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Something to Chew On

March 30, 2003

Don't tell her, of course, but now medical researchers report that, once again, Mom was right: You should always eat slowly and chew well. That's very hard to do in a modern, urban, fast-food world where meals are rarely communal experiences anymore with all family members gathered at one table, sans TV, to share the day's schedule or fresh experiences. Instead, American meals often become NASCAR pit stops for the mouth as hurried diners pull into the kitchen individually to refuel with prepackaged, microwaveable consumables before getting on ASAP with the important business of being very busy elsewhere.

"Do you think someone's going to steal that food?" mothers would slowly ask childish fast-eaters in a previous era. In those days everything and everyone from ballgames in the street to nervous dates would have to wait outside for the official end of the family meal inside. That table was where all members listened, shared stories and comments, answered parental questions and downloaded their verdicts and values. There was no point in hurried chewing because a larger family agenda, not an empty plate, determined the meal's adjournment.

Eating more slowly is not just more mannerly, as outdated as that sounds. It is more healthful, according to researchers at the University of Florida. They've been eavesdropping on brain activity, discovering how and when influential chemicals there begin mounting the message to the body that its fuel gauge needle is getting closer to F. For centuries, humans ate when they had food to assuage their hunger. Hunger was the meal bell at the end of a long night or a full day's physical labors. And the disappearance of that hungry feeling or all available food was the signal to stop.

But even if you are keeping that New Year's resolution, hunger has been replaced by habit for many. People eat because it's time to eat. Most, the studies found, begin to feel full after 10 minutes of eating. Experts say obesity's causes are many and complex. Inexplicably, the onset of a full feeling in many obese people appears chemically delayed, sometimes by as much as another 10 minutes. In some cases, the satiated chemicals are never distributed, meaning unnecessary food is consumed and stored.

Researchers also found that the enjoyment of palatable food produces reactions in some brains similar to addictive changes during the abuse of cocaine and other substances. Implications for effective treatment of obesity, now second only to tobacco in causing premature death, then involve major behavioral as well as dietary changes.

Alas, for those who really, really enjoy eating, never mind hunger gauges, this study is not the long-awaited proof that all meals should start 10 minutes earlier. Let's eat to that.

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