Try it for one meal.
…by which I mean “not automatically”.
I am not talking about the decision to eat, I am talking about the act of eating itself.
Look, eating is pretty easy. It’s not even “second nature”, it’s first nature. (Really, the very first.) Eating is so fantastically easy that it’s possible to put the entire process on autopilot and turn your attention to something else. Set it and forget it! Delegate responsibility for the process of chewing and swallowing to some ancient, instinctual circuit in your hindbrain—and when you look down from your screen twenty minutes later, your plate is magically empty and your tummy is full.
But if you’re going to delegate critical work, it’s important to check up on your workers occasionally, because even the most trusted employee can get sloppy with time. The problem is that for most people, there’s a substantial gap between your eating-autopilot’s most core directive—i.e. “Get the food into the stomach without choking”—and the optimal process for extracting nourishment from your food.
How wide is that gap? Try, for just one meal, taking full executive control of eating. Give not only your undivided attention, but your full effort to the process of consuming your food. Think about what you are doing to each bite once you put it in your mouth, and what your mouth tells you about how it’s going. Be as thorough, as thoughtful as possible, in preparing that food to give up its nutrients to your body and begin its transformation into poop.
Here is the important part:
Do not read, do not watch a show, do not talk to a friend. Do not scroll or swipe or text, do not call your mother to catch up.1 All of these things require too much attention to do while eating manually. They require eating to be put on autopilot. Turn the autopilot off completely. Pretend it’s not an option.
Just chew. Taste. Smell. Chew some more. Swallow.
Do not drink to wash food down.
Eat slowly enough that you don’t need to.
This is what your saliva is for.
Lube is a poor substitute for foreplay.2
Work to taste every bit of every mouthful.
Chew each bite until it has given up all its flavor.
Chew each bite until chewing stops changing the texture.
Don’t swallow it until it’s completely uniform.
This is all you should be thinking about. This is listening to your body.
You will fail! Your mind will wander.
You’ll find yourself thinking about a passing dog, or about work, or about what you’re eating rather than how you’re eating it. You may look down to find that you have unconsciously unlocked your phone.
This is like any meditation; even the zen masters are not full of pure ॐ from the instant they close their eyes. Just notice the thought, let it go, return your attention to tasting and chewing. Figuring out how to bite the burrito, to get the right ratio of each ingredient in the next mouthful. Using your tongue to mash and mix the beans, the rice, the sour cream.
You don’t have to stare at your food the entire time, but do not give attention to anything else you see. Zone out. Look at the sky, or even close your eyes.
If you are eating right now: STOP READING, YOU SON OF A BITCH! If you don’t understand the assignment by this point, I can’t help you. Shut the screen off, we’ll be right here when you’re done.
This has somehow become an extraordinary act.
We all run on autopilot a lot of the time. It’s a vital skill! An action like weaving a basket or braiding hair takes conscious thought and effort to learn—but once it’s in your muscle memory, performing the act becomes a one-click thing, a sub-routine that leaves your conscious mind free to make jokes, or chat, or contemplate. You can do it without looking, without thinking.
And so it was that things really started to go downhill for modern humans with the invention of the cereal box word-search: Food prepackaged with material to distract you from the experience of eating it. People have been talking and socializing over meals for as long as we’ve had language, but it’s only very recently that we’ve so filled our world with things demanding the conscious mind’s attention that you can go months—years, even—without ever just eating and doing nothing else.
So, like an overly distracted basket-weaver, you get shoddy work.
The difference is that, when you’re making a basket, you get clear feedback. Your friends tease you and call you Johnny-whose-limes-fall-out. But as long as you’re not choking on your food, the main feedback you get on how you eat comes in the privacy of the bathroom. It stares up at you from the toilet bowl, and the worse that feedback is, the quicker you flush it away. The less you try to think about it.
Again, I am not talking about what you eat—just how you eat it.
But think about it. What happens to a mouthful of salad, if you unthinkingly swallow it as soon as the chunks of carrot are small enough to go down without hurting? It might count as “eating your vegetables” in the eyes of someone watching you, but to your body?
The bacteria in your gut which ferment fiber into short-chain fatty acids can only access the material on the surface—and so you get wasted chunks of carrot and lettuce in your stool. A half-chewed bite of meat gives up only a tiny fraction of its iron, because extracting it requires the strong acid of the stomach—and even if stomach acid seeps all the way into a piece of meat, most of the iron isn’t going to just seep back out. Protein stays locked away as well—the proteases and peptidases in your small intestine need surface area to work. Even food like peanut butter, which has effectively been pre-chewed, needs to be worked on a little before your body can accept it: the bile in your gut, which emulsifies the oils you eat into absorbable microscopic droplets? It works at a molecular level—which means it can’t do much against a clump of peanut butter sandwich.
