Put Down the Fork

Patient Expert

As a kid, I remember hearing that you should chew each bite 20 times. Aside from ensuring that you do not swallow too big a bite that could get stuck or cause choking, it definitely makes you eat more slowly. In today's world of eating "on the run," taking the time to chew may be more important than you think.

Mastication is the scientific word for chewing, which is the beginning of the entire digestive process. Our teeth help us grind food into small pieces. When we chew, the mouth releases saliva which lubricates the food. Saliva also contains the enzyme amylase which helps break down carbohydrates. The food is then ready to be swallowed and passes through the esophagus to the stomach and small intestines where food is further digested. The body absorbs most nutrients from food while it is in the intestines.

Several chemical signals are involved in the digestive process. For example, while you chew, the brain receives signals that allow you to see, smell, and taste your food. These signals let your brain decide whether this is a delicious experience or perhaps an unpleasant one. More signals are sent to other parts of your body like your stomach to release acid to help digest the food. One important signal that researchers are studying is called PYY. This hormone tells you that you are full. PYY is released by the intestines and usually takes about 20 minutes to increase to levels that are high enough to signal that you are full. In other words, we now have a scientific reason to eat more slowly.

The body needs time to realize that it is full. However, modern lifestyles encourage us to eat quickly or to eat while we are distracted. We may have as little as five or ten minutes to finish a meal. We also try to multi-task by eating while working at our desks, watching television, reading a book, or doing other activities. These behaviors keep us from listening to our body's cues. The end result is that we eat more than we need.

Here are some techniques that can help make you more aware of what you are eating and how much you are eating. While these methods may feel unnatural at first, they will actually allow you to enjoy your food more.

Sit down whenever you eat. Eating while standing up makes you feel rushed.

Avoid distractions. Turn off the television, put away the book, or stop whatever you are doing so that you can focus on the food.

Use a bowl or plate. Serve yourself a reasonable portion size in a bowl or on a plate. Read the label to see what is considered a portion size and put away the container so that you do not inadvertently get more than you should.

Savor each piece. Pick up one piece at a time rather than a handful.

Put down the fork. Having the next bite primed and ready on your fork rushes you to swallow what you already have in your mouth. Placing your silverware down on the plate between bites helps you to resist this urge.

Wait 20 minutes. If you wait 20 minutes before getting seconds, your body's PYY levels have time to rise and tell you that you have had enough.

Do you really need to chew each bite 20 times? While you should certainly chew enough so that you can swallow your food comfortably, the point is really to enjoy your food. Give your body a chance to savor the taste and experience of what you are eating. At the dinner table, taking time to eat gives you the opportunity to catch up with friends and family through civilized conversation. Besides, Mom always said not to talk with your mouth full. Who knew it would help keep your weight down, too?