Forget food choices.
Forget portion sizes or protein content or if it fits your macros.
The nutrition advice you need to hear most is simply this:
People know what they should be eating. At the end of a nightmarishly stressful day, they plow through that pint of ice cream or bag of greasy potato chips under no impression that what they’re doing is healthy.
“We focus a lot in the fitness industry on what you eat and food choices and those sort of things. But if you step back and look at how people actually live their lives, the reality is that a lot of time, the food choices are not ‘ideal,’” says Krista Scott-Dixon, Director of Curriculum at Precision Nutrition and author of the book Why Me Want Eat: Fixing Your Food F*ckedupitude.
“This was something we arrived at many years ago with our Precision Nutrition coaching program. One of the observations another coach made was that people are not always going to be eating ideal food choices. In fact, that’s rarely the case—but they still have to eat. So we were missing this really big dimension of how people were eating because we got so focused on what they were eating and making them ‘eat the right things.’”
In an analysis of over 100,000 PN clients’ descriptions of real-life nutrition struggles and stressors, 63% cited “emotional/stress eating” as one of their biggest challenges. Alternatively, just 16% cited “don’t know what I should eat.”
The mood or mindset you approach eating impacts everything else. Nowadays, about everyone comes to food rushed, stressed and seeking quick relief.
“We realized how you are when you eat is the antecedent. It comes before anything else. Before any food choice you make—if it’s Twinkies, if it’s a martini, if it’s a kale salad, it doesn’t matter—the first step is really thinking about how you are when you eat this thing. When you eat ‘healthy’ food, that’s a belt and suspenders. It’s like you’re eating slowly and mindfully and you’re being present and you’re making a thoughtful choice. OK, win all around,” Scott-Dixon says.
“But in real life, the imperfect life that you have, being present and slowing down will also affect everything else that you do….Slowing down changes the amount that you eat and the experience you have with food regardless of the food choice you make.”
Scott-Dixon recommends practicing a Breath-Bite Rhythm.
As you chew your first bite, place your utensil down. After you’ve swallowed your food, take a breath. Pick up your utensil again, take another bite, and put your utensil back down. Chew and swallow your food. Take another breath. Repeat until satisfied.
Don’t get caught up in the details. Simply aim to put your utensil down and take a breath between each bite and you’re almost guaranteed to eat slower, and that’s the whole point. The Bite-Breath Rhythm is just one tactic that can help you eat slower. You may also try taking a sip of water between each bite.
Some people set timers and attempt to draw out a meal for a pre-determined length of time (i.e., ‘I’m going to take no fewer than 30 minutes to eat this meal’), but that can take your focus off the signals your body is sending you and place them on a ticking clock. However, this can be a powerful method for those new to the concept of slow eating. Almost no one realizes how strongly they’ve been conditioned to eat quickly until they try to slow down.
“The first time I tried eating slowly, I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m nailing this. I’m feeling like such a boss.’ And it was like eight minutes for the meal,” Scott-Dixon says. “It can be a real eye-opener.”
Eating slow provides a plethora of benefits, but it’s not easy.
I’ve always eaten fast. I forced myself to practice the Bite-Breath Rhythm with a Chipotle Burrito Bowl.
It made me realize I usually put more food into my mouth before I’m even done swallowing a previous bite. Taking a breath between bites took real discipline, and I almost said “screw it” multiple times. The fingers of my left hand, used to acting as a relentless excavator, impatiently drummed the table after I set my fork down. I came to see my usual Chipotle order—a quantity of food I typically take down in roughly six minutes—as a massive portion. I stretched the meal out to 22 minutes using the Bite-Breath Rhythm, and I was satisfied enough to stop eating about 3/4ths through the meal. I never do that.
Again, slow eating takes practice, and some meals will be easier to eat slowly than others. Simply being conscious of your eating speed puts you at an advantage, and being able to identify a binge as it’s happening will help you regain control.
“There are some meals I have no problem eating slowly. Other meals—especially lunch for me is one of the hardest because I’m usually rushing somewhere, I have a meeting, I’m like, “Ah, let’s just get this down.” So there’s huge variation meal to meal, person to person, situation to situation,” Scott-Dixon says.
