Edited by Kate Findley, The Great Courses Daily
Have you ever felt so uncomfortably full after a meal that you swore you would never eat again? Peter Vishton, Ph.D., explains how pressing pause on our eating can help us avoid that feeling and lose weight.
The Power of the 20-Minute Break
Although it does take discipline to lose weight, there are a few simple ways you can trick your subconscious into eating less. One thing you can do is take a 20-minute break from eating during a meal.
Your brain and body contain an impressively robust system for seeking out the proper calories and nutrition that they need to survive and thrive. However, most developed countries and environments are places in which food is plentiful and easy to get. Meanwhile, our biological systems have a few quirks that lead to overconsumption and weight problems.
Here’s a tip that overcomes one of these quirks. If you’re trying to cut down on the amount you eat, slow down the pace of your eating during meals.
Eat a moderate amount and then take a break for 20 minutes. If you’re still hungry after those 20 minutes, you can have more, but many people find that they aren’t as hungry as they thought they would be.
Leptin and ghrelin, which are hormones that tell us when we’re hungry or full, work great, but that system is slow. From the time you start eating, the full impact of the food on ghrelin and leptin can take up to 20 minutes.
If you give your body time to finish that process, you might find yourself quite satisfied with much less food than you had otherwise realized. In fact, that 20-minute break in the middle of the meal may actually not be the middle of the meal. After the break, you might realize that you are actually full and finished eating.
What If You Forget the Break?
When you don’t take this 20-minute break and instead eat until you feel full, you’ll continue to feel more full for 20 minutes after you stop eating.
“I’ve had this experience a lot where I feel very, very hungry,” Professor Vishton said. “Maybe I missed lunch, and I’ve been doing some work that consumes a lot of calories, maybe running or walking around a lecture hall for several hours waving my hands around. I finally get to the table and start to eat.
“I’m so hungry that I wolf down a lot of food. After about 20 minutes of eating, I feel full and stop. Over the next 20 minutes, however, I realize what I’ve done. I feel more and more full—uncomfortably full. Eventually, I’m sitting somewhere groaning, feeling bloated, wishing I’d remembered this 20-minute break tip, after the first few minutes of eating.”
How Hungry Are You, Actually?
Most people presume that if they’re receiving a strong hunger signal from their body, it means they’re in dire need of food. It turns out that isn’t true.
If you’re truly starving—if you’re cut off from food for 48 hours or more—you’ll feel periodic hunger, but most of the time, the hunger signals stop altogether. When you receive that strong hunger signal from your body and the ghrelin and lack of leptin are stimulating the hunger centers in your brain, those signals are telling you that your body has some strong need for some food, not a strong need for a lot of food.
That’s an important difference. The next time you feel really hungry, thinking that through might help you eat a healthier amount.
If you’re eating with other people, this 20-minute break can be pleasant and valuable. This is a great time to have a conversation, revisit the events of the day, and discuss plans for the future. The tradition of having a meal divided into a first course, second course, and so on, can have a similar effect.
Therefore, taking a break during a meal is beneficial in multiple ways. It allows us to cut down on calories, avoid the bloating and discomfort that accompanies overeating, and bond with friends and family over a meal.
Dr. Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.