Many of my clients come to my office already very much aware of the importance of eating fresh, organic, locally-grown food. They are eager to talk about the nutritional value of what they eat and they know to avoid fast food. And that's a great sign of progress -- a generation of research and education has taught Americans that there is an important relationship between our food and our basic health. But while we talk all the time about the content of our food, we tend to neglect an equally important aspect: how we eat it. This, I strongly believe, is one of the missing links between food, body and health.
I recently traveled to Spain and was reminded of the importance of taking time to enjoy eating. In Spain, people take two hours for lunch -- two hours! I researched other nationalities and found that the Italians, for example, do the same thing. I'm from Peru, where the midday meal can even take three hours. But for many of my American clients, though they know to eat organic and local, simply finding time to sit down to eat lunch can seem impossible. But it's so important. Don't worry -- I'm not going to tell you to take two hours for lunch. I know that in a busy American culture, that's just not realistic. It's possible to take 20 minutes for every meal and get some pretty impressive benefits, but first you have to make the time commitment.
Many readers are thinking, "I'm too busy!" I was in Peru in May and visited with my uncle. This man is the head of a large company -- he has 500 employees and runs an import/export business. He is busy, to say the least. But amazingly enough, every day he goes home at one o'clock to eat lunch with his wife and kids. On the other hand, I have clients in the U.S. who are power CEOs, and part of the reason they are consulting me is that food is the last thing on their mind. They are worrying about deadlines, meetings, pressure -- and there is no way they could sit down for a long lunch. But if that were working for them, they wouldn't be overweight with health issues. They wouldn't need a registered dietitian.
The key to your 20-minute meal is to eat with elegance. That is, don't eat at your desk, or while you are catching up on email. Dedicate time just to eating. The benefits of this are incredible. You break up your day and get out of the stressful pressure of work, which relieves stress. You become aware of what you eat, enjoying its flavors and the feeling of fullness that comes from eating.
This is important for two reasons. First, because ignoring your food as you eat it gives you the sense that you never ate -- and the next thing you know, you are at the vending machine, hungry again. Second, because if you take time to chew and enjoy your food you eat more slowly; since it take 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that you are full, eating slower will mean eating less, but feeling just as happy. Finally, try to be social as you eat. Meet someone in the break room and talk during your meal. Talking slows down your eating -- but just as importantly, you get the benefits of a social network and the stress relief of camaraderie.
Your nutritional health is more than just calorie control, antioxidants and good protein. It's beyond eating organic and local. Traveling to Europe and South America this year, I noticed that people were much less concerned with the nutritional content of their food, and much more interested in making sure they enjoyed it. Yet we are heavier and unhealthier than they are. It's time for us to start eating with elegance.
Rozin, P. et al. (2003). The ecology of eating: smaller portion sizes in France than in the United States help explain the French paradox. Psychological Science, 14(5), 450-454.
Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice in San Francisco, California. He is a national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and the founder of Eating Free