As Christmas approaches, along with the requisite cheddar bacon cheese balls, stuffed cabbage rolls and Oreo truffles, here's some information you can really sink your teeth into:
Chew your food.
That is, chew it slowly. Thoughtfully. Deliberately. Savor every bite of your holiday meal or (small) plate of cheddar caramelized pigs-in-a-blanket or sausage stuffed mushrooms, and chances are you'll eat less, enjoy it more and maybe end up weighing just about the same on Jan. 1 as you did on Nov. 1.
So says Klaus Bielefeldt, director of the Neurogastroenterology & Motility Center at UPMC.
Dr. Bielefeldt wouldn't call himself an expert on the science of chewing, per se -- "my own area relates to how digestive processes function," he said -- but he and his colleagues have pretty much studied everything about the act of eating, from entry to exit, from appetite to swallowing, and here's what he knows about smart eating strategies for the holidays:
"If you chew slowly, and you enjoy it, you may not have the time to eat as much and you'll feel full earlier," he said, noting that the very act of chewing something triggers the digestive system to start working.
This tactic to prevent weight gain during the holidays goes along with all the other advice we've heard before -- eat a small meal before a party (remember Scarlett O'Hara stuffing that biscuit in her mouth before the barbecue?), go light on the hot artichoke/cream cheese/crabmeat dip, use a small plate, not a big one.
But essentially, the secret is to go slow.
"If you're sitting at a table, put your fork down between each bite," adds Joanne Phillips, a registered dietitian at West Penn Hospital. "You would be surprised how that action alone helps you eat less."
That's why finger food is so dangerous, she added, so skip the "slider" hamburger sandwiches with gruyere on brioche bread.
Or try to eat just one, slowly, "since it is a holiday and you don't want to deprive yourself," added Ms. Phillips, who, at 61, considers herself relatively healthy. A resident of Oakmont, she walks her dog every day and believes in moving around -- even at parties. Her secret?
"I just make sure I'm not standing by the food table," she said.
Eating is actually an amazingly complex activity, a sensory minuet between sight, scent and taste. All three are needed, although not always at the same time: sugar has no smell, for example, but we instantly react when we taste it on our tongue, and the nasal passages and the palate provide a chamber where aromas and flavors mingle delightfully.
But enough delicacy: The details about chewing that chunk of coffee-crusted beef filet can be pretty stomach-turning. It, too, is a dance -- between muscle, mucus, saliva and incisors, canines, bicuspids and molars, which is why your mother always instructed you to do it with your mouth closed. Chewing isn't just about breaking it into swallowable pieces but to stimulate saliva so that the tongue can easily push it down a slippery esophagus. Saliva isn't just about lubricating the food either -- it contains enzymes that start preparing the food for digestion, by breaking down dietary starches and fats.
Moreover, chewing slowly allows food to move at the right rate through a lubricated alimentary tract so that the nutrients can be digested more fully.
You don't need a glass of wine or eggnog to help the process along, either.
Indeed, different cultures look at drinking while eating differently, said Dr. Bielefeldt -- Americans drink more fluids, the French drink more wine, and Germans don't drink much at all during their meals. Whatever the case, saliva is sufficient to get things moving.
In the 19th century, some food faddists believed there was an actual number of optimal chews per bite, 35, in fact, according to John Harvey Kellogg -- yes, that Kellogg, a cereal masticator if ever there was one.
"Coming up with a specific number is ludicrous," said Dr. Bielefeldt, noting that there is no evidence that any particular number of chews is beneficial, but "actually Kellogg made money out of trash, using leftover bran from grain to make cereal, marketing it as being beneficial for digestion if you chewed it right."
Our ancestors had to do a lot of chewing: nuts, fruits, meat -- which we don't have to do as much of in this era of potato chips and ice cream.
That, unfortunately, may be why we head for the pink peppermint stick ice cream cake on the buffet table rather than the bowl of apples.
Today, candy isn't considered good for us, but the sweetness in ripe fruit was a signal to our ancestors that something was safe to eat, just as bitterness prompted us to spit it out. Because humans have color vision, unlike most animals, "we can see ripe fruits, which helped us pick the right things to eat." Chimpanzees and other primates pick their food that way -- taste and sight -- but we've evolved, he said.
"One of the things that comes with our life is intake of food, and what we eat has changed dramatically over the years," said Dr. Bielefeldt, adding that cavemen "didn't need to have their wisdom teeth extracted.
"If you are conscientious and not driven by cravings, you will probably do better to chew more often, swallow less frequently and take conscious breaks between eating. If you slow down this season, you will eat less."
Mackenzie Carpenter, firstname.lastname@example.org. 412 263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG.