April 10, 2024/Brain & Nervous System

Eating Too Fast? Here Are 4 Ways To Slow Down

Eating mindfully, sipping water and chewing slowly can help your brain catch up with your stomach

Person eating salad with oversized clock behind them

Slow down!” is a phrase many of us likely heard as kids while we were eating. You may remember a parent or caregiver telling you that wolfing down your food would result in a stomachache. And they were right. Research shows that eating too quickly can lead to a host of health issues.

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So, how can you rewire your eating habits to make them work for you and not against you?

Psychologist Leslie Heinberg, PhD, explains more about fast eating — and how you can slow down for a better relationship with food.

What’s considered ‘fast’ eating?

We’ve all had those quick lunches during busy work days, but exactly how fast is too fast when it comes to eating? And how often is too much?

Fast eating is generally defined as a habit of eating meals at a rapid pace, often without taking the time to thoroughly chew food or savor each bite.

You may be eating too fast if:

  • You finish a regular-sized meal in less than 20 to 30 minutes. It takes 20 to 30 minutes for your body to send you a message to your brain that you’re full. “If you're a fast eater, you'll consume more food in 20 minutes than a slow eater. By the time a fast eater gets the satiety signals, it‘s too late — they‘ve overeaten and are uncomfortably full,” says Dr. Heinberg.
  • You don’t chew your food thoroughly. If you’re not chewing your food enough to break it down, it can feel as though it’s not going down easily.
  • You’re not pausing in between bites. Giving your stomach and brain time to take a beat in between bites is also important.
  • You feel uncomfortably full. Oftentimes, when you eat too fast, it leads to you having a bloated feeling of fullness.

Why does this happen?

If you’re a fast eater, you may wonder how you developed this habit. Is it emotional? Biological? Here are some possible reasons why you may have developed a need for speed when it comes to your fork and spoon.

  • Busy lifestyle: If you have a hectic schedule, you may feel rushed during mealtimes. If you started trying to finish your meals quickly to move on to other tasks or obligations, it could have developed into a habit that’s hard to shake.
  • Emotional factors: Stress, anxiety or emotional distress can affect eating patterns. You may unconsciously use food as a way to cope with emotions, and this can manifest in fast eating. Eating quickly might provide temporary relief or distraction from negative emotions.
  • Restricted eating patterns: Following strict diets or restrictive eating plans can create a sense of urgency or deprivation when it comes to meals. This can lead to faster eating if you’re trying to consume as much as possible within a limited timeframe or if you have a fear of not having enough to eat.
  • Lack of awareness about hunger and fullness cues: Insufficient awareness of hunger and fullness signals can contribute to eating too quickly. If you’re not recognizing when you’re genuinely hungry or if you‘re eating mindlessly, you may eat rapidly and surpass your body‘s needs.

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Are there health risks?

First and foremost, eating too quickly can decrease your enjoyment of your meal. And no one wants that! But beyond ruining your relationship with lunchtime, other health problems can arise from chomping down your food too quickly, including:

Poor digestion

Chewing food thoroughly is an essential part of the digestion process. When you eat quickly, you tend to take larger bites and chew less, which means the food enters your stomach in larger chunks. This can strain your digestive system and make it harder for your body to break down food properly.

Indigestion and heartburn

Eating too fast can also contribute to indigestion and heartburn. Rapid eating can cause air swallowing, leading to bloating, gas and discomfort. Additionally, your stomach may produce excess acid in response to the larger food volumes, which can result in heartburn.

Poor nutrient absorption

When you eat quickly, your body may not have enough time to properly break down and absorb nutrients from food. This can limit the bioavailability of essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, potentially leading to nutrient deficiencies over time.

Increased risk of metabolic syndrome

Some studies suggest that eating quickly may be associated with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, excess abdominal fat and abnormal cholesterol levels. These factors combined can significantly raise the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Unwanted weight gain

Research also shows that fast eating is a contributing factor to unwanted weight gain.

Researchers from a university in Japan examined data from more than 50,000 people with Type 2 diabetes. They asked people to describe themselves as fast eaters, normal eaters or slow eaters.

“People who were the slowest eaters had the lowest risk of obesity,” notes Dr. Heinberg. “People who self-described as normal eaters had a bit higher risk, but the highest risk was in the fast-eating group.”

A 2018 study found that a fast eating speed was associated with having obesity in children ages 7 to 17.

Tips to help you slow down when you eat

Looking to reduce your eating speed? Try these tips:

Give yourself enough meal time

First, make sure you’re setting aside enough time for each meal. We live in a fast-paced world with fast-food restaurants on every corner, but those five-minute lunches should be the exception, not the rule.

Eating at a slower pace allows you to enjoy your meal and feel satisfied before you eat too much.

“People should take more than 20 minutes to eat a meal — ideally about 30 minutes — so that you can have an opportunity for your brain to catch up with your stomach,” Dr. Heinberg says. She suggests using a timer or watching the clock to stretch your meal out to 30 minutes.

Slow down your chewing

Next, while you’re eating your meal, be sure to give enough time to chew each bite before you swallow. This means you shouldn’t feel big chunks of food going down your throat.

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Dr. Heinberg suggests chewing each mouthful anywhere from 15 to 30 times, depending on the food. It can also be helpful to put your hand or fork down between each bite — this way, you’re not tempted or rushed to go for another bite before you’re done with the one you have.

Sip on water

It’s also good to keep yourself hydrated while eating. Take sips of water every few mouthfuls — not only can this encourage some much-needed pauses, but it can also help you feel fuller. It can help soften tougher foods during the chewing process as well.

Practice mindful eating

It’s often tempting to turn on the TV or even scroll your phone while eating your meal. But that can be an extra distraction that can take you away from eating intentionally and slowly. This is where mindful eating comes in: A personalized mindset that you can take on for yourself to help feel more connected with your eating habits.

You can practice mindful eating by shifting your attitude about not just what you eat, but also how you eat. This means, turning the TV off, letting your mind be still and breaking down your meals into smaller portions. Mindful eating also means engaging all of your senses — not just how food tastes, but also focusing on sight, smell, texture, etc.

“Small behavior changes — whether it’s just slowing down, not snacking as much, not eating in front of the television — all these little things are small steps that people can take to chip away at that problem,” Dr. Heinberg says.

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