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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Middle-aged women who scarf down their meals tend to be heavier than those who savor each bite, a new report from New Zealand shows.
The study doesn't prove that speed-eating will necessarily cause women to pack on extra pounds, but researchers believe it might influence how much food people ingest.
"It's possible that with rapid eating, there are ample calories being eaten" before feeling full, said Kathleen Melanson, a professor at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston who was not involved in this study.
Researchers mailed a survey to about 1,600 New Zealand women aged 40 to 50 years, asking them to rate themselves on how quickly they ate and also to provide their height, weight and other lifestyle and health factors.
About half of the women described themselves as middle-of-the-road in terms of their speed of eating. Thirty two percent fell in the fast or very fast categories, and about 15 percent of women considered themselves slow or very slow eaters.
The women at the slowest end of the scale had the lowest body mass index (BMI), which is a measurement of a person's weight relative to their height.
For each step up the speed scale, the BMI rose by 2.8 percent. That translates to nearly six pounds for an average U.S. woman.
Caroline Horwath, the senior author of the study and a professor at the University of Otago, said she expected to see faster eaters have higher BMIs, because previous studies from Japan showed a similar relationship.
"However, we had been surprised at the strength of the association -- we hadn't expected the effect to be as large," Horwath told Reuters Health in an email.
"The size of the relationship suggests that, if the relationship is found to be causal, reduction in eating speed may be a very promising way to prevent weight gain, and may also lead to meaningful reductions in BMI in weight management programs," Horwath added.
Horwath pointed out that previous studies that used slower eating as a weight loss tool haven't always had success. A recent study in China, however, found that having people chew their food more times led them to eat fewer calories (see Reuters Health story of July 29, 2011).
One of the weaknesses of the study is that Horwath's team didn't meet any of the women in the study, but relied on the women's own assessments of how quickly they ate.
Melanson said her group is working to determine whether this type of survey is a good measurement of people's true speed of eating.
She added that trying to change people's eating speed might be difficult, because "it's so habitual and ingrained in individuals. We need a lot more work to understand the roots of the behavior and, if it can be changed, how."
SOURCE: bit.ly/qDHLGK Journal of the American Dietetic Association, August, 2011.