Evidence from France, the US and Japan supports the wisdom of savoring meals slowly and without distractions
by Craig Weatherby
Last May, we profiled the Slow Food movement, which started in Italy in reaction to the arrival of MacDonald’s in central Rome, and has been gaining American adherents (See “’Slow Food’ Movement Gains Momentum”).
The five-point mission statement of Slow Food USA encapsulates the purpose of this grass-roots movement:
- Stewardship of the land and ecologically sound food production;
- Revival of the kitchen and the table as centers of pleasure, culture, and community;
- Invigoration and proliferation of regional, seasonal culinary traditions;
- Creation of a collaborative, ecologically-oriented, and virtuous globalization;
- Living a slower and more harmonious rhythm of life.
Implicit in the last goal—and the Slow Food movement’s very name—is a desire to pay greater attention to the act of eating: an approach that the research we’re reporting today suggests could help halt this country’s fast-growing obesity/diabetes epidemic.
Following up on our story about the weight control benefits of using smaller dishes and bowls to achieve portion control—see “Portion Control for Weight Control”—we’ve found substantial evidence that it makes sense to savor food more slowly than Americans typically do.
Advice posted on the National Institutes of Health Web site, under the heading “Get The (Fullness) Message” puts the point succinctly: “Changing the way you go about eating can make it easier to eat less without feeling deprived” (NHLBI 2007).
This line refers to the fact that it takes about 15 minutes for your brain to receive hormone-borne “I’m full” signals from your gut. So it’s logical to presume that eating fast lets you eat too much before you’re fully aware of it.
For instance, all of the few studies on the subject suggest that people eat more when they are doing other things at the same time, such as talking, reading, or watching TV (Liebman M et al 2003; Salmon J et al 2000).
But only recently has anyone looked for links between the rate at which people eat and the risk of becoming overweight.
We’ve uncovered four papers published in the past three years, whose combined results reinforce the value of slower, more mindful dining.
American, French, and Japanese link overeating to fast eating
Last fall, researchers from the University of Rhode Island presented a paper titled “Eating Rate and Satiation” at the Obesity Society (NAASO) 2006 Annual Meeting in Boston.
According to a press release issued last week, a team led by Kathleen Melanson recruited people of normal weight, gave them meals, and recorded their eating speed and calorie intake (Melanson K et al 2006).
As you’d expect, the fast eaters among the recruits ate more calories. And they chowed down about 3.5 times faster than the slower eaters.
In addition to this small unpublished trial, three peer-reviewed studies support the value of slow eating: a joint French-American investigation and two reports from Japan, described below.
“French paradox” may rest in part on portion size and eating speed
The term “French paradox” refers to the fact that although the French diet is quite high in cholesterol-raising, calorie-rich, saturated fats from meat and dairy foods, rates of heart disease and obesity are lower in France than in the United States.
Much of the population’s relative immunity to cardiovascular disease is believed to stem from the famous French penchant for vegetables and red wine, both of which are high in artery-protecting antioxidants.
With regard to the other part of the Paradox—the rarity of obesity in France despite its people’s fatty diet—a joint French-American team set out to test their hypothesis that the French savor their food more slowly and in smaller portions, compared with Americans (Rozin P et al 2003).
The team members came from the University of Pennsylvania and the government-funded Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique or CNRS in Paris.
As the authors stated the case, “…the French are leaner than Americans. The mean body mass index… is 24.4 for French adults… as compared with 26.6 for American adults… In contrast to the 22.3% of Americans who qualify as obese (BMI 30), only 7.4% of French so qualify… Although the French eat more fat than Americans, they probably eat slightly fewer calories” (Rozin P et al 2003).
These facts raise an obvious question. Fat contains more than twice as many calories nine per gram), compared with carbohydrates and protein (four per gram). Since people in France eat more fat than Americans consume, how can the French be eating fewer calories?
Restaurant research proves revealing
The French and American researchers went to McDonald's fast food joints in urban shopping districts at the same time of year at lunch time, to record the time people remained seated with their food.
They found that the average American customer spent 35 percent less time at the table. The French spent an average of 22.2 minutes eating and sitting at McDonald's, while Americans stayed only 14.4 minutes.
But speed wasn’t the only difference the investigators uncovered. They also found that the French restaurants serve smaller portions.
