We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare. In Aesop’s famous fable, a hare ridicules a slow-paced tortoise, who challenges him to a race. The hare soon tires and decides to nap mid-race. When he awakens, the tortoise has already won. Scholars have debated the meaning of the fable and struggled to find applications for the moral that it is better to be slow. Even if you move like a hare in your daily life — hurrying to work, hurrying home, crossing errands off your to-do list — one time you should aim to be sloth-like is mealtime.
An article published in the New York Times yesterday, “Mindful Eating As Food For Thought,” by Jeff Gordinier, discusses the merits of eating mindfully. The article focuses in particular on mindful eating’s roots in Buddhist tradition, but the concept of mindful eating is a practice across many religions and cultures. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have rituals involving prayer before, and in some cases during, mealtime — that is, waiting for everyone to be present, and taking a moment to offer appreciation.
Gordinier notes that the practice of mindful eating — which involves moment-by-moment awareness of the senses while eating — has “begun to seep into a secular arena, from the Harvard School of Public Health to the California campus of Google.” According to some experts, Gordinier writes, “eating slowly and genuinely relishing each bite… could be the remedy for a fast-paced Paula Deen Nation in which an endless parade of new diets never seems to slow a stampede toward obesity.”
I have always enjoyed long meals. As a child, I lingered at the kitchen table after the meal was over and everyone was gone, and kept my mother company while she did the dishes. (Try as she might, there was no convincing my brother and I to do the dishes, so she settled for entertainment: I chattered about my school day while she washed pots and pans.) Although I have been called a slow eater, I have not always been a mindful eater. When I began paying more attention to health, I began paying more attention to my food, and I became a mindful eater.
Mindful eating is not just for your mind; there are physical benefits, too. Why should you eat mindfully?
1. Your body cannot immediately tell you if you’re full. It takes about twenty minutes for your body to accurately determine how full you are. This is one reason humans are able to engage in timed all-you-can-eat competitions — the pain of being too full doesn’t set in until after the fact. What this means is that those first twenty minutes of eating are a sort of free-for-all when it comes to tracking hunger, which is not necessarily a good thing for your waistline. You may be able to eat less and feel just as satisfied, but you won’t know unless you eat slowly.
2. Highly-processed foods are chemically designed to taste good for only the first couple of chews. If you eat slowly, you will get more satisfaction from healthy, natural foods, and less satisfaction from processed foods. You might not realize the level of forethought that goes into designing the number of milliseconds that a certain flavor lasts (or doesn’t last) in your mouth, but manufacturers like PepsiCo, General Mills, Nestle, and Kraft are extremely familiar with these decisions. They hire teams of flavorists whose goal is to make artificial flavors last just long enough that they register as tasty, but not so long that you don’t swallow immediately and take another bite — and another, and another. An apple tastes like an apple whether you chew that bite three times or ten times. Not so with a bag of Cheetohs. A Cheetoh may taste salty for the first few crunches, but if you savor that Cheetoh, you’ll be rewarded with flavorless mush. Eating slowly teaches you to genuinely prefer the taste of natural foods.
3. Chewing your food well aids the digestive process. Digestion begins in your mouth — both chemically and mechanically — when enzymes in your saliva break down the food as you chew. Since the taste and smell of food also sends alerts to your body in preparation for digestion, chewing gives your body time to prepare for the process by relaxing the appropriate muscles. The longer you chew, the more easily the food will pass through your digestive tract, and the less work your stomach has to do after you swallow. Not chewing your food well enough can lead to incomplete digestion, which can lead to bacterial overgrowth in the colon, gas, and other problems. How much is enough chewing? If you can tell what kind of food you’re eating from the texture of the food in your mouth (not from the taste), then keep chewing.
4. Conscious relaxation — including during a meal — decreases stress. You probably already know that your mind and body are deeply interconnected, but did you know that stress can make you fat? The hormone cortisol, which is produced during times of stress, is thought to contribute to weight gain. In fact, cortisol seems directly correlated to weight gain in the abdominal region. The good news is that many studies have found that relaxation results in a decrease of cortisol. If you share your meals with others, you will have more time to talk and enjoy their company — another benefit, since social interaction makes people happier. Take a break from the fast pace of life, and eat mindfully to benefit both your mind and body.