Self-Care: The Virtues of Slowing Down at Mealtime
While WHAT we eat is extremely important in managing stress and staying healthy, happy, and strong, it's also important to look at HOW we eat.
Eating during stress generally leads to digestive upset, decreased nutrient absorption, and unwanted fat storage (read: weight gain). This is because the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight-or-flight response, diverts glucose from the digestive system, the immune system, and certain areas of the cerebral cortex to provide maximum energy to those parts of the body needed to respond to threats – the heart, limbs, and exterior muscles.
For healthy digestion, it’s imperative to switch off the fight-or-flight response by turning on the parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response. Eating in a relaxed state not only makes meals more enjoyable, but it also amplifies the body’s capacity to assimilate nutrients and burn calories.
Bottom line advice: Switch from eating in a state of stress by slowing down, savoring, enjoying, and making eating its own focused activity. You can make huge strides in multiple aspects of your health if you can transform how you eat, often even more so than changing what you eat.
There are several strategies for getting into a relaxation state while eating. For now, let’s look at just one – the “20 Minute Meal.” While considering this method for getting to healthy eating habits, here is something to keep in mind: It is physiologically impossible for the body to release weight or heal when it is under a stress response.
How “The 20-Minute Meal” Works
The best part of the 20-Minute Meal plan is this: You can eat anything you want! No diet to follow, no food restrictions. Starting with your next meal, follow these simple steps:
Check the clock
Eat your meal at the pace that you normally eat; don’t do anything different.
Check the clock at the end of your meal
Jot down how much time the entire meal took in the 20-Minute Meal Journal (click on the link to access a pdf version of the meal journal and instructions)
At your next meal, check the clock again
Increase the length of time you spend eating by five minutes from the previous meal
When you finish, document in your journal:
- How long did my meal take?
- When did I start to feel full?
- What was my mood like?
- Note any aha moments, takeaways, or additional thoughts.
Keep repeating Step 2 with each ensuing meal and keep adding five minutes onto your mealtime until your meals last at least 20 minutes.
The final step is making each meal a 20-minute meal for the next seven days.
Why 20 minutes? It takes the body about 20 minutes to realize it is full. This experiment can be stretched out to 30 minutes or longer, depending on much you begin to savor and enjoy your meals.
Tips for Slowing Down
Before eating, take a minute to de-stress: Express gratitude and take several 5-5-7 breaths (the directions for this breathing technique can be found here).
Chew your food and truly savor it, mindfully thinking about the taste and texture of the various foods you’re ingesting. The average person chews his or her food three times before swallowing; meanwhile, the recommended number of chews per bite is between 32 and 40. That said, if you can simply get up to the 10-15 range at first, you’re doing better than most.
Make a point of setting down your utensils at least three times during each meal. While your hands are free, take 2-3 deep breaths, and if you have a meal partner, converse regularly between bites.
Play the "Last Person Done Game" with yourself, pacing your eating so that you are the last person at the table to finish a meal. If you're a very fast eater like me, after a few successful go-rounds, I guarantee you will surprise your fellow diners as well as yourself.
Now also is a good time to practice making meals special. Set the table nicely (even for breakfast and lunch), use your special glassware or silverware, light a candle, play some relaxing music in the background.
Finally, remember this is not an all or nothing exercise. It’s about taking small, easy steps to develop new habits or rituals for optimizing your health, boosting energy, and improving your overall sense of well-being.