“This is something you can grapple with your entire life, because the context of being alive in North America in 2019 is in no way conducive to slow eating. So it’s almost like every day it has to be a daily practice, like flossing or brushing your teeth…It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, either. There are some foods that are easier to eat more slowly than others. OK, start there. Start with the win.”
The research in favor of slow eating is compelling.
Several studies have found people who eat quickly tend to weigh more than those who do not.
For example, a 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association examined the relation between BMI and self-reported eating speed for 2,500 middle-aged women. The self-reported fast eaters were 115% more likely to be obese than slower eaters.
Fast eaters tend to consume more calories at meals yet feel satisfied for less time thereafter.
In a study from the University of Rhode Island, researchers offered 30 normal-weight women the same meal: a large plate of pasta with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese. The women were split into two separate groups, with each group instructed to eat to the point of comfortable fullness.
Yet one group was instructed to get there by eating as quickly as possible, while the other was instructed to eat slowly and put down their utensils between bites.
- Women in the fast-eating group consumed an average of 646 calories in 9 minutes
- Women in the slow-eating group consumed an average of 579 calories in 29 minutes
Though the women in the slow-eating group took 20 more minutes to eat their meal, they consumed 67 fewer calories. The women who ate their pasta quickly also reported greater levels of hunger an hour later than the slow-eaters, even though they’d eaten more total food.
Eating slower tends to make us chew our food more thoroughly. This may seem inconsequential, but chewing is the first step in digestion, and overweight and obese people tend to chew their food less and swallow it more quickly than those of a healthy weight.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics examined how the number of chews per bite impacted satiety. On three separate occasions, participants were given access to the same type of pizza and instructed to eat until comfortably full. But they were also instructed to utilize a different chewing rate during each session—their normal rate in one, 1.5 times their normal rate in another, and twice their normal rate in a third.
Compared to baseline, chewing the pizza 1.5 times the normal amount led participants to consume 9.5% fewer calories, while chewing it twice the normal amount led to 14.8% fewer calories consumed.
Digestion is incredibly complex. Discussing its full intricacies is far beyond the scope of this article. But the big takeaway is the more time we allow for it to take place, the more optimally each step can be executed.
“Eating and appetite and digestion is this very complex interplay (that involves) hormones and cellular signals and mechanical tasks and muscular contractions and grinding food and sending signals to the brain. There’s a feedback loop of energy availability or how much food is coming in and what it means, so there’s tremendous complexity to this system. And it functions best when we can slow down,” Scott-Dixon says.
“Let’s say you jam some food in and you wolf it down. Now it’s landing in your stomach in this big kind of under-processed lump—it hasn’t been moistened with saliva, it hasn’t been adequately chewed, your stomach hasn’t had time to prepare to kind of get contracting (and) to get secreting stomach acids, so it’s like, ‘What the f— is this?’”
From the time we start eating, it takes roughly 20 minutes for appetite-regulating hormones to be released by our gut and signal to our brain what/how much we’ve eaten.
And while the standard explanation for why we feel “full” traditionally focused on our stomach sensing the volume of food we’ve consumed, recent research from the University of California-San Francisco found it’s the stretch receptors inside our intestine—not our stomach—that has the bigger impact.
Researchers theorize this could be why bariatric surgery is so effective for weight loss. By significantly reducing the size of your stomach, food passes into the small intestine more quickly, causing it to stretch earlier during a bout of eating. Thus, you feel fuller faster. Eating slower also allows more time for food, or more specifically, “chyme,” the semi-fluid mass of partly digested food created in your stomach, to reach your small intestine, which could help you feel full on less food.
The “stretch” effect is believed to be the primary indicator of fullness, but slow eating also gives us a chance to feel satisfied before we get full.
“I really like this word ‘satisfied.’ Because that’s different than full. That’s different than stuffed. The sense of satisfaction is a chemical response. It’s not a sense of fullness, it’s not a volume thing, it’s like a chemical when your satiety hormones kick in, and your body’s like ‘No, we’re good here man.’” Scott-Dixon says.
