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You Are How You Eat

We eat while reading the newspaper. We eat while watching T.V. or checking email. We eat while packing the kids’ lunches (over the sink, Moms?), breaking up sibling scuffles, or trying to keep an unruly toddler from throwing every bit of her dinner on the floor. We eat while working or cleaning up or driving. Necessary multitasking, we call it. If we want to eat at all some days, we just have to work it into the mix. I know how it goes. I have my Big Ass salad at my desk nearly every day while I write. The pattern, however, has the potential to sidetrack our best goals, not to mention spoil a good meal. Researchers have increasingly found that the more noise, the more stress, the more distraction we face when we eat, the less satisfied we are.

The result of this constant distraction is easy to guess. We lose track of what we’ve eaten. We end up eating more. We enjoy eating it less. Subjects in a recent study [1], for example, were instructed to play a computer game while eating. Not surprisingly, they didn’t recall what they ate as well as subjects who ate their lunch uninterrupted. The game players also reported feeling less full and ate more at a second snack time 30 minutes later.

The link, researchers explain [2], is the environmental and cognitive cues that help define our sense of fullness. We’ve all heard that it can take 20 minutes or more for the body to realize it’s full. (That’s why we suggest in The Primal Leap [3] that you ask yourself not “am I full?”, but “am I still hungry for the next bite?”) Given the physiological “gap” time there, we develop our own ways to gauge when we’ve had enough. Most of us have a pretty good idea of how much food will fill us up. We tend to serve ourselves the same amount of food most of the time in keeping with that principle. If we are not in a position to serve ourselves, we unconsciously or consciously sense how much it’s going to take to satiate us. When we’re distracted, however, we’re not paying attention to those cues, those innate estimations. We’re unable to even remember how much we’ve eaten to begin with, and our memory is obviously key to our internal, cognitive gauge.

Distraction, it turns out, can also influence our sensory experience of food itself. In one study [4], blindfolded participants were divided into groups that wore headphones and listened to white noise – soft and loud – or to no noise while eating. The louder the white noise, the study showed, the blander subjects rated their food in terms of sweetness and saltiness. Hmmm…transfer that finding to eating in front of the television.

Brian Wansink of Cornell University is one expert who’s focused on the phenomenon of “mindless” eating [5]. In addition to the regular distractions we indulge in while eating, Wansink says our multitasking causes us to grossly underestimate how often we make food choices to begin with. In one of his studies, participants were asked how many times a day they made decisions about eating. Although their responses averaged about 15 times, further questioning revealed many more choices – more than 200, in fact. The additional questions got at the lesser considered details of subjects’ meals – when and where they ate as well as what and how much. Wansink emphasizes that our eating environment and circumstances, whether we consciously choose them or not, can influence our overall diet. We might make better choices, for example, if we eat at certain times of day or at a place away from our desk or the kids’ chaos. Note to self.

Even after we’ve left a stressful environment or come home at the end of a long, taxing day, however, we still might bring baggage to the table. In one study, women participants who were exposed to jackhammer sounds [6] while solving math problems ate more of the offered snacks after the activity than those who weren’t subjected to the sound.

Obviously, I spend a lot of time discussing what to eat while living the PB, but there’s clearly more to the picture. How does eating fit into our day? Where do we eat? When? How much choice do we exercise in these decisions? Do we come away from the table satisfied and pleasantly fulfilled? Do we approach each meal with conscious intention and pleasurable expectation? What, if anything, stands in the way of realizing these ideals? How can we set ourselves up for better enjoyment and success?

I love a good Primal recipe [7] as much as the next person, but I also know that being happy with an eating lifestyle depends in part on the experience of dining. Dining. There’s a concept. It has different connotations than simply eating does, eh? How often do we allow ourselves to dine? I know when Carrie and I go out for dinner with the intent to take the time to enjoy it, there’s a real sense of relaxation and “content” that follows. How much time and attention do we devote to really savoring a meal at home – the taste, the texture, the interplay of flavors? When we sit down with the family or with friends, do we fully experience both the pleasures of food and company? Does eating sometimes feel more like a necessary chore to be worked in rather than an opportunity to relish a sensory event? Oops, time to clear the table, clean the dishes and get back to work…

Here’s a thought for today: eating can and should be a fulfilling experience. It’s about more than simply filling your stomach and even recharging your body. Eating is simultaneously indulgent and sacred. It can be a time for observation – both sensory and personal. Yes, life in all its hectic complication makes it difficult to sit down to – let alone prepare – an experience akin to Babette’s Feast [8] at every meal. Nonetheless, how could you weave a little more enjoyment into your everyday eating? What would it look like? What, if anything, in your Primal life would it change?

Share your thoughts, and have a great day, everyone!