by Susan McCarthy
Disclosure: As an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
I’ve been a fast eater for as long as I can remember. When my brother and I were kids, my father used mealtime to air his complaints and so dinner was a stressful experience that was best hurried through. As an adult, I realized that I ate much more quickly than the people around me. Not only did I eat faster, but I ate more than others.
I’d tried different tricks to train myself to eat slower. I tried counting how many bites of food I consumed during the day. I tried chewing each bite 30 times. I tried to remember to set my fork down after every bite. I even tried to use an app that would guide the pace that I’d eat. Unfortunately, the app needed to be reset with each bite and was too annoying to use for an entire meal.
I’d remember to slow down for the span of a single meal and then forget for the next few meals.
So, why did I think it was important to eat at a slower pace? I figured that it would make me more mindful. That maybe I could connect that mindfulness with my sense of hunger and satiety that shoveling food into my mouth overrode.
It felt like I’d grown up hearing that it took the brain 20 minutes to notice if the stomach were full but as a speedy eater, I had no clue how this was supposed to work.
I had no expectation that consuming my meals at a more leisurely pace would be the magical solution to my weight woes. However, I knew that eating less wasn’t compatible with eating quickly – I’d end up feeling that I hadn’t really consumed a meal. Slowing down would start to bring awareness to my eating habits.
The Weird Practice that Changed my Habit
I was reading Dr. BJ Fogg’s book, Tiny Habits (affiliate link)when I came across a technique that promised to change a habit quickly. His example was about putting away the TV remote where it belongs and so I have no clue why I thought, “hey, I could try this technique to train myself to eat more slowly.”
Along with promising to quickly transform my tendency, this technique would also rewire my habit so I wouldn’t have to remind myself to slow down during each meal.
Allow me to now insert the obligatory pun – what did I have to lose?
Feeling Successful Was Key
The technique is a concentrated version of Dr. Fogg’s Tiny Habits Method. One of the things that he’d discovered about human behavior was that habits didn’t form just because you repeated it 21 days. In fact, counting repetitions didn’t matter at all.
The key component – emotions. Primarily, you were likelier to do things when you felt successful. And so, Dr. Fogg concluded every behavior sequence (aka, habit) with something he called celebration.
Basically, you’d tell yourself “good job,” “way to go,” “woo hoo,” or give yourself a mental high five immediately after the habit. The key here is to feel the success of completing the desired micro-action.
Allow me to insert this little tidbit about myself. I am a pessimist. Telling myself, “good job,” particularly while eating, was, to put it mildly, unlikely.
Of course, when I fed my cat and she walked over to the dish, I gave her a cheery, “good girl!” If I could bolster my cat’s self-esteem, dammit, I could tell myself I was doing a good job for eating more slowly.
Rehearse the New Behavior
The Tiny Habits Method involves a specific action that prompts the new habit and concludes with an immediate celebration.
I decided that taking a bite of food would be my prompt to put my fork or food down. My celebration would involve giving myself a thumbs-up which would also serve the purpose of giving my hand something to do while free of food or fork.
I sat down with a sandwich, a carrot cut up into sticks, and a 150-calorie bag of chips which brought the count to approximately 450 calories. I wasn’t trying to restrict calories at this meal but practice eating more slowly.
I took a bite of my sandwich, set it down on the plate, and while my right hand was on the table, gave myself a thumbs up. For emphasis, I’d tell myself, “good job for putting down the food.” At some point I started tapping my fist quietly against the table as I chewed.
I followed the same routine for every bite, even though Dr. Fogg recommends 7-to-10 repetitions as sufficient. Again, the emphasis isn’t on counting how many times I was rehearsing this new behavior but on feeling the success associated with this new action.
So, Did this Help?
I felt oddly cheered by this strange sequence. Cheered-giddy? No. Successful? Um, yes. I was eating more slowly than was usual and the process wasn’t a strain. I wasn’t berating myself for eating quickly or telling myself to pace myself with someone else. (While doing this experiment, I was eating alone.)
At dinner that day, without trying, I finished eating after my husband did. Instead of being the first to finish meals with others, I was more often the last. I wasn’t reminding myself to slow down. I wasn’t telling myself “good job” or giving myself a thumbs up with each bite. I just ate slower.
Did pounds fall from my frame just because I ate more slowly? Alas, no. I have decades of practicing a host of bad habits around food.
However, looking at my behaviors as habits that can be changed instead of character flaws that I’m stuck with without undergoing extensive therapy is a more useful – and hopeful – mindset that I plan on developing.
This is my experience. I'm not offering medical, nutritional, or mental health advice.
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Susan, chief (and only) organized squirrel at A Less Cluttered Life, pursues learning, practicing, and sharing information about the everyday habits that can lead to living a better life.