They measured this by visiting other chain restaurants in Paris and Philadelphia, and measuring the weights of comparable meals being served, or, within the same chains, the weights of ostensibly identical meals being served.
They found that the average portions served, even within the same chain, were substantially bigger in America (Rozin P et al 2003).
Comparisons of cookbooks and packaged foods confirm cultural gaps
The scientists also compared the total weight of the foods comparable recipes from two comparable basic cookbooks widely used in each country: The Joy of Cooking for the United States and the commonly used general French cookbook Je sais cuisiner.
The bestselling American book’s recipes had the bigger portions, by about half.
Finally, they compared the sizes of similar products in supermarkets in both countries, and found that the American chain had bigger portions of comparable packaged foods, such as frozen entrees.
Their conclusion puts it clearly and with some wit… we added a word of clarification in brackets ):
“Ironically, although the French eat less than Americans, they seem to eat for a longer period of time, and hence have more food experience [enjoyment]. The French can have their cake and eat it as well” (Rozin P et al 2003).
Japanese studies support value of slowing down
In the first Japanese study, a team from the National Institute of Health and Nutrition in Tokyo enrolled 1,695 female dietetic students, all 18 years old. Using questionnaires, the researchers collected information on the students’ nutrient and fiber intake, body height and weight, and rate of eating (according to five categories).
The results showed a “significant and positive” correlation between higher rates of eating and higher body mass index or BMI (Sasaki S et al 2003).
Among the food factors analyzed, only higher intakes of dietary fiber—not protein, fat, or carbohydrates—showed a significant, negative correlation with BMI: and that correlation was weaker than the link between slower eating and lower BMI.
In the second study, researchers from Nagoya University recruited middle-aged civil servants—3,737 men and 1,005 women—who completed surveys on their estimated rate of eating, current body mass index, their BMI at age 20, their BMI change since age 20, and their calorie intake over a one-month period.
The results showed that the faster eaters were also the fattest folks. As the Nagoya team said, “Our results among middle-aged men and women suggest that eating fast would lead to obesity” (Otsuka R et al 2006).
Their findings suggest that eating slowly is more likely to discourage weight gain, compared with increasing ones’ fiber intake.
As a whole, the results of the four studies provide ample reason to take it slow at the dinner table: an attitude that will allow you to enjoy your food much more while reducing the risk of unwanted weight gain.
- Liebman M, Pelican S, Moore SA, Holmes B, Wardlaw MK, Melcher LM, Liddil AC, Paul LC, Dunnagan T, Haynes GW. Dietary intake, eating behavior, and physical activity-related determinants of high body mass index in rural communities in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003 Jun;27(6):684-92.
- Melanson K et al. Eating Rate and Satiation. Obesity Society (NAASO) 2006 Annual Meeting. October 20-24, 2006, Hynes Convention Center, Boston, Massachusett (presentation/session data unavailable), as summarized in a press release from Scientific Intake via PRNewswire: How To Eat The Foods You Like And Still Lose Weight - Eat Slower. Wednesday January 3, 2007 6:30 am ET. Atlanta, GA.
- NHLBI (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute). Guide to Behavior Change. Accessed online January 17, 2007 at http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/lose_wt/behavior.htm
- Otsuka R, Tamakoshi K, Yatsuya H, Murata C, Sekiya A, Wada K, Zhang HM, Matsushita K, Sugiura K, Takefuji S, OuYang P, Nagasawa N, Kondo T, Sasaki S, Toyoshima H. Eating fast leads to obesity: findings based on self-administered questionnaires among middle-aged Japanese men and women. J Epidemiol. 2006 May;16(3):117-24.
- Rozin P, Kabnick K, Pete E, Fischler C, Shields C. The ecology of eating: smaller portion sizes in France than in the United States help explain the French paradox. Psychol Sci. 2003 Sep;14(5):450-4. http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-9280.02452
- Rozin P. The meaning of food in our lives: a cross-cultural perspective on eating and well-being. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2005 Nov-Dec;37 Suppl 2:S107-12. Review.
- Salmon J, Bauman A, Crawford D, Timperio A, Owen N. The association between television viewing and overweight among Australian adults participating in varying levels of leisure-time physical activity. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2000 May;24(5):600-6.
- Sasaki S, Katagiri A, Tsuji T, Shimoda T, Amano K. Self-reported rate of eating correlates with body mass index in 18-y-old Japanese women. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003 Nov;27(11):1405-10.