Eat slow, then fast. How and when you eat may be as important as what you eat for weight control.

What you eat is an essential part of achieving and maintaining good health. What you may not know is that when and how you eat can be just as important. This is especially true if your goal is to lose weight.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week describes  two ways that changing the way you eat can help you lose weight and keep it off. Neither of these are necessarily new ideas, but implementing them together may help you eat less.

First, eating more slowly can help you limit the amount of food you eat. Perhaps your mother admonished you to “slow down” at meals when you were young. This was good advice, for both practical and physiological reasons. In addition to controlling how much food you consume, eating more slowly is a good way to enjoy meals, both the food and the company, more fully.

You mother may also have told you to “chew your food.” too. This was probably to remind you to eat more slowly.  Almost 100 years ago Horace Fletcher recommended a process that involved chewing each bite of food 100 times. “Fletcherizing,” as it was called, was a way to reduce how much people ate, among other more dubious health claims.

There is a physiological reason to slow down, too. Your appetite is regulated by a host of factors, including the act of eating and the presence of food in your stomach. As you eat, your stomach fills. This triggers the release of hormones that signal your brain to reduce your appetite. The result is that as your stomach fills, you feel less hungry.

Once you start eating, it takes time for your stomach to release these hormones. Eating quickly, like many of us do, allows you to take in lots of calories before your brain gets the message that you are full. This is one factor that leads to overeating. But if you slow down at meals, you start to feel full before you eat as much. Research shows that this can lead to lower calorie intake during the meal.

Second, the time between meals may affect your metabolism in ways that result in less fat accumulation. Again, the concept of fasting between meals isn’t new, but recent research helps explain why eating less frequently may help prevent obesity and related conditions, including diabetes.

While this research was done using rats, the physiological concept may well apply to humans. In these studies, rats were put on a diet that included an overnight fast ranging from 8–12 hours. The researchers found that the rats that experienced a longer fasting period between meals had better insulin levels and less fat storage.

The reason for this seems to do with the gut microbiome, the bacteria that live in the intestine and play an important role in regulating metabolism. A longer period without food changes the nature of these good bacteria, promoting these benefits.

I first heard about this on Science Friday, which provides an excellent summary of this research.

It is unclear whether this same effect occurs in humans. Even without this evidence, adopting a fasting period between dinner and breakfast, which should be about 12 hours, seems prudent. At the very least, it will keep you from snacking in the evening, which almost certainly involves unhealthy choices.

An additional finding of this research is that the benefits of the 12-hour fast seem to persist, even through a day or two of more frequent eating. This is relevant, since many people do well to modify their eating habits during the week, but tend toward less restrained eating on the weekends. The fact that the benefits of an overnight fast most days of the week are maintained despite a “wild weekend” is good news!

The combination of what, when, and how you eat can make an important difference in how much you eat, the key to losing weight and keeping it off. As you try to make healthier food choices, consider eating more slowly and making dinner the end of your eating day.

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