I haven’t been paying attention to my taste buds.
I realized this while reading Food Rules, a slim volume of sixty-four rules for healthy eating written by bestselling author and food journalist Michael Pollan. Rule number fifty states that “The banquet is in the first bite.” Pollan explains that it is important to savor this initial mouthful because “no other bite will taste as good as the first, and every subsequent bite will progressively diminish in satisfaction.”
Really? I’d never noticed this before and found it hard to believe. If this were true, wouldn’t I want to stop eating well before my plate was empty?
My curiosity piqued, I did a little research and came across the term “taste-specific satiety.” Sure enough, Pollan was right. Scientists have found that “after four or five bites our taste buds lose their sensitivity to the chemicals that make food taste good.” In theory, this helps keep our appetite in check: Once we lose the pleasurable taste of the food before us, we notice and stop eating before we become overly full.
So why was I cleaning my plate, eating well past the first four or five bites?
I decided to test this taste bud research for myself. I wanted to note the satisfaction level of my first bite compared to all the rest and see if I could determine when my taste buds turned off. Yet, despite my intent, my experiment never got off the ground. I forgot to notice my taste buds during breakfast the next morning because I was in such a hurry that I ate while standing at the kitchen counter. I was just as forgetful later that morning when I consumed a snack at my desk while answering some emails. I didn’t eat dinner that night because my stomach was a little upset from gulping down a yogurt shake as I ran out the door to pick up the kids, and our family discussion at breakfast the next morning was so lively that I didn’t notice what I was eating. As a matter of fact, in hindsight, I realized that I didn’t remember tasting any of the food I’d eaten in the last 24 hours.
It wasn’t that the taste bud research was faulty, the issue was that I was not taking the time to savor my first bite or any other bites of the food I ate.
The irony of this is that I am a proponent of the “slow food” movement. I commit a good percentage of my day to shopping locally and preparing food from scratch, but I realized that I wasn’t taking the time to actually enjoy the food I made. In the days that followed my failed experiment, I was shocked and somewhat embarrassed to realize just how fast and thoughtlessly I was eating. Sometimes I wasn’t even stopping to chew adequately. My speed eating stemmed from the fact that I was often multitasking during my meals. I’d be correcting a manuscript, unloading the dishwasher, or making a grocery list while at the same time mindlessly forking food into my mouth.
Recent surveys show that we are a nation of distracted eaters–eating while we work, talk on the phone, or drive in our cars. The downside of keeping up with our to-do lists is that people who eat while distracted consume twice as much as those who focus only on their meals. This is alarming when you consider that 66 percent of Americans eat dinner every night in front of the TV. With this statistic in mind, it isn’t so surprising then that 63 percent of the population is currently either overweight or obese.
Geneen Roth, who is known for her books on food addiction and overeating, wrote, “The way you eat is inseparable from your core beliefs about being alive. Your relationship with food is an exact mirror of your feelings about love, fear, anger, meaning, and transformation.”
What does it say about me, about a large portion of our population, that we eat in such a hurry? And what would happen if we slowed down and paid attention to those first few bites? Would our eating habits change? What would happen to our relationship with food?
I decided that I needed to reacquaint myself with the pleasure of eating so I posted a list of my own food rules on our fridge:
- Eat only while sitting at the dining room table.
- No other activities allowed while eating.
- Put utensils down between bites.
- Stop when full.
I was chagrined to realize that my rules were basically the manners my mother taught me while I was growing up, before being busy altered my eating habits. These are the same manners that I insist my children practice even though I haven’t been doing so.
So while composing this essay, I took a break for lunch. Per my new food rules, I resisted the temptation to pull a book off the shelf or get up mid-meal to throw a load of laundry in the dryer. I was fidgety and impatient as I painstakingly put my fork down between bites and focused on my food. Bad habits are hard to break, but I persevered, and I was pleased to note that my meal tasted really good. And the more I noticed, the more I relaxed and enjoyed what a nice break it was to stop and eat. And, most surprising, I was done well before my plate was empty. I actually noticed when I was full and couldn’t eat another bite.
(My editors, a couple I met years ago in a creative writing class and who proofread my work each week, returned this piece with the comment, “This essay affected us deeply.” In an email, Ron explained that he grew up during the Great Depression and was told to eat everything on his plate. “Throwing away food was never an option,” he wrote.
My grandparents also developed ideas about food based on their experiences during the depression. For them, love was being able to put “a good meal” on the table. When we visited them, we ate and ate and ate, and always cleaned our plates. No food was ever wasted.
I have to wonder how much the “clean your plate” mentality still influences our population’s eating habits. Ron wrote that while he could see the wisdom in savoring the first bite and stopping when full, he wondered what happened to the rest of the food on the plate. Throw it out? “It is really hard to think of actually doing what this essay proposes.”
I understand what he is saying. The current parenting wisdom is to NOT tell children to clean their plates, but I often have to bite my tongue because I, like Ron, was taught that throwing out food was borderline sinful. But since writing this essay, I have been trying to serve my family and myself less in an effort to waste less. It is difficult, because I learned from my grandparents to show my love through food. A LOT of food. As Ron wrote, “those old messages are very, very strong.”
I would love to read how these food issues affect you. Please feel free to respond in the comment section below.)