My speed-eating problem started early. Scarfing breakfast as a kid, I'd suddenly realize my bacon was gone and accuse my brother of having swiped it. In fact, I'd gobbled it so quickly I hadn't even noticed.
Thirty-odd years later, I'm still a wolfer: inhaling my cereal, snarfing sandwiches at my desk. Once my hectic day is done and I've made a dinner I'm genuinely excited to eat, I shovel it down so fast that the carefully layered flavors I've labored over barely register. I reach the bottom of my plate before my son and husband are halfway through -- and then, bam!, I'm back to the kitchen for more. This leaves me feeling stuffed and annoyed, pondering the eternal question: If I truly love food -- and I do -- why can't I slow down enough to enjoy it?
I'm in the minority in my family, but not in America. We've become a nation of fast eaters, says Sasha Loring, a psychotherapist at Duke Integrative Medicine, in Durham, North Carolina. It's no surprise that eating has become a frenetic enterprise, she notes, given how fast people operate these days.
The health consequences can be serious, however. Eating too quickly contributes not only to indigestion, but also to consuming far more calories than one needs, says Loring. With 34 percent of American adults now obese, we could all benefit from slowing down. Try these strategies to stop being a mealtime speed demon.
1. Build in a Pre-Meal Pause
Stopping for a few moments to relax and consider your hunger level can make a big difference in how fast and how much you eat. Loring suggests having another family member plate your food (or keep your plate warm in a low oven) while you sit down and check in with yourself. Then ask yourself the following: Is my abdomen tight? Are my legs relaxed? Am I really sitting in the chair or am I perched on the edge? "It might take two minutes of sitting back, breathing, not talking --whatever you need to do to relax," says Loring. "But set a goal to not start eating until you are."
2. Put Down Your Fork
It usually takes about 20 minutes for our brains to register signals of satiety. Staying tuned to our bodies' changing degrees of fullness and satisfaction throughout the meal marks the next step to slow eating. Loring says many clients find it helpful to put down their forks between bites. "If you really practice a few times doing it fully, it will infiltrate other times you're eating and become more natural."
3. Switch Up Your Eating Script
We humans are highly suggestible: Put us in a candlelit restaurant playing relaxing, slow-tempo music, and chances are we'll eat more slowly than we would in a brightly lit joint blasting techno tunes. Seat us with a group of speed-eaters, and we'll probably accelerate our own munching. These are just two of the discoveries that Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of the food and brand lab at Cornell University has made about the "hidden persuaders" shaping our eating habits.
But simply becoming aware of these vulnerabilities can keep us from running off the rails, diet-wise. Playing slow music softly while eating and switching to small, beautiful plates helps, too. "We've found [this] makes people enjoy food more," says Wansink, "and if you enjoy food more, that will slow you down."
Meal-stuffers -- Wansink's term for wolfers like me -- tend to "start eating too early, end eating too late, and put too much on their plates." Serving food in the kitchen, rather than family-style at the table, can discourage automatic second and third helpings.
4. Turn Off the Tube
So many of us have gotten used to munching (something, anything) with a TV screen dancing before our eyes. But the distraction increases the odds that we'll eat too fast and overshoot our ideal stopping point (when we're no longer hungry yet not quite full). If there's a golden rule for eating the right amount at a healthy pace, it's turning off the television at mealtime.
5. Savor Flavors
Unbeknownst to inveterate potato chip gobblers who chew like woodchucks until they hit the bottom of the bag, our ability to taste flavors diminishes after about the fourth bite. "If you're hungrier, it takes a little longer, but it still happens really quickly," says Indiana State University psychologist Jean Kristeller. Speed-eaters, then, are sometimes "chasing the flavor -- which is impossible," Kristeller notes.
So the next time you feel tempted to power through a meal or snack because you love the way it tastes, tune in to the flavors playing on your tongue while they're still there. "You can get as much pleasure from the first four chips as you would from eating double or triple or quadruple that amount," says Kristeller.
Slowing down, in turn, can help clue you in to the startling truth that you don't even like certain foods you've been eating with gusto. A client of Kristeller's practiced slowly eating her favorite brand of shortbread cookie and, for the first time, drawing her awareness to the crumbs dissolving on her tongue. "She thought she'd enjoy them," says Kristeller. "But when she ate them slowly, she said they were too greasy, had too much salt, and left the inside of her mouth feeling unpleasant." This kind of fine-grained information helps people eat less and take more pleasure in their meals. It's not because they tell themselves to stop, she says, "but because they get signals and feedback from their bodies."