Like you and everyone you’ve ever met, I love to eat. It doesn’t seem to matter if I’m preparing the food or going out to dinner, when that full, pristine plate looks up at me I experience a euphoric sense of anticipation. I have an entire meal ahead of me. What could be better?
Yet for something I love, I’m amazed how much of my time eating is spent focused on the next bite. It’s as if I can’t shovel the food in my mouth fast enough. Possessed, I’ll ignore my already full mouth as I scoop and scrape to stage the next perfect bite. My brain screams “Chew quicker! Must get bite in mouth now.”
Midway through the meal, I’ll notice how little is left on my plate. I may even glance up at the clock and realize I’ve eaten half my food in four minutes. A sense of dread settles in. It’s all going to be over soon. Now I’m slower. More deliberate. At least for a moment, until my focus wanes and I’m back eating at breakneck speed. The next thing I know I look down to discover that it is the last bite. Feeling like a man at the end of his life, I savor every bit, but it’s gone too soon.
Of course, this entire internal monologue is a series of broken, patchy emotions sporadically breaking in over the deluge of distraction. At breakfast, I crush podcasts. Dinner is a family affair where my wife and I catch up, and lunch could feature distractions from any of a million different vehicles.
Occasionally, I’ll find myself making lunch without certainty about what project I want to focus on while I eat. The mental wheels go into overdrive finding a suitable distraction. It never crosses my mind that eating alone does not require other activities. It is an activity I love, so why must I always optimize it?
Take a Look At Your Eating Patterns
Unfortunately, I know these patterns are only too common. Co-workers are walking around the office talking on the phone while demolishing donuts they are hardly conscious of consuming. Social dinners go from civil gatherings to barbaric feasts as soon as the food arrives. The extra large pizza we got to watch the football game vanishes in the span of a TV timeout. Good thing it came with wings.
We live in an age of abundance unfathomable through most of human history, yet cannot squelch that constant yearning for more. More food. More distraction. There is more to consume, both literally and figuratively, than anyone could hope to in a hundred lifetimes, yet we try earnestly. This is the age of mindless consumption.
It is not that we should feel guilty, but there is a reason to consider a different course. Improving your health could be as simple as eating a bit slower. Slower consumption leads to better digestion, reduced GI tract issues, and more satiety.
A University of Rhode Island study found that women of average weight ate 67 more calories when eating quickly as compared to eating slowly and putting their utensils down between each bite. The slower eaters ate less while averaging 20 more minutes eating.
They also reported far less hunger an hour later. Over three meals that equates to eating almost 200 fewer calories per day while feeling greater satisfaction and, thus, less occasion to snack.
You Must Stop to Breathe
For a society that desperately needs to stop and breathe, taking time to slowly eat for its own sake may be the easiest and most impactful habit you aren’t doing. Yet, this eating slowly thing is harder than it sounds.
It goes against all the ingrained patterns of our fast-paced world. We are eating in the car on the way to an afternoon meeting and then scarfing dinner down before rushing out the door for Sally’s evening volleyball practice.
When we finally get a night at home to relax its too easy not to fight what is “normal” and succumb to socially splintered “come and get it” dinners, eaten behind the glow of the TV and the smartphone. With our world in constant flux, imposing order and boundaries becomes an even greater challenge.
The solution is two-fold. Studies repeatedly show that we eat more, eat worse, and are less satisfied after meals in front of a screen. There is perhaps nothing you can do that is more important for your family’s health, educational attitudes, and ethical development than to cook dinner at home and eat as a family- screen free.
Our lifestyles do not promote this, but I implore you to work to make it a priority. Family dinner is a daily opportunity for children’s exposure to home-cooking that breeds confidence in the ability to prepare food. It is a daily family reset where we learn to converse, see different opinions, and care about each other’s lives.
Embrace the awkward silences that allow your brain space and prompt far greater depth of discussion. There will be nights where it is still a cattle call, but occasionally you’ll also find yourself laughing and conversing long after the last bite. Chew slow, ask questions, and watch as both mental and physical health improve.
You Must Eat Slower
Now we must address eating slower. This is unnatural and may not be helped by family dinners. There will be nights the dinner feels more like an obligation we’d like to rush through. As usual, success demands we impose rules and shape the environment to promote success. Many slower eating proponents advise putting the utensil down between each bite—not picking it back up until food is thoroughly chewed and swallowed. This works, but it can require a lot of self-monitoring.
My solution has been to simply eat with my non-dominant hand. This is challenging and will require slowing down and honoring your embarrassing lack of dexterity. You’ll have a new appreciation for the clumsy fork work of 4-year-olds.
If you’re right-handed, you will get better at eating left-handed. When that is mastered, you can begin eating with chopsticks. By the time that gets easy, slow eating should be thoroughly ingrained. Sure you’ll feel awkward, but it is hard to be healthy without becoming comfortable at being the weirdo.
Increase Your Brain Power
The approach of eating with your non-dominant hand has the added benefit of being wonderful for your brain. We are very pattern-oriented and quickly get to a point where our bodies lose the ability to behave in any way other than how we’ve used it for the past decades.
Introducing a steady flow of novel challenges keeps your brain sharp and can help you introduce methodical mindfulness to all life’s automated tasks. Embrace the awkwardness of your non-dominant side to slow down and find new appreciation in daily living.