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Weight Loss By Slowing Down

June 22, 2008
It has nothing to do with eliminating food groups, taking pills, buying a book, keeping a journal, signing up, paying a fee, or weighing in. You don’t have to exercise for it to work (although that always helps, of course).

You already know how to do it. You just need to be reminded—as I was this week in two different ways. Here it is:

Slow down.

Yep, as we rush through our ever more overscheduled lives, we tend to eat quickly and mindlessly. And as many studies have shown, when you do that, you don’t give your brain time to catch up with your stomach and alert you that you’re full and satisfied. So you eat more than you need or even want, and the pounds pile up.

As a longtime health editor, I know this, of course. But after two recent reminders, I realized I wasn’t practicing it, so I’m going to adopt a slower pace. Here’s why. When I was in Minnesota on a family trip last week, I got to meet my gorgeous new nine-week-old nephew, John Robert IV.

During lunch at a casual restaurant, little John started getting a bit fussy. I told his mom and dad to eat and I’d take him for a while. He loves to be flung over your shoulder and walked around. So I got up after two bites of my gigantic sandwich and made a few circuits of the restaurant with the baby. A few minutes later, I returned and took another bite, then walked again for another 10 minutes or so. When I finally got back to the table and handed off the baby to his mom, I realized I was no longer hungry at all and didn’t even want my fries or the rest of that sandwich. I’m quite sure, however, that I would have snarfed it all down in one sitting if I hadn’t gotten up. We decided that’s how so many new moms lose the baby weight: no time to eat!

My second reminder of this phenomenon was Friday evening at my favorite neighborhood restaurant, Resto, which makes the best hamburgers on the isle of Manhattan. (It’s on 29th between Park and Lex, if you have ever a chance to go.) Now, I don’t eat much red meat, but I do occasionally indulge in Resto’s incredibly juicy and flavorful burger made from short ribs and hanger steak. It’s a modest size, as this is a Belgian-American spot, served with impeccable frites and small salad. I could easily eat it all every time.

But I was with my friend Steve, who had throat surgery that now requires him to eat much more slowly than most people. So I matched his pace, taking tiny bites, really savoring each one, and catching up on his life in between. Sure enough, when I stopped and assessed the situation a little past halfway through, I realized I was full and feeling good. I pushed the plate away and vowed to remember the technique.

“Mindful eating” is the new buzzword for this. And it does work, according to studies that have been done since the 1970s, when we all started getting too busy to sit down and relax with our families at mealtimes. Now, granted, it works best when you really want to eat less. We all have moments of weakness, when only massive doses of chocolate or chips or ice cream will comfort what ails us, and no amount of mindfulness will slow us down. That’s emotional eating, not appetite.

But most of the time, slowing down—and I mean really slowing down so it take 30 minutes or more to finish a meal—can significantly reduce your caloric intake. I could give you dozens of other diet tips, from reducing processed foods and sugars to eating more fiber to getting more sleep and exercise. But taking your time may be the strongest weight-control weapon you have.

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