Ending a meal when you’re satisfied is a sign you’re in tune with what’s going on inside your body. It means your brain is playing its designed role in appetite. This has become extraordinarily rare, as we’re constantly subjected to forces that disconnect us from thoughtful eating. A “lunch hour” is now closer to a “lunch 10 minutes” for most people.
“People are just encouraged to work constantly (in North America). And the work culture does not support taking breaks or having down time. There’s a real cultural and social reward for constantly being ‘productive.’ I see this with my clients all the time. ‘I don’t have time to eat.’ ‘I don’t have time to slow down.’ Because I gotta be busy at all times, whether that’s because my boss expects it, my clients expect it, I expect it of myself, or my work is so precarious I feel like I’ve gotta be constantly hustling,” Scott-Dixon says.
Many apps that claim to help us eat smarter contribute to disconnected eating.
“People are encouraged to track their food in apps, which can further distance themselves from their own bodies. ‘Oh, I’m just going to put this in my app, and it’s going to tell me how many grams of such and such I’m eating, and I’m going to completely ignore all of the signals from my body telling me if I’m hungry or full. I’m going to look at this app that says oh you’ve eaten X number of calories today, so you need more or fewer,’” Scott-Dixon says.
Eating slowly can impact a person’s consumption of ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods are defined as typically containing “little or no whole foods” and as being “durable, convenient, accessible, highly or ultra-palatable, (and) often habit-forming”.
A 2016 study published in the journal BMJ Open found the average Americans gets 57.9 percent of their calories from ultra-processed foods.
Ultra-processed foods are designed to be eaten fast. Their very nature makes people eat quickly.
A recent study conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that a diet of ultra-processed foods led participants to consume 508 more calories per day, on average, than a diet of whole or minimally processed foods. This despite the fact the meals for both diets were matched to contain the same amount of calories, fats, protein, sugar, salt, carbohydrates and fiber.
The participants, who were 20 weight-stable middle-aged men, were randomized to receive either ultra-processed or unprocessed diets for two weeks immediately followed by the alternate diet for two weeks. Participants were presented with three daily meals and were also allowed access to a selection of snacks. They were told to eat as much or as little as they desired.
Although participants did not report significant differences in the pleasantness of the different diets, the eating rate was much higher on the ultra-processed diet. Compared to the unprocessed diet, participants on the ultra-processed diet consumed 17 more calories per minute.
“Speed and processed foods go together like Romeo and Juliet. Like Romeo and Juliet, they’re a recipe for an early death. (They’re) this perfect storm of hyper-palatability. It’s an immediate hit. Boom, you get the flavor hit, you get the texture hit, you get that sensation hit. And (continuing that hit) depends, most of the time, on eating fast,” says Scott-Dixon. “Most ultra-processed foods taste like s— if you eat them slowly. If you sit down and let a Dorito melt in your mouth, it’s disgusting. It’s like salty, chemical cardboard. It’s just gnarly. So most processed foods do not taste good if you eat them slowly—they depend on being eaten quickly.”
Some exceptions exist—like high-quality chocolate or ice cream, for example—but by and large, ultra-processed foods do not taste as good if you eat them slowly. Whole or minimally processed foods on the other hand, tend to reward slow eating with deeper, more complex flavors.
Most of us are stuck in “fight-our-flight” mode for huge chunks of our day, and eating slowly encourages the body to engage our parasympathetic nervous system—a.k.a. our “rest-and-digest” system.
You can practice slow eating anywhere. Beyond helping you eat less, it also costs nothing, it can help relieve digestive issues, and it can help you gain a better handle on disconnected eating habits. Scott-Dixon reports clients experiencing better sleep and energy with slow eating.
As you practice slow eating, notice what impacts your eating speed. Are there people, places, foods or times that lead you eat slower or faster? It’s usually easier to eat slower when you’re not staring at your phone, laptop or TV, for example.
There’s little excuse not to try to eat slower at least some of the time, and while it takes practice, that could be enough to get the ball rolling.