Holiday meals: take a breath before picking up your fork.

There are many things regarding food that are said to be good or bad for you, but you may not have thought of this one: Eating too fast can literally do you in and in a few more ways than what might be obvious. When you’re really hungry and what you’re eating is just so amazingly good that’s a perfect recipe for eating too fast, which may present a choking hazard, but there’s more than that you should be aware of.

A new study shows that the habit of shoveling in one bite after another may not only require you to loosen your belt; it may even up your odds for one or more of the big three cardio metabolic conditions: heart disease, diabetes and stroke, and what’s known as a cluster of five risk factors, namely:

  1. High blood pressure.
  2. High triglycerides -the fats found in the blood.
  3. High fasting blood sugar.
  4. Low high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
  5. A large waistline.

Obesity plays straight into the hands of metabolic syndrome, and more people than ever are developing the above risk factors.  Globally, the problem may impact as many as 84 percent of the adult population. Metabolic syndrome may even jump ahead of smoking as the biggest risk factor for heart disease. Further, studies indicate that relative to normal weight, obesity is associated with a significantly higher all-cause mortality. It’s hard to believe that eating too fast could have anything to do with those statistics, but studies show it does.

A cardiologist from Hiroshima University in Japan was the lead author of the study, which involved nearly 1,100 generally healthy male and female participants over five years, the average being around 51 years of age. Study subjects were divided into three groups, each categorizing themselves as slow, normal or fast eaters.

Over the five years, 84 of the participants developed metabolic syndrome. The result: Your cardio metabolic health could suffer serious harm if you gobble down your food too fast. In fact, it constituted a two-times higher likelihood they would develop metabolic symptoms compared to their slower-eating cohorts, with a spread of a 2.3 percent likelihood for slow eaters and an 11.6 percent chance for the fastest ones.

The study concluded by saying, “Eating speed was associated with obesity and future prevalence of metabolic syndrome. Eating slowly may therefore be a crucial lifestyle factor for preventing metabolic syndrome among the Japanese.”  Not many would disagree that bolting food down too quickly can contribute to indigestion, and sometimes be downright painful. But chewing slowly helps with the mastication-to-digestion process, starting in your mouth.

Chewing more slowly helps break down your food faster, and saliva, which contains an enzyme called lingual lipase to help break down fats, helps quite a bit when you swallow. The longer you chew, the more time those enzymes have to start breaking down your food. The process makes digestion easier on your stomach and small intestine, because digestion actually takes a lot of energy. Slowing down makes it easier for your intestines to absorb the nutrients in the foods you eat.

One study demonstrated the point very well: When study participants ate almonds quickly and chewed less (10 times, as opposed to 25 times or 40 times per bite), scientists found that their bodies failed to take in all the considerable nutrients almonds have to offer; the bits simply passed through and were eliminated. For those who chewed the most, the particles, hence the nutrition, were absorbed faster.

If you want to see if chewing more thoroughly may help you eat less, you must first determine how many times you generally chew when you take a bite of food, especially something substantial, like meat or almonds. Also, try counting how many bites of food you take when eating, like the participants of another study, who called that number the “bite baseline.” Participants were then asked to reduce the number of bites they took in their meals by 20 percent to 30 percent. Altogether, the study subjects lost an average of 3.5 pounds.

Besides many potential health benefits, chewing slowly and methodically, even thoughtfully helps you relax better so you can enjoy your meals. Rushing through just to get it down so you can continue whatever it is you’re doing isn’t conducive to proper digestion. You can’t really even taste or enjoy the foods you eat. Remember you should chew each bite 32 times or so before swallowing. It helps your food digest better.

As it turns out, intentionally chewing your food better than you probably already do could have more than a few lasting benefits. The featured study indicates that people who are obese have a tendency to chew and swallow more quickly, but they also don’t chew foods as thoroughly compared to people who are slim. Conversely, people who eat more slowly eat less.

The claim that it takes your brain 20 to 30 minutes to realize your stomach is already full is also true, it turns out. Scientists will tell you that a feeling of fullness is only part of the reason why you feel satisfied after a meal. Your brain is engaged in the process, too, as it needs to get the message sent by your digestive hormones secreted by your gastrointestinal tract. Stretch receptors in the stomach are activated as it fills with food or water; these signal the brain directly through the vagus nerve that connects gut and brain stem. Hormonal signals are released as partially digested food enters the small intestine.

There are even studies confirming that increasing the number of times you chew each bite may reduce how much you end up eating by almost 15 percent. Over time, that could be a significant weight loss or a significant weight gain on the other end of the scale. You’ve probably heard that eating to live rather than living to eat helps you adopt a mindset of thoughtfulness to what you put in your mouth. It’s for the purpose of nourishing your body.

When you approach meals more mindfully, it will slow your mealtime process, not just for yourself, but for others yes, even during the flurry of holiday gatherings, traveling and too much to do in the kitchen or elsewhere. Here are a few tips:

  1. Sit down at the table and minimize distractions. That means you may, tongue in cheek, have a basket on the sideboard so guests can turn down the volume and place their phones in it for the duration of the meal. Turn off the TV, even if it’s on in the next room.
  2. Put down your utensils between bites. Breathe. Relax. Look at the faces around you and allow yourself to appreciate each one. If you’re eating alone, every time you take a bite, concentrate on something you’re thankful for.
  3. Indulge in other peoples’ art of conversation. Listen. Focus on enjoying every aspect of the meal, the people sharing it with you, the taste of individual foods, the flicker of candles, the soft strains of music in the background, everything that helps you engage with appreciation for each moment will enhance the experience.
  4. Set aside a lengthier amount of time for meals than you typically might; 20 or 30 minutes might be enough, and adopt an attitude of calm that can cue others, even if they’re unaware of it. Make enjoying every bite slowly an intentional act, whatever else might be going on.

On top of all that, if you think about it, if you’re one of millions who face holidays with vague or real angst because you know there will be temptations and pressure on all sides, one factoid might help you focus on your goals: Gaining 2 pounds a year doesn’t sound like much, until 20 years goes by. Especially at holiday meals, when thousands of people wonder afterward why in the world they ate so much, take a breath before picking up your fork, and pace yourself. You’ll feel better, so you’ll be happier, and undoubtedly healthier for it, too.

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