I blame my mother. When I was growing up, she would bolt her food, finishing well before me and the rest of us. Something to do with the war and rationing I suspect. I learnt to eat fast too.
In contrast my half-French husband has always savoured his food – maybe because he was partly brought up in Spain and learnt a more languid, Mediterranean approach to mealtimes. In the past I would be itching to load the dishwasher almost as soon as we sat down. You can imagine how relaxing our family meals were.
Now, at 51, I’ve finally learnt to eat more slowly. I have the nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh to thank.
Five years ago, we met up. I was fed up with feeling anxious, a feeling which I knew, if left unchecked, could turn to full blown depression having had two serious bouts of the illness. I wanted to learn more about how nutrition might help my mental health. Alice has been my guide and teacher since and now the co-author of our new book The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food. Together we built up a range of recipes designed to boost energy, relieve low mood, comfort a troubled mind, support hormone balance and help you sleep soundly.
It turns out it’s not just what you eat that matters – our top three ‘happy foods’ are dark green leafy vegetables, oily fish, and dark chocolate -- but also how you eat. For a maximum mood boost, we need to stay in the moment and remain conscious of everything we’re doing - the opposite of scoffing on autopilot, which was my previous default setting.
Slow eating has nutritional and psychological benefits. It turns out you can eat all the good mood food in the world, but unless we eat it calmly and with focus, it will have far less impact than it should.
Alice explains: “It all begins when we learn to chew our food slowly. The saliva production triggers digestive juices, sending a signal to our stomach that food is on its way.”
In addition, slow and steady chewing – ideally between 30-40 chews – chops up the food into the kind of small, semi-soft pieces which are easier for our stomachs to digest, thus optimising our absorption of the food’s nutritional content.
There are other benefits to eating slowly. It allows us to properly assess if we are hungry. Before I swing open the fridge, I now ask myself: Am I hungry, or bored, or stressed? If I’m actually hungry, I then have time to reach for a healthy snack, and one which might help my mood. Often I’m thirsty rather than hungry, and one of our mood-boosting smoothies or teas are all that’s needed.
But if after a moment I realise that I just need a break, or am feeling anxious, I can go for a walk or call a friend or do some gardening instead. This slow pace is especially relevant for those who feel low or anxious: naturally they are drawn to sugary treats to cheer themselves up.
Another benefit to slow eating is it gives us time to cultivate being grateful. There was something to be said for saying grace in a more religious era, and begin thankful for what is on plate when millions still go hungry: numerous studies have linked being grateful to good mental health outcomes.
Various practical changes have proved key to eating more slowly. The most obvious has been to balance my blood sugar and make sure I never becoming ravenously hungry: throughout the day I snack on protein like almonds and cottage cheese. Thus when I do sit down, I’m not starving and don’t need to wolf down my food.
I’ve also learnt how to cook. Cooking now feels like an extension of my normal meditation routine. I can lose myself in the process. Standing still at the stove, preparing food, grounds me. I become rooted in the moment and stop worrying.
Even on days when my mood is fragile the achievement of chopping an onion or slicing an avocado makes me feel that little bit better. It is as much about the warm atmosphere in my kitchen as the cooking itself.
There may even be some evidence that cultivating a happy kitchen can help us live longer. For years, scientists have pondered the French paradox. Why is the mortality rate from heart disease less than a third of that in the UK? Why do the French on average life four years longer than Americans, despite eating, on average, more saturated fat?
One explanation that the French enjoyment of cooking and food, and a culture that celebrates eating slowly, surrounded by family has a positive effect on their mood. They eat mindfully without having to learn how to do so. So that explains my husband…
Alice taught me that when possible, I should take at least 15 to 20 minutes to savour my food, even if I’m eating alone: I set an egg timer to remind myself.
Using chopsticks was another trick, as well as the aforementioned chewing each mouthful at least 30 times before swallowing. Another good device is to eat with your non-dominant hand. Equally, rest your fork on the table after every bite, or consciously use that action to take a slow breath.
Once you've mastered the art of eating slowly, you'll be able to appreciate your food more. I now take a few minutes to think about what went into the preparation of the food, especially if I had cooked it myself, perhaps by saying grace or taking a moment to express gratitude for all I have. I’ve learnt to consciously observe the colours, textures, and aromas of the food, as well as remembering everyone who played a role in my having this plate in the first place.
It goes without saying that eating in front of a screen, whether it's your phone, laptop, TV, or tablet, is a mistake. Multiple studies show it can actually lead to weight gain.
Instead, sit down at your kitchen table or another quiet environment where you can focus wholeheartedly on the meal in front of you. Then even if you weren’t born half French, or raised in Spain, you too can learn to savour your food – and you should feel calmer and happier too.