Everyone knows that what you eat is incredibly important to diabetes management. But what about how you eat it?
There’s a surprisingly large body of evidence suggesting that eating slowly can have a positive effect on your blood sugar and your weight. It all stems from the observation, confirmed in many studies, that people who eat slowly are leaner and healthier than the rest of us.
The science of slow-eating interventions, however, isn’t exactly crystal clear. This article will explore what we do and don’t know about the health benefits of slowing down your eating pace.
Eating Slowly and Diabetes Risk Factors
There is a veritable mountain of literature pointing to a connection between rapid eating speed and metabolic dysfunction. No matter which way researchers look at the question, or what population they examine, the conclusion seems unavoidable: People who eat slowly tend to be healthier.
Many of the studies on chewing speed and metabolic health come from Japan, where there appears to be some national cultural interest in taking meals slowly. Consider the following studies:
4,853 Japanese adults were asked to characterize themselves as slow, medium, or fast eaters. Five years later, researchers examined how many of them had developed type 2 diabetes. The results, published in 2021, suggested that fast eaters were roughly twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than slow eaters.
In a 2012 trial, fast eaters were about twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as slow eaters, although in this case the relationship was almost entirely explained by body weight. To put it simply, faster eaters got fatter.
A 2023 study conducted by oral health researchers found that fast eating was associated with high A1C, but also with salt intake, suggesting that rapid eaters make different food choices.
A 2015 trial similarly found that faster eating was associated with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that include high blood sugar, high blood pressure, poor cholesterol, and visceral adiposity. A 2020 study of Furukawa Electric Company workers found a similar result.
A 2020 study of 84,811 women found that fast eaters were much more likely to develop gestational diabetes — mostly because fast eaters were heavier to begin with.
It’s not just Japan, of course; similar studies from elsewhere have found similar results. These analyses customarily adjust for confounding factors like age, exercise habits, and smoking status, to try to isolate the effect of eating speed alone.
None of this, however, is a smoking gun — these are not controlled trials of eating speed interventions. Studies such as the above cannot demonstrate that fast eating actually caused metabolic decline, or that slow eating can actually lead to health improvements. But the wealth of observational data may be at least worth chewing on.
Surveying the world of literature on the subject, a 2020 review concluded that though the evidence is not of high quality, it is possible that eating slowly could be made “a priority as one of the essential lifestyle modifications in preventing the risk of diabetes.”
Eating Slowly and Weight Loss
Eating slowly has also been widely praised as a weight loss strategy. The basic idea is pretty simple: The slower you eat, the less you eat, because you have more time to start feeling full. If you eat very quickly, you might finish your plate before your stomach is able to tell your brain that it’s already had enough.
There’s more to it than just filling your belly up early:
According to a 2010 experiment, eating slowly actually increases the body’s production of glucagon-like peptide-1, the hormone that diabetes drug and celebrity weight loss sensation semaglutide (Ozempic) supercharges.
A 2015 study showed that when a standard lunch is eaten within 10 minutes, the body burns only about 30 calories metabolizing the energy. When the same lunch is eaten over 40 minutes, the body burns 81 calories.
Many dieters have found success with slow eating; entire books have been written on the subject, and there’s an array of products and apps to help you pace your meals. It’s easy to find all sorts of testimonies online, like a Reddit user who recently gushed that “eating slower has changed my life.”
The Study of Slow Eating Interventions
We know that slow eaters are more likely to be metabolically healthy, and we know that slowing down your eating pace tends to help you eat less food. It doesn’t necessarily follow, however, that eating more slowly reliably results in weight loss. Here, the science is inconsistent:
A 2018 study found that Japanese adults who consciously slowed down their eating speed lost weight.
A more tightly controlled 2023 experiment found that overweight women who lengthened their meals did not lose any weight over five weeks. They did, however, score better on intuitive and mindful eating questionnaires.
A 2012 experiment found that a variety of pacing tricks such as taking smaller bites successfully curbed hunger but did not actually reduce how much people ate.
A small 2014 experiment found that slow eating “increased fullness and decreased hunger ratings,” though it did not find the same changes in gut hormone responses that are evident when people without diabetes slow down their meals.
The truth is, we don’t have definitive proof that slow-eating interventions work. And as definitive studies of the issue would be so impractical as to be prohibitive (imagine forcing volunteers to eat every meal and snack slowly for months in a laboratory), we might never know.
It seems safe to say that eating more slowly might be healthful, and it is very unlikely to be harmful. But as a recent article in The Atlantic concluded, “the widespread mantra of go slower probably isn’t as definitive or universal as it at first seems.”
Eating Slowly and Insulin Usage
If you use rapid insulin for your meals, there’s at least one benefit to eating slowly that you might notice immediately: It can make your blood sugar spikes more manageable.
When you deposit a large number of carbohydrates into your belly all at once, it inevitably results in a dramatic blood glucose spike, the size and timing of which are difficult to anticipate. Quick carby meals are more likely to create blood sugar highs — and blood sugar lows, when your bolus isn’t perfectly timed. Fast meals create higher glucose rises even in people without diabetes. This is one reason why some type 1 diabetes experts have recommended eating multiple small meals rather than two or three large meals.
Eating slowly also essentially expands on the idea behind favoring carbohydrates that are lower on the glycemic index, such as legumes and whole grains. Lower glycemic index ingredients take longer to digest and therefore have a slower and more moderate blood sugar impact. Similarly, fiber slows down glucose absorption.
For a related strategy, the next time you have a mixed meal, try eating your carbs last. In our guide to eating pizza with diabetes, we suggest that you eat your protein and veggies first. The order in which you eat your food can have a big influence on how your blood sugar responds. Filling your belly first with lower glycemic index foods seems to mellow out the impact of the high-carb ingredients you eat next.
Dosing insulin for meals is all about trying to match the curve of insulin action to your body’s blood sugar response. It’s not easy, but eating slowly may make it easier.
How to Eat Slowly
How slow is slow? A 2019 study found no positive effects when volunteers ate breakfast in 12 minutes rather than four minutes. So, how slow do you need to go to get results?
Harvard Health, to name one respected authority, advises people to:
Put the fork down between each bite.
Chew each mouthful 30 times.
Take 20 minutes to eat each meal.
Other recommendations concentrate more on aspects of eating mindfully — creating a calm and dedicated environment for your mealtimes, for example.
It’s unclear whether these tips are backed by much data. From what we can tell, there has been very little uniformity to the design of studies investigating slow eating, and, as a result, there aren’t really agreed-upon parameters for slow-eating strategies.
Some people might find the practice of eating slowly empowering and invigorating. It has helped many get more in touch with their hunger and satiety cues and unlocked the secret to eating modest portions.
But not everyone enjoys the experience. A 2019 experiment found that volunteers who were told to take 24 minutes to eat a small meal found the food less enjoyable than those who took only six minutes.
Eating slowly has been widely proclaimed as a weight loss hack, and naturally slow eaters tend to be metabolically healthier. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that slow eating might improve diabetes risk factors, but relatively little good hard proof that intentionally slowing down your eating pace results in meaningful health improvements.
Slowing down meals won’t work for everyone, but some people with diabetes might find that the practice helps them get in touch with their hunger and satiety cues. If patient mindful eating helps you happily eat less, it could lead to weight loss and steadier blood sugars.