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Talking Yourself into Eating Less

Posted Mar 14 2009 6:03am

I went to a working lunch a few days ago and left hungry. I was so busy talking that I forgot to eat. My lunch companions are serious talkers, and we were all so eager to share information about a project we were working on that I suspect they didn’t eat too much either.


Not enough attention is given to the relationship between talking and eating. Our mothers usually told us not to talk with our mouths full and to save the conversation until after we finished eating. (This may have been in order to make dinnertime more peaceful.) When we grow up, we tend to ignore this injunction.


When people who enjoy each other’s companionship get together for a meal, food is not the primary focus of the evening. The food may be passed around for a taste, shared (especially desserts), commented on, and compared to past meals but those around a table are as busy talking as they are eating. Parties are the same way. When a cluster of people are truly engaged in talking to each other, they often wave away a server with a tray of food because they don’t want to be interrupted.


The absence of good talk—or any talk for that matter—may have the opposite effect on eating. Eating with a boring or non-talkative companion may lead to eating too much.   The tedium of going out to dinner with the same friends every Saturday was the primary reason a former weight-loss client of mine had gained twenty pounds. “We go out with the same two couples every Saturday night,” she told me. “I noticed this past year that I started to order really fattening foods like cream soups, fried items and desserts. I would eat at least two rolls with a lot of butter and ask for extra salad dressing. I felt entitled to eat what I wanted and if I couldn’t have what I craved, I wasn’t interested in going out.”


In trying to figure out why she was so focused on the food rather than the social aspect of the evening, I asked her to describe her dinning companions. “Oh, we have known them for years. The husbands are ex-roommates of my husband from college. I like them well and their wives well enough but they talk about the same things over and over. “


“Are you bored?” I asked although I knew the answer. “ Bored?” she answered. “It is more interesting to watch grass grow.” Her solution was to convince her husband and the others to vary their routine and go to the theatre, movies or a concert rather than dinner.


Speeches given at a dinner also may induce overeating. Once I watched my fellow dinners as they prepared to listen to an after-dinner speaker just as dessert and coffee were served. Many pushed the dessert away from them so they would not be tempted into eating it as the speech began. Then, as the talk droned on and on, the desserts were pulled back and everyone at the table started to eat them. The only person who did not give into eating the dessert was a gentleman who fell asleep and then fell off his chair.


Of course, it is not always possible to enjoy stimulating talk at meals. Indeed, if children are eating along with you any kind of conversation that does not center on correcting egregious table manners, preventing sibling food fights or feeding the family pet under the table is rare. I have had several clients who found themselves stuffing food in their mouths without even tasting it because they were so busy trying to prevent combat between their kids at dinner. They all found themselves eating less if they sat with their children when they ate but waited to eat their own meals until after the kids left the table.


People who routinely eat by themselves do not have the distraction of conversation unless they eat in restaurants that encourage sharing tables. Again, it is instructive to see how a casual conversation with someone forced to share a table with you in a crowded coffee shop or lunchtime food court diminishes how much you might eat. The pleasure of good talk may take away the need to finish the entire portion. If your eating slows down because you are talking so much, you may find yourself feeling full before you have finished even half of your serving.

A friend told me that this happened to her. ”I always have lunch at the same hole-in-the- wall lunch place near my work. I usually take a book because I go out by myself and like to read. I order the same thing every day: a salad with grilled chicken or salmon, a small roll and iced tea. Last week I bumped into someone from my previous job. We sat together and were so busy catching up that I ate very slowly. I noticed that I was full before I had eaten half of the salad. I should hire this woman to eat lunch with me every day; I would lose weight.”


So ignore the rules your mother laid down on not eating and talking. A tasty conversation can be as filling as any food.

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