His water glass at dinner needed constant refilling, and I was worried that he had some sort of metabolic condition. But that was not the case. My relative by marriage said he always gulped water with every bite because it decreased his need to chew his food. “I swallow faster so I can eat faster,” he told me. Growing up in a family where there was competition for seconds, he learned that if he was the first to clean his plate, he got the remainder of the food on the table. The habit never left him.
Using water to lubricate swallowing is also behind the success of competitive eaters. Such people’s ability to consume enormous amounts of food in short periods of time made overeating into a sport. They train their stomachs to accept 30 hot dogs or chicken wings in the amount of time it takes to unfold a napkin. An interview with Yasir Salem, a competitive overeater ranked #10 in world competition by Erin McCarthy on the Internet site, “Mental Floss,” revealed his use of water in his training. He stretches his stomach by drinking daily a gallon of water after eating several pounds of a bulky vegetable, e.g., broccoli. And during a competition, he dunks hot dog rolls into warm water to soften them, so they can be swallowed quickly and with little chewing.
Competitive overeaters, as well as members of a family competing for the last chicken leg, are not the only ones who use water to eat quickly. Binge eaters will also drink water or other liquids to make it easy to consume large amounts of food in a small period of time. Indeed, many of us probably drink water or soda with our food when we find ourselves needing to finish eating in a hurry.
Drinking water with food to increase the amount of food eaten contradicts general wisdom about the use of water during a meal to decrease food intake. The use of water to fill up the stomach before the meal begins has been recommended for decades. ”Drink one or two large glasses of water before you sit down to eat,” say most weight-loss advisers, “and you will find that you can’t put much food in your stomach.” This is contradicted by Mr. Salem, who told his interviewer that he drinks a gallon of water before starting the eating competition, to effectively flush out his digestive system and make it ready for large quantities of food.
Similarly, drinking water with every bite of food, or at least after two or three bites, is strongly recommended as a way of slowing food intake. If, as the theory goes, you have to put down your fork or spoon, pick up your water glass, take a sip or two, put down the water glass, pick up the eating utensil and start eating again, the rate of food intake will slow considerably. Unlike my relative or Mr. Salem, the food is presumably chewed and swallowed before the water is imbibed. The water is not a lubricant to make swallowing faster and easier, but instead as a “time-out” from putting more food in the mouth.
Drinking more water also completes the end of the meal. If the plate is cleaned, but the eater does not feel full, diet coaches recommend drinking one or two large glasses of water at the end of the meal to convey the sensation of fullness. Carbonated water may work even better because if enough bubbles are swallowed, the stomach feels bloated and incapable of receiving more food. Carbonated drinks such as beer or sugar-filled sodas are not recommended because they deliver excess calories.
Obviously water can increase or decrease food intake depending on how it is incorporated into the eating process. And since most people attempting to lose weight are not going to be competing for seconds or entering an eating competition, drinking water before, during, or after the meal will, hopefully, decrease food intake. The water intake between bites is supposed to slow eating sufficiently so the brain will signal to the eater to stop before the stomach is totally filled up with more food than necessary.
But curiously, this seemingly innocuous recommendation has met with some resistance by those who claim that drinking water with a meal decreases the ability of the stomach to digest food. Water will dilute the enzymes in the saliva that start the process of digestion, and then further dilute the stomach enzymes that work to break the food down more before sending it to the small intestine; so claim the anti-water folk. Although debunked thoroughly by scientists, the recommendation to avoid water during a meal continues to circulate.
One of the problems with relying on water to confer satisfaction and fullness after consuming less food than desired is that water doesn’t stay in the stomach very long. It passes through much more quickly than food and, once gone, may leave a sense that now there is room for more food. If the eater wants to eat less without using will power to do so, then the most natural, drug-free way is to increase the serotonin levels in the brain. This is accomplished by eating a pre-meal snack of about 20 grams of a starchy carbohydrate such as a small roll. Twenty minutes later, the brain will make new serotonin and this neurotransmitter will convey a sense of fullness or satiety to the roll eater.
Starting the meal with the feeling of not being very hungry is helpful to slow your eating. If you are feeling somewhat full, you are more likely to eat slowly and eat less—and leave the seconds to someone else