keep up with social norms might be detrimental. 

A change in mindset to view foods as neutral and losing yourself in what you are eating might help nudge attention towards  physiological signals and away from external cues (e.g. diets, calories, correct ways to eat, etc.) that can sometimes trigger feelings of guilt, shame, craving, and subsequent overeating/binge eating. 

 

What are the Effects on Mood and Overall Wellbeing and Happiness when Unleashing Your Better Nature?

Evidence to demonstrate that people are happier and more content in themselves when they are carefree and unleash their better nature.

Relaxing may effectively reduce stress-induced eating as well as the reduction of consumption of unhealthy, energy-dense food and enhance enjoyment/contentment of life. Katzer et al., (2008) conducted a study to test the effects of relaxation in terms of wellbeing and self-efficacy for healthy eating. Looking at 225 women with at least one other cardiovascular risk factors, three non-dieting interventions were tested: a 10-week relaxation intervention focused on intensive training in techniques to elicit the relaxation response, a group programme focusing on healthy eating and physical activity and a self-guided, mail-delivered version of the healthy eating and activity. After 12 months, the relaxation intervention group in study was the most effective in reducing symptoms of depression, improvement in stress reduction, reporting of medical symptoms and self-efficacy for healthy eating than the non-relaxation groups. Hawley et al., (2008) conducted a 24 month follow up of the same cohort and found that the relaxation group maintained their reduced levels of depression, had a reduced rate of suffering from their general medical symptoms and improved self-efficacy for healthy eating. 

This is in line with the non-dieting approach or Health at Every Size (HAES) approach which aims for a more intuitive and positive focus. “Unleashing Your Better Nature” and aiming for more holistic wellbeing goals might have physical benefits by enhancing non-dieting interventions that enable people to address underlying problems. 

 

What are the Effects of Challenging Social Norms through Unleashing Your Better Nature?

Evidence that seeing others reject the status quo, and challenging social norms, helps us to do so ourselves.

Typically, people tend to conform to normal’ or majority social norms because the majority have the power to reward and punish with approval or disapproval. However, in some cases, the minority (i.e. those rejecting status quo or challenging social norms) can influence others. This relies on private acceptance (‘internalization’) where people are convinced that minority views are right (Moscovic and Lagei, 1976). 

It is important to note that in order to be influential as a minority, certain behavioural styles are more effective than others (Moscovici et al., 1969). Moscovici et al. (1969) identified consistency as one of the most powerful behavioural styles which is influential in challenging social norms. Being consistent highlights confidence and dedication, which causes others to question their own views. Moreover, if the minority group (i.e. those reject social norms of ‘typical’ eating styles) can help wider groups engage in deeper systematic thought about the topic (e.g. highlighting for and against research) then they have a stronger chance of helping others follow their behaviour (Petty et al., 1994). 

Seeing others reject the status quo can help us do so ourselves provided there is some degree of flexibility (Mugny and Papastamou, 1980). This helps shift the majority of opinions to compromise and change their view and reduces the risk of conflict. 

Finally, people are more likely to like and trust people who they see as similar to themselves. For example, one study found that facial resemblance enhances trust (DeBruine, 2002). This is, in part, explained by the notion that we like and trust people who are members of our own social group more than outsiders - this is commonly known as ‘in-group favoritism’ in the literature on social identity theory (Tajfel et al. 1979). 

The more we see people behave in a way that challenges social norms, the more it becomes familiar. Crucially, familiarity breeds liking as it evokes a sense that something can be trusted (this is known as the mere exposure effect; Hansen and Wanke, 2009). A snowball effect occurs once the minority begins to persuade people to their way of thinking. 

 

Conclusion 

The evidence analysed suggests that feeling relaxed, in the moment, not distracted and savouring food (i.e. “Unleashing Your Better Nature”) has many positive effects on both physical and mental health. The physical benefits include improved micronutrient absorption and digestion when people are in a more relaxed state while eating as well as potentially reducing risk of functional gastrointestinal disorders. 

The review also strongly suggests that when people listen to their bodies and savour the experience (e.g. via mindful or intuitive eating), people tend to: consume less, feel more satiated, enjoy the experience more, be more encouraged to try new foods, and feel more satisfied. 

In contrast, when people are distracted (e.g. by social cues/pressures or other external stimuli) they tend to not eat as well as those fully engaged with their food. Finally, greater attention focussed on diets or social pressures can be detrimental to wellbeing for two reasons, 1) they often prompt feelings of guilt and shame leading to stress, especially when diets/norms are violated; and 2) they divert attention away from the food and towards psychological factors which may in fact lead to over consumption or dissatisfaction. 

It is also worth noting that much of the literature has focussed on specific eating behaviours such as binge eating or restrictive eating, rather than wellbeing. Research on eating wellbeing has tended to target areas in the policy spotlight. To this end, there is a gap in the literature to investigate the effects of mindful / intuitive eating as a way of life for the wider population, rather than as a remedial intervention. 

Ultimately ‘Unleashing Your Better Nature’ has been shown to have significant benefits for physical and mental health and a mindful approach to our food is just one piece of a greater wellbeing picture. 

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