Sunday, May 10, 2009
Chewing, Obesity, Time at Table
Minutes Daily Spent at Table Horace Fletcher was once a household name. After all, he championed scientific eating and drew a large following. A new century, the twentieth, had just dawned. One key to proper eating was simple chewing. But the chewing fostered by Fletcher was not simple. Right eating demanded that food be liquefied. This could mean hundreds of chews for one mouthful. Not surprisingly he was called the “great masticator.” “Fletcherizing” became all the rage. The novelist Henry James and the industrialist John D. Rockefeller were adepts. Like most food fads, especially ones pushed to a silly extreme (or ones that require special exertion), Fletcherizing eventually faded.
A recent book here in France has, however, re-emphasized Fletcher’s central theme. It’s actually the second book in five years to do so. An earlier, briefer one, Mastiquer C’est la Santé (Masticating is Health), appeared in 2004. The latest book, published on May 7, is called Le Régime mastication (The Mastication Diet). It doesn’t have the fervor of Fletcher’s proselytizing, nor does it insist on chewing until all intake has turned to liquid. It simply emphasizes, based on studies, how careful chewing of food is natural, necessary, and beneficial. Three benefits are highlighted. (1) Quick eating means overeating, a combination avoided by ample mastication. (2) Stomach upsets and bloating are minimized. (3) The digestive tract works more optimally with well-chewed food. All this seems evident enough. What concers the author is the way a lazy chewing fashion has led to the predominance of “soft” food. Certainly at the college where I teach, some students can eat cereal for every meal of the day. Since “soft” is a vague term, there is room for discussion about what counts. The author, for example, classes hamburgers as belonging to the soft food category.
For those who eat quickly without much chewing, another recent food story offered help. One day before Le Régime mastication’s release, a new dietary aid arrived on the French market. The product, called “Alli,” is an anti-obesity pill. Its uniqueness is availability without prescription. The French love medications of all sorts, but it remains to be seen whether this one will be a hit. First of all, the target audience is genuinely obese individuals (body mass index of 28 or higher). Second, it is no magic bullet. For weight loss success, pill intake has to be accompanied by a low-calorie, low-fat diet. Third, the pill works by limiting the absorption of fat, which, being rid by natural means, may necessitate an increased frequency of visits to the restroom. Finally, although available without prescription, the pill will not simply be displayed in a pharmacy showroom. In order to ensure that proper advice is dispensed along with the pill, customers will have to ask the pharmacist for their supply.
“Alli” has been available in the U.S. for several years and has achieved success there. One reason for its popularity may be the level of obesity. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, about one third of the American population has a body mass index of 30 or more. France’s rate is about 1/3 lower. This is so, even though, according to another recent food story, the French spend more time at table than do people in other countries. Anchoring the other extreme, spending the least time at table, is North America’s triad of nations. Citizens in those countries dedicate only about one hour a day to meals. Americans, it turns out, actually spend the most time of this group. Mexicans and Canadians hurry through their eating episodes more quickly. The French take about twice that amount of time to get in their three squares.
Some newspaper headlines misleadingly claimed that what the survey revealed was that the French ate more than people in other countries. But time at table and intake of food are not necessarily proportional. Sociable, leisurely, relaxed eating creates wide expanses of time. Wide expanses of time, in turn, encourage plenty of conversation, pauses between courses, and, almost as an unconscious by-product, ample chewing. There is no need to make a fetish of Fletcherizing. One important result, indicated by comparative levels of obesity: the quantity of food ingested is probably lower than in those countries whose citizens gulp down their softer edibles.