Can mindful eating help you lose weight? I tried five different methods, with varying levels of success, to find out.
I’ve always been a fast eater. I like to think this habit was born out of necessity—I played competitive golf in college, so I got used to scarfing down a banana while hustling 150 yards to my next shot.
I didn't just snack fast during tournaments, either. Mandatory 5:30 a.m. workouts left little time for breakfast, so I kept granola bars to shove in my mouth while running out the door most mornings.
Fast forward to today, and even though I'm an editor at a healthy-food website, I'm in the habit of eating quickly and distractedly.
On any given day, I'm chugging cups of coffee during a meeting, bolting lunch at my desk, or skipping a sit-down dinner to eat over the kitchen sink. (Don’t judge.)
Eating quickly isn’t something I’m proud of, though it's definitely something other people notice. Everyone from family to snide waiters have remarked “Wow you ate that fast!” or “You really enjoyed that, huh?”
I hate these comments. There is no polite way to respond. It’s embarrassing. And regardless of whether it was born out of necessity, I know it’s not a great habit.
I also know I'm not alone. Americans are fast eaters. It's part of the “busy” lifestyle we love to glorify. If you eat lunch at your desk, it shows how dedicated you are to work. If you eat dinner in the car on the way to your fitness class, it means you’re disciplined.
This past summer I traveled to Spain. While there I became keenly aware of how little thought I give to eating. In Spain, it’s normal for dinner to last two hours. People will enjoy a glass of wine, and savor the smells and flavors of their meal.
Eating is not something they get through to get on to the next thing—it's something they make time to enjoy. While that may seem difficult to replicate here (who has time for a two-hour lunch break?), it turns out that slowing down food consumption has real benefits—and can even lead to weight loss.
A recent study out of Kyushu University in Japan found that people who take time to chew slowly have better digestion and feel fuller, faster. Researchers also found that, on average, slower eaters had a smaller waist circumference and lower body mass index.
Another study, presented at a conference of the American Heart Association late last year, found that fast eaters are 11% more likely to develop metabolic syndrome—which is to say three or more risk factors for cardiac disease—including obesity, high levels of bad fats, high HDL cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, or high blood sugar.
These scary stats got me wondering if, at the ripe old age of 26, I could change my eating habits. So I decided to try slowing down my chew for two weeks, to see what happened.
The thing is, eating more slowly is hard. You think you can just do it, but then you look down at the remains of your lunch, and note that five minutes have just passed, and realize that you failed. So I did some research and found five different methods of slowing down. I gave each one a try to see if it helped me savor my food. Here’s what worked, what didn’t, and what habits I’ll be holding on to going forward.
Change Your Eating Environment
The theory is that if you change where you eat (i.e. not over the kitchen sink, but like a civilized human being, at a table, with a plate), you can ultimately practice more mindful eating.
It sounds easy, but this was actually pretty hard. After work, my fiancé Nick and I like to unwind with dinner and watch something mindless on TV. This is super relaxing, but it’s also easy for me to eat a larger portion than intended (without even enjoying it).
It took some convincing to get Nick to turn off The Office and move our dinner location, but switching up our eating environment—even just for a few meals a week—helped me practice more mindful eating.
There’s something about physically sitting at a dining room table, sans distractions or noise, that makes you really focus on the eating experience. An unexpected bonus? I felt more connected to Nick, and conversing with him over a meal forced me to slow down and take breaks between bites to speak.
Count Your Chews
Bite counting is a popular way to chew more slowly, and it’s even purported to help you lose weight.
According to Time, “Some preliminary research has found that chewing until “no lumps remain” increases the number of calories the body burns during digestion: about 10 extra calories for a 300-calorie meal."
Apparently chewing more thoroughly aids digestion as well. It makes sense: Smaller bits of food will be more thoroughly digested. And the research indicates all that chewing increases blood flow to the stomach and gut as well—so everything is doing its job better.
This tip sounded super promising, but, honestly, I just forgot to do it most of the time. And when I did remember to count my bites, it just annoyed me. Food should be enjoyable, and this felt like I was punishing myself. Rather than focusing on how my food tasted, my mind was focused on doing basic math.
Drink Water Between Bites
Drinking water forces you to take small breaks between each bite. The ideas is that all that water aids in digestion.
While I definitely felt more hydrated and got fuller faster, it wasn’t an “I’m truly satisfied” kind of full—it was the “I have a lot of water in my belly and now I’m bloated” full. I ended up feeling hungrier sooner, but I also ate less to begin with.
Find a Slow Eater and Pace Yourself to Them
You know the old adage, “If you hang with dogs, you’ll get fleas?” Well, this applies to my family and friends because they’re all pretty fast eaters (sorry, guys).
Finding someone to mimic was a challenge. Thankfully, I have friends who eat slower. Oddly, they're from Ireland and Australia. We all went out for tacos one night, and I tried to pace my bites to theirs.
I have to say this felt really creepy, and not at all how someone at a restaurant with friends should act. I did it for about 3 minutes before all that focus on my friends' chewing paces made me feel incredibly invasive and weird.
This tip may work for some people, but all I felt was an odd sense of shame. Eating more slowly is just NOT WORTH being the weird person at the dinner table.
Put Down Your Utensil Between Bites
The easiest way I found to eat more slowly was to literally put my utensil down between bites. If the meal didn’t require utensils, I just put the food down on my plate. That's it—I put it down and didn't pick it back up until I was totally finished chewing.
This tip was by far the best of the five. It's so easy and intuitive that it actually worked for me, and I'm going to keep doing it.
But Did I Lose Weight?
Well, no. I didn’t experience any significant weight loss (although I did lose about 1.3 lbs).
I did, however, experience major stress relief. Whereas before, I’d think nothing of grabbing a bagel and hastily shoving it in my mouth on the way to work or taking bites of a salad between keystrokes at my desk and calling it lunch, I realize now how tense that was making me.
Purposefully stepping away from technology and distractions to sit outside in the sunshine or at a dining room table made mealtime feel special, and way more relaxed. I noticed the flavors of my meal more, and I felt more satisfied (even if I ate a little less), and I just felt happier.
I may not eat every meal slowly from now on—it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of life. But I see how important it is to take time out your day to slow down and enjoy a meal, for both your physical and mental well-being.