On top of all this, think about how your body figures out what you just ate, and how best to digest it. It’s not some mysterious chemosensory process—it’s your tongue! That’s your first and most direct chance to tell your body what is about to happen to it: things like “Hey, lot of sugar incoming, you might want to get started on some insulin”.
Isn’t food that we don’t absorb properly just food for our gut bacteria? Don’t we want to feed them?
Thing is: the kind of food that’s most amenable to “automatic” eating tends to be full of easy nutrients. Think of something from Taco Bell; mostly fat, protein, sugar and starch, with a little fiber from the beans and lettuce. When your digestive process works properly:
-Most of the starches break down into sugar with the help of your saliva, and—along with the sugar itself—are rapidly absorbed.
-Fats are emulsified and taken up in the first part of your intestine, the small intestine.
-Most of the protein is broken down into peptides, which are also absorbed well before they reach the large intestine/colon.
All that’s supposed to remain for most of your gut bacteria are the difficult nutrients. The fiber, maybe lactose from the dairy, and whatever resilient scraps of protein your body doesn’t have the enzymes to digest on its own. So when you regularly dump a bunch of easy nutrients into the environment—the way you’re doing when your autopilot finds the exact minimum number of bites which will allow it to wolf down a beef-and-cheese burrito without choking—you’re asking for a microbiome overrun by opportunists. You’re asking for bad shits.
Manual-ness and Mindfulness
I always say that most of the practical tips you‘ll get from me turn out to be things you already knew—things your mother told you. Eat your vegetables, don’t drink too much soda, use real cheese for the mac ‘n cheese when possible.3
So here, we add to the list: Chew your food!
Nobody should eat every meal this way. I suspect that, for most people, trying to do so would give you a profoundly unhealthy relationship with food; we’re built for autopilot on some things. But do it for a day, or even one meal, and you’ll become aware of just how different the experience can be. How much flavor each bite contains—how much richness of experience you’ve been letting slide down unrealized.
And if you’re anything like me, you’ll discover just what a sloppy little goblin your autopilot is when you’re not watching. The next time you have lunch with a friend, you’ll catch yourself with the drink halfway to your mouth, about to wash down a piece of bread that’s just barely chewed enough to go down without taking you along with it. You’ll discover that, no matter how hungry you are when the pasta arrives, ingesting noodles nearly-whole is not an effective way to relieve that hunger. You’ll even notice that you’ve been delegating supposed pleasures, like dessert, to the autopilot—that you didn’t even enjoy the pie, because you were too distracted by your Feed.
Being mindful and deliberate in the how—the act itself of eating—will also lead you naturally to interrogate what you eat, and why, and how much, etc. On automatic, I can put away three pieces of nutella-toast without blinking.4 On manual, making an effort to taste every calorie, even one piece is almost too much. If I’m still hungry afterward, it’s for something like a piece of fruit.
You will notice new things about your food. You might find that the frozen meal or protein shake which has, for years, been a perfectly acceptable autopilot-lunch is in fact pretty gross when you pay close attention. You might find that foods which your gut has objected to in the past are not so objectionable after all, but simply required twice as much chewing as you had been doing. If you try this and learn something interesting, share it in the comments.
In college, I once took a class called “Edible wild plants”, to fulfill some weird elective requirement. The professor was an absolute coot in the best way, and she said something that has stuck with me ever since:
The most intimate thing you can possibly do with another living organism is to eat it.
After the nervous giggles and side-eyed glances subsided, the point of what she was saying started to sink in. When you eat something, you’re welcoming it into your body at the most fundamental level. First, subjugating it—forcing it to give up its own genetic identity, its own destiny—and then assimilating it, directing it to become a part of yours. It’s two becoming one, in a way that love as we know it can only play at.
And just like any other intimate act, you should strive to be present for it—to be absorbed in sensing and reacting, to devote your full attention to your partner in this process, as strange as that might sound when we’re talking about a burger.
Sure, you could go through the motions on autopilot, and it’ll get the job done more often than not. But it’s not nearly as satisfying.
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Call your mother! Just not at lunch
More concretely: saliva is a key first step in the digestive process. Just as one example: stomach acid destroys vitamin B12, unless the vitamin is protected by a molecule in saliva called haptocorrin. For that protection to take effect, the saliva-to-food ratio needs to be high enough, and it needs to be well mixed before you swallow it.
How well mixed? You’ll figure it out.
Call your mother! and stay tuned for the upcoming piece on phthalates; turns out powdered cheese makes you want to kill yourself.
There is an organic version of nutella! It’s from Italy so kind of hard to find in the states, but it does exist and it’s delightful.