Eating is one of those things that should be simple; when you're hungry, put a food in your mouth. Chew it, swallow it, and repeat until you are no longer hungry.
But it's never that easy. Because food isn't just fuel for your body -- food is a social activity. It's a form of communication. It's a status symbol. Endless conversations have been had about what you should be eating and how you should be eating it. Food isn't just something you eat, it's something you track, measure, and log.
But now the focus is shifting. Instead of tracking what you're putting in your mouth, some scientists are suggesting you keep track of how quickly you eat and most recently, how many bites you take.
Though it may seem like a recent development, the discussion is hardly new. In the early 1900s, Horace Fletcher tried to make extreme chewing a fad. Mary Roach explains in her book, Gulp, that Fletcher suggested “One-fifth of an of an ounce of the midway section of the young garden onion, sometimes called ‘challot,” has required seven hundred and twenty-two mastications before disappearing through involuntary swallowing.”
That is a butt-load of chewing.
It kind of caught on. Franz Kafka and Sir Author Conan Doyle were into “Fletcherizing” as were several politicians. Fletcher not only pushed mastication from a health aspect, but an economic one as well. According to Roach, “Fletcher estimated that the United States could save half a million dollars a day by Fletcherizing,” and believed that “by chewing each mouthful of food until it liquefies, the eater could absorb more or less double the amount of vitamins and other nutrients. ‘Half the food commonly consumed is sufficient for man,’ he stated in a letter in 1901.”
Obviously, Fletcherizing didn’t stay around (though it was taken seriously for a time) because it was impractical, completely unsubstantiated by science, and pretty gross. Seven hundred and twenty-two chews for a small portion of a shallot would translate into excessively long mealtimes and achy jaws, but I bring it up to illustrate a point: we have long been obsessed with finding the “right” way to eat.
And now, various companies are developing technologies to keep you on track. The Wall Street Journal did a round up of some them and they are quite creative. There are forks that buzz in your mouth, plates that tell you to “slow down,” and now an ugly watch-like thing to track the number of bites you take (the “optimum” number of which has been decided to be 100).
This is all pretty interesting, and perhaps not entirely unhelpful, but -- and I can only speak for myself here -- whenever I use a piece of technology to track my eating habits, I cease to pay attention to my body and begin to focus on the tracking. I can only imagine the mind games I would play with myself if I restricted my daily food intake to 100 bites.
While we're here, let’s take a look at some of the various products and the mind games they would encourage, starting with that angry fork.
The HAPIfork is a $100 fork with an accelerometer in it. It keeps you from eating “too fast” by buzzing and blinking at you when you exceed an eating rate of 1 bite per every 10 seconds. If you stay within the recommended 10 seconds (or whatever interval you set) it’s all smooth sailing, and the little light shines green with approval. You can adjust the time, but according to Joanna Stern at the Wall Street Journal “Hapilabs says 10 seconds is ideal when the goal is to make a well-proportioned meal last 20 minutes, something dietitians I spoke to recommend.”
I’m not against this entirely. I’m pretty sure I eat too fast and it might be interesting to eat a couple of meals with this thing and see how quickly I’m shoveling Pad Thai down my throat, just to get a baseline. But when I’m eating with other people, I think I would tire of the fork pretty quickly. When I dine with my friends or family, conversation is usually involved. Sometimes I talk without eating for a minute or two and then compensate by taking three quick bites while my companion responds.
This fork would totally mess with the flow of dinner conversation. So though there is a “social component” where you can upload your eating times for everyone to see, the only conversation this fork is good for is the one that starts with “Why are you charging a fork?”
Plus, this doesn’t really account for how much you are taking in each bite. What if you are taking very tiny bites? Do you still have to eat that slowly? Maybe it would be better if there was a device that gauged your rate of consumption based on mass.
Oh wait! There is!
This one is a little more complicated, but it seems to be a talking scale that measures the rate at which mass decreases on your plate and asks you how full you are at regular intervals. Here, I'll let you watch the video.
The Mandometer has two applications: one for helping those with eating disorders "learn how to eat normally," and one for weight loss, but they seem to be the same program. I could see how it might help someone who had no eating pattern whatsoever, but I would be interested to know if there was a program to wean oneself off of the device. It's not exactly inconspicuous in social settings.
