Slow Food: Learn to Love Leisurely Dining

Replace mealtime meltdown with relaxation

By Pamela Donegan
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

To the uninitiated, "slow food" sounds like the punch line to a joke about tardy pizza delivery. But slow food is no joke. It's an international movement devoted to sustaining the environment, promoting cultural diversity, and preserving "endangered" local cuisines.

The slow food movement also has a more down-to-earth mission: to teach people to appreciate the taste, presentation, and preparation of food and drink, while taking time to enjoy life with family and friends.

"Our objectives are simple," says Cerise Mayo, program director for Slow Food USA. "Enjoy what you eat. Come together and savor the pleasures of the table while taking the time to learn where your food comes from so you can experience it in a new way."

Whether or not you agree with the movement's political agenda, nutritional experts who spoke with WebMD say most everyone can benefit from slowing down the pace at mealtimes. Taking the time to savor lovingly prepared food in the company of friends and family is good for your outlook -- and maybe your waistline as well, they say.

The Movement's Beginnings

As the name suggests, slow food is intended as an antidote to fast food. The movement's founder, Italian gastronomist and journalist Carlo Petrini, wrote "The Slow Food Manifesto" in 1986 to protest the opening of a McDonald's restaurant near Rome's famous Piazza di Spagna.

According to Petrini's manifesto: "The Fast Life...disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes, and forces us to eat Fast Food." The manifesto goes on to suggest that the only sensible way of opposing "the universal folly" of the fast life is with "a firm defense of quiet material pleasure."

Seventeen years later, McDonald's is still serving up Big Macs near Rome's Spanish Steps, but the slow food movement has succeeded in other, larger ways. It's now an international organization, spread across 45 countries. It boasts 65,000 members and more than 600 local chapters, called convivia.

One of the movement's main projects is the so-called "Ark of Taste," an effort to catalog regional dishes and foods that are in danger of disappearing. The Italian Ark alone includes more than 340 products. The organization publicizes these disappearing foods and helps fund projects to preserve them. Local chapters also focus attention on endangered foods through potluck dinners, farm tours, and tasting festivals.

Slow Food Hits Home

It's easy to see how slow food could catch on in Europe, where fine cuisine and leisurely dining are treasured traditions. But what about in the U.S. -- the land of 228,000 fast-food eateries and 90 million microwave ovens?

"Absolutely," says Mayo. "Right now, Slow Food USA has 10,000 members nationwide, and new convivia are opening all the time." As in Europe, U.S. chapters focus on local foods and cooking traditions, like root beer making in Wisconsin and ketchup craft in New England.

Slow food advocates predict the movement will continue to gain ground in this country despite America's apparent addiction to fast food. "The central component of slow food is pleasure, and I think people will respond to that," Mayo says.

"A lot of people say they don't have time for slow food," says Althea Zanecosky, LDN, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "But slow food doesn't necessarily mean food that takes a long time to cook. It means turning down the speed at which we eat and increasing the amount of time we spend dining together with other people."

Unfortunately, most Americans seldom dine this way. We grab a donut and coffee on the drive to work, munch a hot dog while running errands at lunch, and pick up take-out pizza for dinner.

The problem, says Zanecosky, is that too often we see eating as a way to "refuel" rather than taking the time to really appreciate our food. "We're like cars in a gas station," she says. "And it's probably one of the factors that has contributed to American obesity -- because you can take in a large number of calories in a very small period of time in a fast food restaurant."

Can Slow Food Fight Obesity?

If fast food can make you fat, does slow food make you thin?

Zanecosky says it might.

"As a dietitian, I know that it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to realize that there's food in your stomach," she says. "So if we take our time and savor our meals, that may be helpful in terms of eating less food."

"Slow food encourages people to really think about what they are eating, so they won't fall victim to mindless munching."

But it isn't simply a matter of how fast you eat. Studies looking at the connection between obesity and food-intake speed have produced conflicting results. One Japanese study of 422 diabetes patients reported that the fastest eaters had a significantly higher body mass than slower eaters. But another investigation, of Pima Indian men in Arizona, found the opposite: The heaviest men actually took longer to eat the same amount of food than the thin men.