Inhaling your food every once in a while when you're in a rush isn't the worst thing in the world. But if you're the kind of person who looks up from your empty plate and notices everyone else is only half done, you might want to think about slowing down.
Aside from a chronic stomachache, eating too fast can set the stage for weight gain and some serious health problems. Here's a closer look at the risks — plus some simple ways to curb your pace.
1. Indigestion and Upset Stomach
If you've ever devoured your plate in the blink of an eye, you're probably familiar with that icky, stuffed feeling that follows. Indigestion is a common result of eating too fast, according to MedlinePlus, a site powered by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Symptoms can include a heavy, burning sensation — kind of like you ate fiery rocks for dinner.
Thankfully, the discomfort usually goes away once your body has had a chance to digest all the food. But if your indigestion persists, talk to your doctor to make sure it's not being caused by other complications associated with gastrointestinal discomfort, such as gallstones or ulcers.
2. Weight Gain
There's no doubt about it: Regularly eating too quickly can significantly up your risk for being overweight. A review of 23 studies on the topic, published in the International Journal of Obesity in November 2015, found that eating quickly is positively associated with higher BMIs and excess body weight.
The reason? Experts agree that it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that you've had enough to eat. Chow down too fast, and you risk piling on extra calories before your body has a chance to signal that you don't actually need them.
In fact, a body of research, including a small but compelling study published in the January 2019 issue of Nutrients, has shown that slower eaters tend to have lower levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin — and as a result, they end up taking in less food. "It's possible to deduce that when someone eats fast, they're not giving their body a chance to suppress the ghrelin, and it continues to stay high, and therefore you want to eat more," says Sarah Pflugradt, a Missouri-based registered dietitian.
Another thing to consider: You're more likely to make less healthy choices when you're speed-eating, points out Georgie Fear, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Nutrition Loft, which offers coaching programs on nutrition and weight loss. And since most worse-for-you choices tend to be calorie-dense (hello, pizza and donuts!), you end up taking in more calories per minute.
"Eating quickly reduces the accuracy of how our brain stores memories of what we've consumed. This memory-retrieval is part of determining how much we eat at our next meal. So speed-eating at lunch can lead to eating more at dinner."
3. Disconnection From Hunger and Fullness Signals
If eating fast dulls your body's natural satiety signals, you risk falling out of touch with your natural hunger and fullness signals. "Eating quickly reduces the accuracy of how our brain stores memories of what we've consumed," says Fear, author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss. "This memory-retrieval is part of determining how much we eat at our next meal. So speed-eating at lunch can lead to eating more at dinner."
Over time, you might start to forget what the sensations of hunger or fullness actually feel like—and end up relying on your emotions to tell you when to eat.
4. Longer-Term Health Problems
Regularly noshing like a speed demon can set you up for some significant health issues over time. Chief among them? Metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that raise the risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. And indeed, a July 2018 study published in BMC Public Health that included nearly 8,000 people found that faster eating speed was tied to high blood pressure, increased belly fat, high cholesterol and high blood sugar.
"It may be as simple as higher calorie intake in fast eaters promoting weight gain and the other factors occurring as a result of that weight gain," Fear theorizes.
But there also could be more to it. Remember, faster eating makes you more likely to choose less healthy foods. "So the negative impacts may not only be from excess energy intake, but also from higher amounts of additives, sugars and processed grains and lower intake of inflammation-fighting foods like fruits and vegetables," Fear says.
So, How Fast Should You Eat?
Experts agree that it takes around 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that it's full. With that in mind, Pflugradt and Fear recommend trying to stretch your meals to last at least that long. "That doesn't mean you should continue to eat until you reach 20 minutes. It's not a challenge," Pflugradt says. Instead, serve yourself your usual portion and try to eat at a pace that makes your meal last for 20 minutes (or longer). And if you're still truly hungry after that? It's OK to serve yourself a little more.
Read more: How to Lose Weight if You Can't Stop Eating
Tips to Slow Your Pace
Hitting the brakes can be hard if you're used to polishing off an entire plate of food in just a few minutes. But you can recalibrate your eating speed over time. It just takes some practice. Some tactics that can help:
Eat sitting down, without distractions. Steer clear of situations that make it easy to gobble up your food without paying much attention, like eating in the car or in front of the TV or computer, Pflugradt says. Instead, sit down at the table and try to eat mindfully. Not only will you slow down, but your meal might leave you feeling more satisfied, too.
Take small bites and chew thoroughly. "Avoid 'tailgating' bites — putting another bite of food in your mouth while still chewing the prior bite," Fear recommends.
Put your fork down. It's an easy way to give yourself a break after each bite, says Pflugradt.
Make dining more social. Aim to enjoy your food with family or friends whenever you can. Conversations are a fun, no-fail way to stretch out a meal.
Play some mood music. Specifically, something slow. Some research has suggested that people tend to spend significantly more time enjoying their meals when relaxed music is playing.
- MedlinePlus: "Indegestion"
- International Journal of Obesity: "Association between eating rate and obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis."
- Nutrients: "Slow Down: Behavioural and Physiological Effects of Reducing Eating Rate"
- BMC Public Health: "Association between self-reported eating speed and metabolic syndrome in a Beijing adult population: a cross-sectional study."