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."
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.
It's also unclear whether it helps to consciously slow the speed at which you eat. Some studies report that consciously pausing and taking smaller bites does cause people to eat less, but other research suggests this could backfire. When researchers in England instructed some volunteers to pause for periods of 3 to 60 seconds during a meal, they actually ended up eating more than people who were allowed to eat at their preferred pace.
"If you have a habitual eating pattern, it's difficult to change that," says Barbara J. Rolls, PhD, professor of nutrition at Penn State University and author of the book Volumetrics. "I usually tell people what it says in our book: 'Eat at a pace that maximizes your enjoyment, and don't put a lot of effort into techniques like putting down your fork between bites.'"
According to Rolls, what you eat is more important than how you eat it. Much of her research deals with the effect of portion sizes and the energy density of foods, and she has found that when people are given large servings of calorie-dense foods, they routinely eat more calories than they burn off.
"People often don't realize how much they're eating if they're not paying attention. So I think it's a great idea to spend more time sitting down with our family and friends instead of always eating on the run," says Rolls.
That's where slow food comes into play. By putting the emphasis on taste appreciation, meal preparation, and conviviality, slow food encourages people to really think about what they are eating, so they won't fall victim to mindless munching.
Another benefit of slow food, says Rolls, is the message it transmits to the next generation. Most kids would happily subsist on a diet of burgers, fries, pizza, and soda, but such high-fat, high-calorie foods are contributing to the current epidemic of childhood obesity. The solution is to teach children to make healthier food choices.
Getting Into the Slow Food Lane
Here a few things to try if you want to get a taste for slow food:
- Make more meals at home. If you never cook, try preparing your own dinner once a week. It doesn't have to be fancy or time-consuming, but choose healthful ingredients and savor the flavor.
- Always eat at the table. Don't grab a bite over the sink, in the car, on the run, or in front of the TV. Sit down, relax, and take the time to appreciate your food.
- Eat only when hungry. Resist the temptation to consume something out of boredom, anxiety, fatigue, politeness, habit, or just because the food looks good.
- Visit a farmer's market. Find out what's in season, and what foods are grown locally. Look for recipes that include those ingredients and try them.
- Ask a relative to teach you how to cook a favorite dish. Write down the recipe and keep it as part of your family's heritage.
- Eat at restaurants that promote "slow" food. Find out if any chefs in your area specialize in preparing unconventional or locally produced foods, and sample their menus.
- Let your kids make a dinner or Sunday brunch. Help them pick out a recipe. Take them shopping, and make food preparation a fun, family activity.
- Invite friends over to watch a video with a "slow food" theme -- such as Babette's Feast, Chocolat, or Eat Drink Man Woman. Discuss the film and plan a dinner.
- Keep a food journal. Record your meals and how you felt about them. Also, note any interesting food discoveries and recipes.
- Join a Slow Food chapter. Chances are, there's one in your area. You can call the Slow Food USA national office at (212) 965-5640.
Remember, becoming a slow food convert doesn't mean you have to swear off all fast food or sell your microwave.
"Definitely not," says Mayo. "It just means slowing down your pace and taking part in a pleasurable activity that benefits you and the community around you."