Pace Your Meals—for Real
A more leisurely eating experience benefits the body and mind. Learn how to actually slow down.
How often have you found yourself standing over the sink or scrolling through your social feed (or, be honest, doing both) as you inhale lunch? How many times have you slurped down a smoothie so quickly, you feel like you just wasted that $10?
Before you start to shame-spiral, know it's not all your fault. A ton of factors can make you shovel food into your mouth, says Kathleen Melanson, PhD, RD, a professor and graduate programme director of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Rhode Island College of Health Sciences.
There's sheer hunger, for one. Anxiety, stress and other emotions that many of us are, um, familiar with these days can lead to scoffing down meals. For some, eating quickly may be in our DNA. And then there's our environment, which is a biggie: Many of us learn from an early age that fast meals are efficient meals. "Eating is another thing to tick off the to-do list", explains Melanson.
Eating Slowly Changes the Game
OK, so there's a lot working against your intentions to pump the mealtime brakes. Why bother? To create a clearer sense of satiety, or a better understanding of when you feel satisfied but not stuffed.
That's something most of us have lost touch with over the years, says Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD, the director of curriculum at Precision Nutrition. Instead of being mindful of when we feel hungry and full, we've learnt to rely on external cues (like "It's dinner time" or "My partner is eating, so I should too" or "I still have food on my plate"), she says. Eating slowly, however, is basically a zero-maths-required form of portion control, making you less likely to overeat (even if you had big plans for that fourth taco).
It works because eating sets off a cascade of bodily responses: The brain picks up on physical signals (like the jaw muscles contracting and relaxing during chewing), the digestive system prepares to receive and process food, and eventually, your appetite-regulatory system releases hormones that make you feel full, explains Melanson.
Instead of being mindful of when we feel hungry and full, we've learnt to rely on external cues (like "It's dinner time" or "My partner is eating, so I should too" or "I still have food on my plate").
PhD, Director of Curriculum at Precision Nutrition
But if you polish off your plate faster than it takes to wash it, your body and brain never get the chance to register what's happening and respond accordingly. Slow down and you're unlikely to overeat in the moment and in the future, says Melanson.
Bonus perks? Slowing down may also make digestion go more smoothly, says Scott-Dixon. When you chow down, your food essentially busts its way through, catching your stomach and intestines off guard, so they can't properly process it. You might also kick-start your sympathetic nervous system (your fight-or-flight response), which shunts blood away from the digestive system and can mess with the contractions the intestines use to move food along. All of this can earn you a side of heartburn, indigestion and constipation.
Bodily functions aside, experts agree that eating slowly can lead to more joy. Studies show that people relish the same meal more when they eat it slower, which could mean needing fewer calories to get the same amount of pleasure, says Melanson—a big benefit if you're trying to watch your weight and still enjoy life (please do). It's also useful if you want to skip a too-full stomach before training.
Now, if the idea of actually slowing down has you low-key panicking, think of it as a skill for mature grown-ups that can be built over time. Here's how.
- Clear urgent distractions. You don't have to tick off everything on your to-do list before you sit down to eat (or else, let's be real, you'd probably never sit down to eat). But you should try to eliminate immediate tasks—like sending out a time-sensitive email or feeding the dog—prior to eating, as just the thought of knowing you have to do something soon can subconsciously make you speed up your meal, says Melanson.
- Forget the clock. The standard recommendation used to be to spend 20 minutes eating each meal. But both Melanson and Scott-Dixon agree this advice is outdated. When using time as a metric, people might end up reading on their phone, swallowing spaced-out bites whole, or otherwise multitasking just to kill the minutes—all of which interfere with the benefits of eating slowly, since they pull attention away from the activity of eating itself. When you're not being mindful, it's a lot harder to notice when you feel full.
Plus, not everyone has the luxury of taking a full 20 minutes for every meal (if only). Scott-Dixon recommends thinking about mealtime as a chance to bring intention, attention and calm to the process of eating. "So what that might look like for you is, before you eat, take one deep breath", she says. "Then maybe have a bite and take another deep breath". Doing this consistently—even if you get in only a few deep breaths per meal at first—can help you build a habit of breathing deeply and calmly before and after every bite.
- Focus on chewing. Chewing your food thoroughly doesn't just keep you from choking. It's also important because nerves embedded in our jaw muscles relay signals to our brain's satiety centres, says Melanson. Counting your chews can help, but it's not really a practical strategy if you want to, you know, be a human while eating with other people. Instead, Melanson recommends chewing until food feels smooth in your mouth and there are no chunks left (not as icky to think about when you're actually eating, promise).
Obviously, some foods don't need much chewing, like protein shakes and porridge. But even with these foods, you can mimic the effect of chewing by moving them around in your mouth before swallowing (again, grosser said than done).
- Visualise each bite's journey. One strategy Melanson uses with people in her research studies is to get them to visualise each bite of food travelling from their mouth to their oesophagus to their stomach before they take their next bite. It might sound a little bizarre (and is probably best for solo dining), but this helps with spacing out mouthfuls so you can start to really taste and savour each bite, she says.
- Tap into your senses. Staying in the moment is a key part of slowing down and noticing those need-to-hear-'em satiety signals. That's why Scott-Dixon is a big fan of listening, tasting and smelling as you eat. You might focus on the sound of crunching, the texture of the food in your mouth, the individual ingredients you can taste, or the aromas of what's on your plate.
Scott-Dixon sometimes even has people narrate their meal experience. "So they'll take their phone and put a dictation app on it and be like, 'OK, now I'm taking the first bite. And it's yoghurt. And it's pink. And it smells like strawberries'". Yes, you may feel totally ridiculous. But trying this experiment once or twice can hammer home what it really feels like to be in the present moment when you eat, explains Scott-Dixon, making mindfulness more natural over time. If nothing else, maybe a creative date night idea, no?
- Shake off setbacks. Old habits die hard. If you notice yourself rushing your food, Scott-Dixon suggests hitting pause on your meal and checking in with your body. Often, we tense our muscles while we're speed-eating, triggering that fight-or-flight response. Take a sec to loosen up—maybe even stretch your arms or shake out your limbs if you need to. Returning to your meal in a more chilled-out state can make it easier to slow down.
Also, remember that hustle culture has made "a quick bite" feel like second nature, so it's normal to struggle with slow eating at first. Cut yourself some slack by starting with less challenging meals, like sit-down dinners. From there, work your way up to trickier situations, like desk lunches and car snacks. While fast food isn't off-limits, eating fast should be.
Words: Julia Malacoff
Illustration: Gracia Lam