I never really learned how to chew my food. It’s not like I need to blend my meals into a fine paste or require the Heimlich a few times a week to stay alive. But I take a Hoover-style approach, sucking up everything on my plate before most people have finished their first bites. Mealtime is a competition; my esophagus becomes a luge track that I hurl full pieces of chicken down at top speed. It’s a technique I come by honestly: My dad went to a boarding school where only the fastest eaters got seconds, and he’s a man who just hates wasting time in general. I also do everything fast, prizing ruthless productivity over any form of relaxation. Meeting a deadline or finishing a to-do list has always justified feeling like my insides might explode.
But what makes me great at hot dog–eating contests makes me really bad at digestion. The collateral damage involves bloating, heartburn, and lots and lots of gas. For so long I’ve accepted this baseline discomfort as the cost of being an accomplished food athlete. But as I age, it’s become more difficult to simply shove my distended belly into a pair of jeans and get on with my day. So for 2023, I have a very simple goal: to feed myself like a baby bird, slowly breaking down the pieces until I can calmly swallow.
Though it sounds easy enough, I have a lot to overcome. For one, I get really, really excited to eat, approaching a plate of ravioli with the fervor of a dog tearing apart its owner’s most expensive pair of heels. I black out in a fit of savory bliss, and by the time I come to, I’m engorged and moody, scolding myself for my lack of impulse control. During weekday lunches, I’m a computer zombie, shoving whatever’s available into my mouth while I shop online or hate-read other people’s bad opinions. I’ve regularly committed the New York sin of eating on the subway, wolfing down the pack of crackers or stick of beef jerky I always keep in my purse as a time-saving strategy. The idea of taking an hour for lunch or a meandering stroll? Come on. This isn’t France.
I’ve always chalked up my bloating, gas, and fatigue to IBS, a catchall for “your stomach doesn’t work so well.” I’ve breathed into plastic tubes as part of food-allergy tests and tracked what I’ve eaten for elimination diets, all to no avail. But maybe I’ve overlooked the easiest solution of just … slowing down? There’s science to back up my theory. Did you know that saliva, a by-product of chewing, produces an enzyme that helps break down food and makes it easier to digest? I didn’t. Thoroughly chewing can also stave off heartburn and acid reflux. According to nutritionists, I should be doing it 32 times (!) per bite of food. Picture your stomach as a suitcase, suggested one article; if you shove it full of unfolded clothes, it’s going to bulge or break open. The stuff-it-in method also leads to overeating, since my body doesn’t have a chance to tell my brain “I’m full.” Many pro-chew articles I came across included this mind-blowing quote from an Austrian doctor: “A well-chewed burger is better for your waistline than a badly chewed salad.” Even if that’s complete bullshit, I feel inspired to make a change.
At a recent lunch date, I looked down at my empty plate to realize that my friend had barely made a dent in hers. She has the kind of calm, poised presence that allows her to appreciate small details, like the smell of expensive soap or the feel of a well-made mug. Chewing, I thought, might be my gateway to a more leisurely outlook in general. If it turns out that savoring one ravioli for ten minutes is even more orgasmic than hovering down ten in rapid succession, what other hidden joys could I uncover by taking myself off the clock? A walk to the subway probably doesn’t always have to become a sprint. An afternoon spent baking may be more pleasant than frantically stuffing store-bought cookies into Tupperware so they look “homemade.” Beneath all my anxiety and discipline, could I secretly be the type of person who enjoys going out on a weeknight?
But first, chewing. While all you suckers are doing dry January, I’ll force myself to eat without staring at a Google doc. Maybe I’ll even count my chews or get myself to the point where I can eat for an hour in silence, like Buddhist monks who make it a daily practice to ponder each chickpea and lentil on their plate. At the next family dinner, my father will hardly recognize his slow-eating daughter. Unless, of course, it’s a cheat day, when I’ll allow myself once again to mainline bucatini while staring at my phone.
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