I was recently traveling in Spain, where I noticed that taking time for meals, including long lunches, is an important part of the national culture. And it’s not just the Spanish—in France, even a McDonald’s meal takes longer than in the U.S. In a study conducted several years ago, researchers observed diners in McDonald’s restaurants in France and the U.S., and timed how long they spent seated with their meals. The French averaged 22.2 minutes at the table; the Americans a mere 14.4 minutes—35 percent less. When it comes to fast eating, we really excel. The problem is that this is making us fatter, more stressed, and generally less healthy.
Research and casual observation both demonstrate that certain cultures—such as the French—have a tradition of what I like to think of as eating with elegance. Elegant eating means sitting down to enjoy your food, and taking your time with it. It means being aware not only of what you are eating, but of the process of eating it—tasting each bite, taking the time to cut up your food, to chew and swallow, and to enjoy. Unfortunately, many Americans are living such fast-paced lives that we just don’t have time to linger over food. Too many of us eat at least one of our meals at a desk, which means we are checking emails, taking phone calls, stressing over our jobs—all while trying to consume food. I even see people in the Financial District in San Francisco literally running back to work while shoving down a sandwich! It’s the opposite of elegant. According to the American Dietetic Association, some 75 percent of working Americans eat at their desks multiple times per week. Is it a coincidence that 65 to 70 percent of Americans are also overweight or obese?
There are consequences to not eating with elegance. You are more likely to eat processed food—the sort of thing you can eat with one hand. Eating at your desk, you don’t break up your day, and so your body doesn’t have a chance to reduce your cortisol (stress hormone) levels and recuperate from the pressures of working. Also, if you don’t focus on your food when you eat, your brain misses the experience of eating. It’s as though you never ate at all, and you will get hungry again sooner, and are likelier to overeat later in the day. Finally, if you eat mindfully, and savor your food – perhaps chat with a friend over your meal—you take longer to eat. It takes your stomach about 20 minutes to signal to your brain that you are full. Eat too quickly and you will stuff yourself past the point where your stomach would otherwise feel full. If you are like the Americans in the McDonald’s study you might end up actually eating more than the people who stay longer.
The two-hour lunches that the French, Spanish and Italians, as well my own Peruvian relatives, take on a daily basis are just not realistic for working Americans. But there are ways you can start eating more mindfully. Here are some strategies that will help with both your stress and your weight management:
Whatever you do, don’t eat at your desk. Discover the break room in your office. Leave your cubicle, and avoid eating where you actually do your work.
Take 20 minutes minimum for every meal. Again, two hours is a perhaps unreachable ideal, but 20 minutes is enough time to enjoy your food and take a few deep breaths. And you’ll still have time to get your work done.
Eat with elegance. Use a knife and fork—and try to have food that requires a knife and fork! Anything you can eat with just your hands is likely to be processed, or at least densely caloric. Eat food that you need to cut up, and chew.
No matter what you’re eating, derive pleasure from it. Savor the flavors, chew thoroughly, be aware of the tastes and textures. Make sure your brain and body both know that you had, and enjoyed, a meal.
Find a lunch buddy. Talking as you eat will both help you eat more slowly and help you relax, reducing your stress levels.
It’s easy to think of food as the enemy. Between the need to watch our food for everything from calories to pesticides and the demands of our ever-faster-paced society, it is easy to wind up in a war with food. Eating with elegance is an opportunity to remember that it’s ok to eat. In fact, eating – really eating – is key to weight loss and stress reduction alike.
Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian (RD) and certified specialist is sports dietetics (CSSD) with more than 16 years of experience. He is a national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and the creator of the Eating Free weight management program (an international, Internet-based weight loss and weight management program). He is an in-demand health and nutrition expert on both local and national television and radio, and in articles in print publications and online. Villacorta is the owner of San Francisco-based private practice MV Nutrition, the recipient of two consecutive ‘‘Best Bay Area Dietitian’’ awards (2009 and 2010) from the San Francisco Chronicle and Citysearch.