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Lots of people scarf down their food. Here's how to eat at a healthier pace

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Do you ever eat way too fast and accidentally bite the inside of your mouth or just feel really bloated and uncomfortable? There are a lot of reasons we scarf down our food - tight deadlines, short lunch breaks at work, rushing to get somewhere. If you're working on building better eating habits in the new year, you might want to try eating mindfully.

LILIAN CHEUNG: Mindful eating practice encourages us to make choices that are satisfying and nourishing to the body.

SUMMERS: Lilian Cheung is the director of mindfulness research and practice at Harvard University. She practices and researches mindful eating, which asks us to slow down and notice our food. NPR Life Kit host Marielle Segarra asked her for tips we can use to eat at a healthy pace.

MARIELLE SEGARRA, BYLINE: Lilian, how fast are we supposed to eat a meal? Like, is there a standard we should be following?

CHEUNG: Well, most - you'll find most nutritionists urging us to take 20 minutes for a meal...

SEGARRA: OK.

CHEUNG: ...Because it takes about that time for your body to get the signal to the brain that you are full. If you eat fast, your brain is not getting the signal that you are full until about 20 minutes. And it involves the nervous system, as well as hormonal system.

SEGARRA: OK, so let's get into some of the really practical tips here. If you want to start to slow down when you eat or to eat at a healthy pace, what are some principles you can follow?

CHEUNG: First is allocate time to eat and only eat and make sure your cell phone is not with you or is face down. You're not going to be responding to any messages that comes through. And then to make sure we engage our senses, be with the food. And ask yourself, what's on my plate? How hungry am I today in this meal? And notice the taste, really. The recipe that I just cooked - is it too salty? Does it need something else that I can improve it next time? And engage your smell, all your senses, the texture and whatever thought that arose as you eat because there might be some emotional aspects related to the food and be aware of it.

SEGARRA: OK, let's say you make a meal that is something that your grandmother used to make for you. And you're eating it, and you're tasting, oh, my God. This tastes just like my grandma's stuffed cabbage. You know, like, that's an emotional reaction that you can have to a meal, too, that's positive. But if you pause rather than just shoveling it in, if you're pausing and saying, like, what do I feel when I bite into this stuffed cabbage? You know, who does it remind me of? Does that help?

CHEUNG: Yeah, it does help because it brings back loving, wonderful memories. And the dish that you use an example is a great healthy dish. We have to consider sort of the physiological and emotional, psychological aspects of food. But I really worry for America because the amount of ultra-processed, highly refined foods in the market is so huge, and it's easy to get addicted to it. So we have to be very mindful when we yearn for those. And if you're really longing for potato chips, eat it. But make sure you just take a handful and put it in a nice dish and eat it mindfully to be able to taste the saltiness, this crispiness. And thank the universe for the right climate to be able to have that potato and the manpower that has been engaged in making it available not only at the factory - OK? - but also transportation to get the chips to the supermarket, etc. Mindful eating really allows us to become much more aware of what we have, how we get it, and what it takes to be able to have that.

SEGARRA: The point you make about taking the potato chips and putting them in a bowl, it gets at another tip for how to eat at a healthy pace, which is take smaller portions to the table, right?

CHEUNG: Exactly. If you have a whole bag of chips with you and start eating, it's really challenging and difficult to stop after 6 or 8 chips because, you know, we love the taste. We love the crispiness, and we just keep getting it from the bag. And especially when you may be looking at your cell phone or watching a TV program, you are distracted, and you feel good about the crispiness and the taste. And you just want more and more without consciously thinking about stopping.

SEGARRA: Yeah. I wonder, is there a space for saying affirmations even in your head? You know, like, I'm not in a rush, you know? Or I enjoy my food. Or something really simple to keep yourself on track?

CHEUNG: Oh, yes. I think the key with a hurried life when you start to eat is literally stop and take a few breaths in and out. Look at what you're eating and tell yourself, I'm going to enjoy this. And the food will nourish me, both my body and my mind.

SEGARRA: And is there a particular way we should try to eat, like, any technique that you could tell us that'll help us eat slower?

CHEUNG: I think chewing is important. We don't chew enough, and we just swallow the food. So chewing - our teeth is supposed to help us to break up the food so that it's easier for absorption. You know, it helps in many different ways - digestion and appreciation of food. And it really helps to get you to know more about your own relationship with food. So look at your food. Know what you're eating. Take a bite and chew, chew, chew.

SUMMERS: That was Lilian Cheung, a mindful eating researcher, speaking with Life Kit host Marielle Segarra. Life Kit wants to help you make and keep your New Year's resolution. Check out Life Kit's Resolution Planner. You can choose areas of life you'd like to focus on, and the tool will guide you to some of Life Kit's best tips on the topic. You can find it at npr.org/newyear. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marielle Segarra
Marielle Segarra is a reporter and the host of NPR's Life Kit, the award-winning podcast and radio show that shares trustworthy, nonjudgmental tips that help listeners navigate their lives.