We hear a lot about mindful eating these days—eat more slowly, intentionally, and without watching TV, and your weight will be the better for it. And there’s probably a lot of value to this. A new study in the BMJ Open finds that people who eat slowly, rather than scarfing down their food, tend to weigh less. And slowing down your eating speed intentionally may help with weight loss over the years.
The researchers looked at data from 60,000 people with diabetes over a six-year period. At checkups over the years, they were asked about their lifestyle habits, like how fast they tended to eat, alcohol use, and sleep patterns. They were also asked whether they tended to eat dinner within two hours of going to bed at night, snack after dinner, and eat breakfast.
The odds of being obese were linked to all of the eating-related variables. The speed at which one ate had a pretty sizeable effect: people who ate at a normal speed were 29% less likely to be obese than people who ate quickly; people who ate slowly had 42% lower odds of being obese. And interestingly, people who slowed their eating over the study period tended to lose weight over time, as measured by BMI and waist circumference.
One problem with the study is that it wasn’t a controlled experiment—participants weren’t randomly assigned to different groups and asked to eat at different rates. It was an observational study, which just tried to capture natural eating habits and changes over time. Because people are not always great at remembering their own habits or reporting on them accurately, this kind of study has to be taken with a grain of salt.
That said, the results match other studies, which have shown that people who eat faster also tend to weigh more and gain more weight over time. This seems to be not just a matter of the amount of food consumed, but also the ways in which satiety hormones (those that govern the feeling of fullness and cue us to stop eating) react—in one study, when people were told to eat ice cream more slowly, more of the gut hormones were secreted and people reported feeling fuller, compared to those told to eat faster.
The timing of eating is the other takeaway of the new research—studies have repeatedly shown that when we eat is nearly as important as what we eat. People who eat late at night vs. not eating for several hours before bed are known to have a greater risk for metabolic syndrome and overweight.
And eating breakfast, always the controversial health question, was supported by the current study. “Skipping breakfast has also been shown to be associated with excess weight and obesity, and is a risk factor of metabolic syndrome,” the authors write. “Our…model revealed that consistently eating breakfast can reduce obesity, which also corroborates the findings of previous studies.” So a small, healthy morning meal may be good for weight, though it may not make or break it.
So what the study really tells us is that we’re on the right track with what we already know: eating slowly and mindfully, curtailing eating at a certain (earlier) hour, and perhaps eating breakfast are habits that will help us with weight and metabolic health over the long term. What we eat is certainly important. But how we eat—and our attitude toward and behaviors around food—is equally important.