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How to Eat Slowly: 25 Games For Food Rebels
Have you ever asked anyone this question and got the following answer:
Q: I’ve tried chewing 20 times to slow down my eating, but it’s just not working any more. Have you got any other ideas?
A: Chew 30 times.
It’s 2006. I’m sitting in the living room of Paul McKenna, then (and still) Britain’s most successful self-help author and speaker. I’m one of three people who have won a competition for a coaching session on interview confidence. This is a rare opportunity indeed: McKenna generally doesn’t do face-to-face coaching anymore.
At the end of the session, he offers to answer any questions we want to ask about him.
My question was not about confidence, but slow eating. I’d read his I Can Make You Thin and lost weight, which I was starting to regain. One of the founding principles of that book is eating slowly. I’d managed it quite successfully for a few weeks…until I had started to fall back into my old habits – one of which was eating like Road Runner.
Hence my question.
After the coaching session, I went back home, tried to chew my food 30 times…and wondered why I somehow wasn’t up to this advice.
This book is what I wish Paul McKenna had given me that day. What he so brilliantly points out is the importance of slow eating.
What he didn’t get is that “chew 30 times” was never going to work for me because I was a food rebel.
What’s a food rebel? Someone who resists outside rules and restrictions on their eating. Someone who doesn’t so much fall off the wagon as hurl themselves off it, with an angry cry of “You’ll never control ME!”
Every bit of advice on eating slowly I have ever been given has come from non-food rebels. They don’t understand that you need to be clever, subtle and creative when dealing with any kind of rebellious behaviour within yourself. You really need to sit down for peace talks with your compulsive behaviour, while sneakily tying its shoelaces under the table.
This is why I have developed the idea of slow eating games. Instead of attempting to push through via useless suggestions like chew 30 times, playing is a far more effective strategy. Here’s why:
- Games take the pressure off.
- Games are fun.
- Games are temporary, and don’t require any commitment.
- Games take us back to childhood. How many of us adults indulge in play (of any kind) as much as we should?
- Games are not all about results
…Okay, they can be if you have a competitive streak in you. However, apart from a couple of fun competitions that I suggest, the games in this book are much more in the spirit of play as John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) defines it. In his 1990 speech on creativity, he says
“To play is to experiment: what would happen if we did this? The very essence of playfulness is an openness to anything that may happen – feeling that whatever happens, it’s OK.”
(Google John Cleese creativity to watch the whole speech)
Why We Need To Eat Slowly
Humankind has evolved its technological advances far faster than the pace of its own biological evolution. This means that we live in a world of overstimulation and stress, too stressful for our brains – that are really still wired for cave dwelling times. The only equipment we have to deal with stress is the fight or flight response, which is designed to deal with immediate life-threatening situations such as an aggressive tiger. Whenever we perceive a threat (real or imagined), our primitive brain switches to the stress response. Adrenaline, cortisol and insulin flood the mind and body. Perception of time changes: the cortisol makes us think that we have no time; we are receptive not to pleasure but pain, and hyper-ready to take action.
When you’re facing a frozen computer or workplace conflict, this is bad enough – but it gets worse. One of the side-effects of the stress response is that digestion shuts down. Nutrients are excreted, the release of insulin signals the body to store fat, healthy intestinal bacteria are destroyed, less thyroid hormone is produced, and muscle mass is decreased.
Let’s not vilify the stress response – we wouldn’t have survived all those man eating tigers without it. The fact is that the human body is only designed to experience stress for 2 to 4 minutes (because your primitive brain knows that something is going to happen in that time – either you get the tiger, you get away, or the tiger gets you). The problem is that many people are living in a state of constant low-level chronic stress – they think it’s a fact of life and inescapable. They are unwittingly choosing to live in a state of digestive and weight loss disaster.
The thing about fast eating is that even if you are feeling quite chilled, a speedy snack or hasty meal will automatically put your body into a stress response.
But all is not lost. The superhero in this situation is the relaxation response. This is how we are naturally meant to live 99% of the time. Just as the stress response shuts down digestion, the relaxation response ramps it up: nutrients are absorbed fully, muscle mass is increased, healthy bacteria repopulate the gut, thermic efficiency (your ability to burn calories) rises – as well as a whole host of other beautiful side-effects.
Where does slow eating come in? Well, just as fast eating puts us into a biological stress response, slowing down helps put us into the relaxation response. I have found that merely focusing on slowing down for mealtimes acts like an emotional oasis in the middle of a manic day – well, that’s the effect I aim for. I don’t always get there, but I have been surprised at how I can relax my whole being just by focusing on slow(er) meals.
Level 1 Games
#1 Slow Motion Film Star
This is a great way to eat non-chewable foods such as soup or porridge slowly, but it’s one of my favourite slow eating games for any food. The trick is to focus on slowing down through your whole body.
As you take a spoonful/forkful/handful of food, imagine that you are in a slow motion film. Bring the food to your lips as slowly as humanly possible. Chew as slowly as humanly possible, and bring the fork or spoon back to the plate as slowly as humanly possible – all the time imagining that you’re in a film.
This is actually more fun than it sounds, especially if you add in other slow motion movements – scratch your head, smile or laugh, run your hand through your hair, take a drink of something while you eat – all as slowly as you can.
If you have any children around, this can be a really fun thing to do together – it’s the one thing that I can do for longer than my eight-year-old son, but we both collapse into fits of laughter doing it!
The unexpected thing that I found about Slow Motion Film Star is that it’s actually a powerful way to relax. As we know from the introduction, being in a state of relaxation improves everything from digestion to stress to calorie burning. Both your imagination and whole body are completely engaged in this utterly silly game, and it not only turns off the food rebel, but the stress bunny in you.
Level 2 Games
This is a good way to extend your eating time if you feel that you just cannot slow down. Divide the food on your plate into two halves – you could actually draw a line down the middle with your knife. When you’ve eaten one half, leave the room for 5 minutes before returning to finish the rest.
This is not a perfect solution, because the ideal state we are aiming for is slow, conscious eating – but it does allow you to prove yourself that you have self-control. Using the different games in this book helps you build on that.
A variation on this game is to time yourself for each half of the meal. Does the interval make you slow down your eating speed during the second half?
Do you find you get engrossed in whatever you’re doing in the interval, and come back for the second half of your food late? If so, I want you to acknowledge what a positive thing this is. Slowing down is a surprisingly challenging skill to acquire, and it’s easy to feel down on yourself that you can’t do such a seemingly simple thing straightaway. Taking more than the allotted 5 minute break shows you that eating isn’t actually as urgent, all-encompassing as you might sometimes think.