In the writing of our book, The Mindful Diet, we set out to help people change or “transform their relationship with food” No small task given that most of us don’t realize there is anything wrong with our food relationship. Certainly that could be the case. Or, it could be that we just don’t think about it very much, almost like an auto-withdrawal we have set up with the bank. It’s just something that happens; eating, in this case, that we don’t’ pay attention to. We get hungry or feel the need to eat many times a day, sometimes from physiological hunger and other times through triggers in our environment. What follows is, well, we eat.

Lucky for us, there is food aplenty at every turn. Thousands of new products come to market every year. We don’t have to plant it, grow it, harvest it, prepare it, or serve it. In fact, we don’t even have to go get it; it can be delivered with the click of a mouse or handed to use as we sit in our cars. Indeed, in our modern food climate it could not be easier. If you make it we will come (eat it)! Sounds rather Pavlovian, I realize, but true. However, if our goal is to live a long and healthful life, and to age to the best of our ability, we need to take a closer look at this relationship that has evolved between our food supply and us.

Relationships can be defined in many ways. But that which we as humans have with our food supply can best be described in a biological term: symbiotic. Literally meaning “together living,” a symbiotic relationship is a close, long-term interaction between two parties. The relationship between humans and their food marks 2.5 million years and counting — long-term for sure. Further defined, there can be at least three different types of symbiotic relationships: mutualism, where both parties benefit; commensalism, where one benefits and the other is not harmed; and parasitism, where one benefits at the expense of the other. If our symbiotic relationship with food is to be healthy, it should also be defined by mutual respect and trust; an unspoken commitment to the best interests of the other party. Is this how we would describe our long-standing relationship with the food and foodstuffs we have come to eat?

There was a time when we would eat because we were hungry. Hunger and the hormones that regulate it, such as ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and leptin (the satiety hormone), served the purpose of keeping our bodies nourished and fed, so that we had sufficient amounts of nutrients to thrive.

Speaking of sufficiency, I love this word. It implies that there’s a point of balance between wanting and needing food. The point at which the body is satiated and ready to begin the complex orchestration that is digestion, absorption, and assimilation. But I also fear that the word is foreign to us in a way. Do we ever have enough of what we love? We have learned to eat past the point of sufficiency; past being full and into what we describe as being “stuffed.”

It is as if that feeling of fullness is our first cue that we have had enough, when for most of us, this is well past the point of sufficiency, too. We stopped listening to our body’s internal cues to eat. Rather, we respond to external cues from our environment that signal (trigger) temptation, or otherwise invite us to eat. External cues that are removed from our body’s physiological needs and evolved wisdom.

The 35 to 50 tons of food that we consume over a lifetime will make up the most intimate relationship we have with our outside world. Should we expect less from the relationship we have with our food manufacturers than we do from other relationships that are important in our lives? What we eat becomes us in one way, shape, or form. It is not just a matter of “What’s for dinner,” it is also “What is in our dinner.” As Kathy Swift, an internationally respected author and nutritionist, said, it is not simply that we are what we eat, but rather, “We are what they ate!” With over 700 different new-to-nature compounds added to our foods and over 80,000 others that we’re exposed to over a lifetime, do we really know what we are eating?

Many snacks like these contain a long list of ingredients that shouldn't be part of humans' diets. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

I could go all “Michael Pollan” here, but he could not be more correct when he urges us to eat real food. Food is information. There is a diet that is compatible with human life that has evolved alongside us. Then there’s the absolute need to feed that other life inside us, our microbiome, which consists of a diverse array of bacteria that are the true masters of our health destiny. It is there that the ultimate wisdom of the body resides. We have come so far over these centuries, and yet here we are, so far from that diet that we evolved to eat.

We can trace the largest shift in this relationship back to the 1950s, when life as we knew it was about to change for a generation of young people. Women were heading back to work after World War II, and their time was spread thin. TV dinners filled a need for quick, easy meals. As life became more demanding, the food industry answered every call and became more enabling. The wheat industry gave us breakfast in a bowl, snacks in a wrapper, and lunch boxes full of treats. Certain “foods” became the object of scientific inquiry; when left on laboratory shelves they would stay preserved for years. No life grew on them because there was no life in them. I would say this was the beginning of our lost connection with our food. It became profit over people. We began inventing “food,” even as it no longer nourished us.

Clues from popular culture would have told us that we were headed for disaster. Even then, as our bodies tried to communicate their distress, they were silenced by catchy jingles, such as “Plop plop, fizz fizz” and “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!” Today, we have commercials depicting foods that fight our stomachs or light them on fire, and our “solution” to heartburn or stomach aches has been found in a little purple pill. We have silenced the conversation our body is trying to have, ignoring its ancient wisdom. Silence is not golden. We should be listening to our bodies and resting. Where is the nourishment? There is so, so, so much “food.”

We have come to rely on food to fill needs that go unmet or to distract us from mounting responsibilities. It’s an abundant distraction from a demanding world. It is far easier to quickly grab something to eat than to talk to our children, spouse, or colleague. Much easier to eat than to engage in an uncomfortable conversation. We eat when we are lonely, tired, stressed, anxious, sad, happy, or bored. And sometimes when we are actually hungry.

Certainly, with all the pressures we carry living in this crazy world, real change is hard. But as the saying goes, “If it was easy everyone would be doing it.” It isn’t easy to change any long-standing relationship. We are complicated beings, but most things worth doing are difficult.

While it may seem big and far-reaching, a good place to start is to just notice. Notice what is going on around you and inside you. If you are hungry, eat real food made by hands that care. Food that is nourishing and supportive so that your body can use it to its full potential. If you are not hungry and feel the “need” to eat, first take a moment, check in with yourself, and try to determine what it is you are really hungry for. It could just be a hug. Or maybe a good night’s rest.

Beth Reardon is one of the authors of 'The Mindful Diet.' As a longtime nutritionist with training in health promotion and wellness, she was previously the director of integrative and functional nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine. She now has a private practice in the Boston area.