Slow down! Eating at a leisurely pace may be good for you

We're all guilty of it: gulping down breakfast before racing out the door, or wolfing down a sandwich before our lunch-break ends.


When life is fast and food is necessary, eating quickly, or on the go, seems to make our days easier — or at least more time-efficient.


But it might be time to hit the brakes and savour every last bite.


Earlier this week, researchers in Japan found slowing down the speed at which we eat may help us lose weight.


It's not the first study to suggest eating slowly may have health benefits. But just how does it work?


Allowing yourself to feel full

It's thought the reason slow eating may potentially prevent weight gain is because of how long it takes for people to feel full.


"It takes 15 to 20 minutes for those natural feedback mechanisms to kick in … they're physiological processes which are involved in recognising fullness, satiety and feeling satisfied from food," says dietician and associate professor Ben Desbrow from Griffith University.


"You're more gauging how much you've eaten on external cues … in terms of the visual size of the food or the social context, as opposed to how you feel internally about whether you're satisfied or not."


Study shows slow eaters least likely to be obese

The Japanese study, published in the BMJ Open, looked at data collected from regular health check-ups and insurance claims from nearly 60,000 Japanese people with type 2 diabetes over a period of five years.


During the health check-ups, participants were quizzed about their lifestyle, including whether their eating speed was fast, normal, or slow, whether they regularly snacked after dinner, skipped breakfast, or ate within two hours of going to sleep.


The researchers found those who ate at a normal speed were 29 per cent less likely to be obese than those who ate quickly. And those that ate slowly were even better off — they were 42 per cent less likely to be obese when compared to fast eaters.


Slow eaters also had a lower BMI and smaller waist circumference, on average.


The researchers also found changes in these eating habits — eating slower and not snacking after dinner or before bed — were strongly associated with lower obesity, reduced BMI, and smaller weight circumference.

"Interventions aimed at altering eating habits, such as education initiatives and programs to reduce eating speed, may be useful in preventing obesity," the authors wrote.


Benefits of eating 'mindfully'

According to Dr Desbrow, the slower and "more mindfully" you eat, the more attuned you are likely to be to your body and the feedback it's giving you.


"It comes back, to a degree, to allowing time to listen to what your body is telling you, as opposed to feeling a certain level of expectation or habit that forms around eating consumption," he says.


We may live an increasingly fast paced life, but our biological systems aren't moving at the same rate that our working and social environments are changing, he says.


"Food has never been more accessible, so it's not as if we're having to use external cues from the environment … we have to listen to our internal cues more robustly in order to understand what our body needs to survive."


The dietician also says the rate at which we eat may be somewhat of a proxy to our overall relationship with food, and that slowing down can help us to enjoy eating in the presence of other people.

"I like to think that food is far beyond just a package of nutrients that supply us with fuel and make our bodies work. To me, food is very much about connectedness with one another," he says.


Chewing more may help

If you tend to eat on the faster side, putting down your utensils between bites or drinking a glass of water may help. There's also no harm in chewing your food a little more.


"Anything that's broken up into smaller particles creates a greater surface area for digestive enzymes to have an effect, to potentially absorb and transport the nutrients that are in the food," Dr Desbrow says.


He says if food stays in your mouth for longer, it's likely to enter your stomach at a slower rate.

But have scientists worked out the right number of chews?


"I don't think we have a magic number, but certainly more than half a dozen times. Quite often a relatively fast eater will only chew a small number of times," he says.


The study has limitations

While large, the Japanese study had its limitations: participants' eating speeds were based on subjective assessment, and researchers did not assess energy intake or physical activity levels.


"The findings in this study are associations, rather than causations, so there's always a limit to what conclusions you can draw," Dr Desbrow says.


"But it's an interesting idea, and I think there's merit to exploring it."


Nevertheless, previous studies have shown a similar association between eating habits (including speed) and BMI and weight gain. Eating quickly has also been linked to impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome.


No harm in slowing down

While more research is needed to determine whether an individual's eating speed can directly contribute to their overall weight, Dr Desbrow says there's no evidence to suggest slowing down is harmful.


"You typically see a small effect from slowing the rate at which people eat, all the way up to statistically significant effects in certain groups," he says.


"What we haven't seen is evidence that slowing the rate of eating is detrimental."


The dietician adds that being more attentive to the food you consume and the way your body responds to it is likely to be beneficial to your health in the long-term.





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