As a weight-loss (or maintenance) device, it's ridiculously impractical. Unless you consume all of your meals at home, or really like being stared at in restaurants, it seems absurd to incorporate a scale and talking screen into every meal.
Like that screeching fork, I would think that the Mandometer would distract me from enjoying the meal in front of me. I guess it would help you monitor satiety, as it asks to rate it through out the meal, so that's something. It's certainly interesting and I guess could be beneficial for some, but again, I'm really curious about how one transitions into life after the Mandometer. According to the website "Once the patient’s eating habits have been normalized, his/her anxiety and depression disappear."
That's a little too hand-wavy for my tastes.
The Bite Counter is simpler and much less distracting than either the shouty fork or nagging plate and has been described as "a little pedometer for your mouth." I'll let Professors Hoover and Muth of Clemson University break it down for you, over a shared meal at Chili's.
Is it just me, or does it seem like this thing has way too many variables working against it? According to the WSJ:
To arrive at a supposed optimum of 100 bites a day, the Clemson University researchers tracked the number of bites of 77 people over two weeks, according to a study published in March in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The researchers calculated the average number of calories per bite was 17 for men and 11 for women. If people take 100 bites a day, it makes the daily caloric target roughly 1,700 calories for men and 1,100 calories for women.
That's all fine and good, but what about milk shakes? You don't bite a milk shake, or soup, or soda, so already it seems like the Bite Counter could miss a lot of calories. Also, I get that they're working with averages here but a bite of quinoa is not equal to a bite of Meat Mountain. Meat Mountain would probably take me 30 bites to get through, but I'd already be over the calculated 1,100 calories and only 1/3 of the way through my "bite quota."
Plus, if I knew I only had 100 bites for the day, I'd be DAMNED if I was going to waste them on carrots. I'm also pretty sure I'd end up taking some huge bites.
Just for fun, I decided to do some rough calculations of exactly how much I could eat in 100 bites. Hint: It's a lot.
Chipotle Burrito Bowl: This took me 28 bites. The Burrito Bowl as I order it is about 715 calories. In a hundred bites, I could eat 3.57 Burrito Bowls; this puts me at 2553 calories.
Apple: 10 bites. I could eat ten apples. An apple is around 55 calories, so this would work out to be 550 calories for the day.
Half of a Publix Chicken Tender Sub: 22 bites. I could eat 4.54 of these, and still be within my 100 bites. I'm not sure what the calorie count is on this, but I'm sure it's greater than 1,100.
Obviously, these calculations are a little ridiculous and overly simplistic; I don't subsist on Burrito Bowls and Publix subs alone (or DO I?), but I think the Bite Counter is a little simplistic as well. Though the researchers at Clemson do admit that the number of bites would vary from person to person -- a vegetarian would probably have a larger allowance than an omnivore -- it seems to rely heavily on the assumption that people eat the same thing each day.
Also telling is this interview with Clemson University psychology professor Dr. Eric Muth:
When Lunch Break host Sarah Murray asks Dr. Muth to define the line between something that could actually help you lose weight and something that is "just driving you insane," he responds "Well, I think as someone who has struggled with the [last] five or ten pounds for a long time, I think you almost do have to track your behavior insanely because we have a food chain that has highly processed foods that are high-energy dense and it's very easy to overeat in our current eating environment so we have to track all the time in order to maintain our weight and keep that extra ten or fifteen pounds off..."
Honestly, that sounds exhausting. If processed foods are the problem, wouldn't the most direct solution be to avoid processed foods? While that presents its own set of problems, such as cost and accessibility, it seems like a more direct (and less obsessive) answer than counting the number of bites you take. And though I would never claim to be a "health expert," I really do believe that making your own meals from whole, unprocessed ingredients and listening to your body's hunger cues will do loads more for your health than "insanely tracking" the number of bites you're taking or how fast you're taking them.
I'll be honest, eating 100 bites of whatever I wanted and calling it a day does sound like a "diet" I could get behind, but in the end it would become a weird food game resulting in a stretched out jaw and lots of smoothies. Instead of focusing on my body and the food I was putting in it, I would be focused on getting the "most" out of each bite.
Also, the Bite Monitor is ugly. There's no way I'd wear that thing.