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This Century-Old Book Is Still Changing the Way We Eat

Let's get this out of the way: 'Head digestion' is not what it sounds like

There’s a lot of mental voodoo out there for how to make yourself eat less. Drink water beforehand. Snack a lot throughout the day. Use smaller plates. Such tips come and ago, rising and falling in popularity like the gently distended bloat of your burrito-filled stomach.

But there’s a new sheriff in town — a life hack to trick yourself into not overeating. It’s — get this — thinking.

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You know, thinking. That thing where you use your mind to… think… about what you’re eating and… think… about how it tastes. Think about how it looks. Smells. And feels going down the old gullet. And then, and only then, my friend, will you eat more slowly, and more meaningfully, and therefore less. And that’s the point, isn’t it? To eat less?

It’s actually called mindful eating, as opposed to mindless eating, and the fuller your mind is about the food you’re eating, the fuller your stomach will feel after eating less of it. And it’s all the rage lately.

Mindfulness itself is ancient, but it picked up steam as a marketing thing in our hypercapitalist culture in 2014. The idea, of being focused, purposeful and present in the moment, is being applied to pretty much everything we do. There’s mindfulness in the workplace. Marie Kondo’s tidying up is basically cleaning up with mindfulness. There’s mindful fitness regimes.

The principles of mindfulness are generally credited to centuries-old Japanese culture, but mindful eating was also developed by a health food guy Horace Fletcher in Victorian England. Good ol’ Fletch was really into an idea called head digestion.

Head digestion? It’s the simple concept that your emotional state whilst chomping greatly impacts what you eat. That seems so obvious now, when we widely understand that many people practice “emotional eating” to soothe bad feelings, or even good ones. Take, for example, Josh Schollmeyer, our EIC:

Why Guys Like Me Can’t Stop Eating Their Feelings

But Fletcher’s idea was that we should chew every bite of food once for every tooth we have in our heads, which would be 32 times per mouthful for optimal “physical and well-being.” As the Conversation notes, that advice reads much like what we’re calling mindful eating today. Followers of Fletcher, called Fletcherites, even, apparently, convened in munching clubs to hang out and eat really slowly. An excerpt from Fletcher’s guidelines:

First: wait for a true, earned appetite.

Second: select from the food available that appeals most to appetite, and in the order called for by appetite.

Third: get all the good taste there is in food out of it in the mouth, and swallow only when it practically “swallows itself.”

Fourth: enjoy the good taste for all it is worth, and do not allow any depressing or diverting thought to intrude upon the ceremony.

Fifth: wait; take and enjoy as much as possible what appetite approves; nature will do the rest.

And he wasn’t wrong on the scientific level, either. The more we chew, the less we produce an appetite-increasing hormone. Weird, right?

So here’s the thing: There’s nothing wrong with this advice, or mindfulness in general, which is eminently practical. We should live more deliberately. We should think about the things we consume, watch, discuss, buy, eat. The more deliberate you are, the more things you engage with mean something to you. Better to get a lot out of a few things than almost nothing from a lot of things.

This naturally applies to eating. We’ve been told to slow down and chew our food slowly before to help with appetite, enjoyment and digestion. Everyone knows the feeling of inhaling a meal and realizing it’s all gone and you barely tasted it. We seem to know to savor a high-end whiskey or wine. We know a well-prepared, fancy meal out is meant to be pleasurable.

It’s the every day stuff we’re shoving in the old pie-hole without a second thought. The Pirate’s Booty snack. The absentminded way you can swallow a whole bag of Chex Mix if you aren’t careful. Just this morning I scarfed down a microwaved breakfast sandwich as if gulping for air. If you eat too fast, you don’t give your brain time to tell your stomach you’re full, which is how you eat too much. So it’s easy to see that mindful eating would successfully curb cravings. It’s also easy to see why eating too rapidly is bad, and it’s not just indigestion. It increases all sorts of health risks, including diabetes and stroke.

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I know intuitively and from recollection that the food I’ve enjoyed most is the food I’ve taken time to actually eat and really taste. I also tell my 8-year-old to pause enough in between eating to converse as a way to measure how quickly she’s scarfing down food. Because in my family, with three other hungry sisters, we ate quickly and competitively to get seconds before they were snatched all up.

And therein lies the BBQ rub of mindful eating: It sounds so simple, but it’s not.

Eating habits can be passed down, both in what you eat and how you eat. Your metabolism is another factor in how much you crave food. Which is why some people eat voraciously and unfathomably large amounts of food and don’t gain weight, and other people barely splurge and do.

There’s also just what you see growing up, and whether you are born into a family of slow, savoring nibblers or hot-dog-stuffing competitive inhalers. There’s also the element of whether you grew up eating with the whole family (better, healthwise) or stuffing your face alone (worse). At a table (best) or planted in front of the television (also bad).

A meal should take over 20 minutes to consume. But consider the fact that most people — 56 percent of American workers — get only 30 minutes for lunch. If you have to actually walk or drive or order that from somewhere, or even wait on a microwave to open up in the break room, the odds of getting the food in time to do anything but devour it is slim to none.

What’s more, as simple as it may sound, mindfulness isn’t easy for everyone. Some people find it hard to focus, particularly those with anxiety. And, it should be said, not all food is worth savoring. Sometimes you race through food when it’s not that high quality, particularly when you’re poor, so you can just swallow it down and prefer not to be reminded of its every errant (or super fucking bland) taste.

These aren’t reasons to ditch “head digestion.” Mindfulness and mindful eating is a habit one endeavors to work at, and there are plenty of solid reasons here to believe the payoff is worth it, even if it’s just to actually eat pleasurably and not even to lose weight. As good as it is to suck down a burrito, it would feel even better to get all that great burrito taste without all that terrible bloat.