Essen Oder Fressen: A Helpful Practice for Digestive Relief
Growing up, I recall wonderful times sitting at my grandmother’s table. She would not be sitting, of course. She was instead too busily engaged in shuttling from the table to the kitchen and back again, hovering and then bringing other foods to assure that regardless of how much I ate, there would be still more that was served. Apparently, anything less than a continuously overflowing plate violated some timeless grandmotherly ethic.
Along with a full plate came the requirement that my belly reach absolute fullness. She would work toward that goal by repeatedly saying, “Ess mein kind, ess.” (Eat, my child, eat). There was always more to be served and my role at the table was to continuously “ess,” to eat. I typically indulged her, sometimes to the detriment of what my stomach could comfortably hold.
Later I learned that German has two words for eating. Essen is what people do. Fressen is what animals do. Fressen implies gorging or eating with a ravenous and urgent appetite unbecoming to a “civilized” person. While I was encouraged to “ess, mein kind, ess” there was a clear line between that gastronomic indulgence and ill-mannered fressen. I’ll get to how that relates to digestive wellness in a moment.
Developing Simple Strategies in a Sea of Complexity
The memories of times at my grandmother’s table come to mind as I think about people who struggle with digestive disorders. We are flooded with information about what supplements to use, whether gluten sensitivity is the source of those struggles, how to adhere to a low FODMAP diet, why bacterial imbalances are the root cause of our anguish and why upping or adjusting our prebiotic and probiotic intake is necessary. When it comes to this flood of information, we are encouraged, like my grandmother did with me, to “ess, mein kind, ess”: to digest all this abundance of health information despite the fact that much of it is contradictory and finding out what is right for any one of us is a continuing challenge: what helps one person one week can hurt that same person the next and what seems good to eat in November doesn’t seem to sit as well in July.
I don’t dismiss or discount the importance of this digestive health information. It can be helpful, and we are learning more about food/gut interactions all the time. My concern is that we often overlook practices that are universally helpful all the time in favor of over-emphasizing unusual, narrow, and overly specific solutions that too often fail to fulfill their promise for far too many people. As the saying goes, “when you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras.” In other words, at times it is useful to focus on what is most likely to help most often for the most people instead of what is the unusual or rare solution.
Are You an Esser or a Fresser?
If we step back from what we should eat and ask ourselves how to eat, the “esser/fresser” distinction becomes relevant. Here is what I mean. Our digestive system operates best when our mind and brain are in a settled and comfortable state. Digestion is energy intensive, so any unnecessary agitation, worry, arousal, or distress sucks precious bodily energy away from digesting and into supporting our readiness to act to address the source of the distress. Skeletal muscles get nutrient-rich blood, while the majority of that blood is shunted away from the smooth muscles of our digestive tract. When we are rushed and pressured or overly worried while we eat, we are literally, partially turning off our digestive system. At best we will digest what we eat less efficiently. At worst, the act of eating in this harried context activates or worsens the very digestive problems we work so hard to overcome. In short, we become fressers and suffer digestive consequences.
The Benefits of Healthy Essen
Eating like a “fresser,” which involves eating quickly, getting as many calories in as fast as we can, preparing what is easy instead of what is nutritious, and looking at the act of eating as something to get through rather than to savor, are all examples of digestive distress-inducing practices.
Instead, being an “esser” looks very different. When we ess, we are selecting food for its nutritional value, freshness, and flavor instead of merely easy availability. When we ess, the social connection aspect of eating becomes easily as important as what we eat. Taking time to linger while we eat, at least 20-minutes seated at the table, to sit and socialize and converse is powerfully soothing and supportive of greater digestive wellness.
When we practice essen vs. fressen, we perceive bodily signals that support effective digestion; we are less prone to ignore bodily cues tuned to satiety (nutritional sufficiency) vs. fullness (muscle discomfort associated with stomach wall distension); through essen we impact the interactions between the enteric immune system, our gut microbiota, or vagal (parasympathetic) nervous system; and we support the production and secretion of “psychobiotics” molecules that have a positive impact on mood, anxiety, mental clarity, and sounder sleep. In sum, essen is a universal practice to cultivate no matter how much wheat grass, selenium, Bifidobacterium, or deglutenized food is part of your digestive health regimen.
I encourage you to conduct a self-check about your eating habits. Committing to ess more and fress less may be a simple step you can take now on the road to achieving digestive wellness.