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Stop! How fast are you eating?

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Want to slim down? Slow down! Aoife Stuart-Madge reveals how eating on the hop is sabotaging your weight and health

‘One of the first stages of digestion involves simply thinking about food which, literally, gets your digestive juices flowing’

Whether it’s grabbing a bite at your desk in between meetings or shovelling breakfast down before work, we’re all guilty of not making enough time for a meal at some point in our busy lives. But while most of us know that eating on the run isn’t exactly the healthiest way to refuel, the true extent of the damage speed-eating can do to your body is shocking.

According to a study from Osaka University in Japan, women double their chances of becoming fat by eating too quickly, while men who speed eat are 84 per cent more likely to become obese. The study, which monitored the eating habits of 3,000 people, found that eating too quickly overrides the mechanisms in the brain that tell us we’re full. It’s estimated that it takes 20 minutes after you start eating for the message to stop eating to reach your brain, so if you finish a meal in less time, you risk over-stuffing your stomach. ‘Rapid, “mindless” eating means that the food goes down so quickly that by the time the stomach signals to the brain that it has had enough, we have, in fact, overeaten,’ explains Dr David Lewis from Mindlab, who led scientific research into the UK’s lunchtime eating habits. ‘The consequence is that we add unnecessary calories and put on weight.’

As well as weight gain – and the obvious discomfort that comes from over-filling your stomach (hello, gas, bloating and indigestion) –you’re also at risk of serious health complications.Research from the Medical University of South Carolina found that gulping down food can raise your risk of acid reflux, which can lead to a number of health complications including gastroesophageal reflux disease, a narrowing of the oesophagus, bleeding, or the pre-cancerous condition Barrett’s oesophagus. The study showed that eating a 690-calorie meal in five minutes rather than 30 minutes resulted in up to 50 per cent more acid reflux episodes.

So how can you begin to unlearn fast-eating habits, which are often developed in childhood? Here, our experts reveal their top tips for slowing down.

Switch off the TV

In order for your brain to register when you’ve had enough to eat, you’ve got to be paying attention to what’s going in to your mouth. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition categorised eaters into ‘attentive’ and ‘distracted’ groups, and found the distracted eaters tend to eat more in a sitting. ‘One of the first stages of digestion involves simply thinking about food which, literally, gets your digestive juices flowing,’ says Nina Omotoso, a nutritional therapist at Revital . ‘Rushing meals means you miss out on this, which is why bad habits like eating on the run or bolting your food down in 20 seconds flat in front of the TV can really affect your digestive health, leading to indigestion, poor nutrient absorption, stomach pain and bloating.’

Make a meal of it

Forget stuffing a sandwich down in five minutes as you check emails at your desk, in order to properly digest your food, Dr Lewis recommends setting aside 15 minutes for a snack, and at least 30 minutes to enjoy a full meal. ‘Relax when you are eating. Do not keep glancing at your watch or thinking about all you have to do after the meal,’ advises Dr Lewis. ‘Eat with your eyes as much as your mouth. By enjoying the experience of eating you will not only enhance the pleasure you derive from your food but also encourage a greater sense of overall wellbeing. That old adage ‘you are what you eat’ is not quite true. More accurately you are what you ingest and digest. Both these processes work best when they are allowed to work slowly.’

Don’t drink with your meal

Research has shown that drinking too much water during a meal can mess with the natural levels of bile and acid in the stomach, slowing digestion. ‘Avoid drinking too much while eating. Fluid not only distends the stomach but also dilutes the digestive enzyme in the mouth and essential acid in the stomach,’ explains Dr Lewis. Try this trick: hydrate yourself 30 minutes before a meal with cucumber water – a natural diuretic that can aid movement through your digestive tract.

Put obstacles in your way

The faster you eat, the more air you let into your body, which bloats you and gives you that uncomfortably full feeling. Consciously slow your pace down by adopting this habit: putting your knife and fork down between bites, or, if you’re eating a hand-held food like pizza or a sandwich, consciously set it down between bites. Also incorporating foods that are tougher to eat, such a grapefruit, in your diet, naturally slows you down.

Taste your food

Recent research commissioned by food company Glorious found that 60 per cent of the UK population admitted to ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ tasting what they ate. Research leader Dr Lewis said, ‘Researchers found that, on average, 79 per cent of people were unable to detect when basic flavours had been swapped, this rose to 88 per cent when people ate while distracted, increasing to 93 per cent for people eating under time pressure.’ The research indicated that office workers in particular consume food simply to refuel the body and most never, or rarely, taste what they’re eating. ‘Mastication, the process in which the food in our mouth is broken into smaller fragments and thoroughly mixed with saliva, represents the first stage of digestion,’ explains Dr Lewis. ‘Poor mastication means that we fail to savour and appreciate the true taste and texture of the meal. It can also result in a range of problems, from indigestion and heartburn to an inadequate uptake of essential nutrients from the food.’

Chew properly

Without chewing your food properly, your body can’t digest it. ‘Chew your food carefully,’ advises Dr Lewis. ‘Take smaller mouthfuls so that the enzyme in saliva is breaking down smaller food morsels, aiding quicker digestion. The larger the portion of food in your mouth, the less effectively it is chewed and savoured.’ Chatterbox? It might be an idea to schedule a catch-up over coffee rather than lunch or dinner. ‘Not only does talking prevent you paying full attention to your food, it also causes you to swallow air, leading to a greater risk of discomfort,’ Dr Lewis says.

Plan your meals

When pushed for time, it’s easy to make poor food choices (who hasn’t grabbed an unhealthy snack during a last-minute trip to the vending machine?) but the more hurried your food choices, the more unhealthy the choice you’re likely to make. ‘Being overscheduled, stressed and pressed for time seems to be a common complaint amongst my clients,’ says Nina, ‘so it’s not surprising that “quick and convenient” is a deciding factor in many of our food choices. The main problem is that leaving it to the last minute limits your options. And if you’re already starving you’re more likely to make poor food choices. Eating like this usually means more sugar, salt and saturated fat in your diet, fewer nutrients, and more expensive, pre-packaged foods – not great for the figure or the bank balance.’ The answer, Nina says, is to adopt a mindful attitude. ‘It’s not just about diet but lifestyle as well. This way people feel more capable, more relaxed and in control. If you’ve got a hectic week coming up, try to plan ahead – stick an apple, a small bag of unsalted nuts or even a high-protein energy bar in your bag. That way you can relax a little and spend the time you do have eating slowly and listening to your body’s hunger signals, rather than running about and eating frantically.’

Don’t reward yourself with food

It’s in our make-up to crave reward for hard work, so when you are under pressure it’s natural to reach for a sugar fix as an instant reward. Nutritionists say many women subconsciously start to associate feeling stressed with speed-eating through the office vending machine. What’s more, when you’re stressed, you’re less likely to savour taste of food or respond to feelings of fullness. Try chewing on a piece of gum next time you feel like stress-eating, and reward your hard work with a lunchtime mani or blow-dry instead.

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