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Speed of eating, an important aspect of eating behaviour, has recently been related to loss of control of food intake and obesity. Very little time is allocated for lunch at school and thus children may consume food more quickly and food intake may therefore be affected. Study 1 measured the time spent eating lunch in a large group of students eating together for school meals. Study 2 measured the speed of eating and the amount of food eaten in individual school children during normal school lunches and then examined the effect of experimentally increasing or decreasing the speed of eating on total food intake.
The time spent eating lunch was measured with a stop watch in 100 children in secondary school. A more detailed study of eating behaviour was then undertaken in 30 secondary school children (18 girls). The amount of food eaten at lunch was recorded by a hidden scale when the children ate amongst their peers and by a scale connected to a computer when they ate individually. When eating individually, feedback on how quickly to eat was visible on the computer screen. The speed of eating could therefore be increased or decreased experimentally using this visual feedback and the total amount of food eaten measured.
In general, the children spent very little time eating their lunch. The 100 children in Study 1 spent on average (SD) just 7 (0.8) minutes eating lunch. The girls in Study 2 consumed their lunch in 5.6 (1.2) minutes and the boys ate theirs in only 6.8 (1.3) minutes. Eating with peers markedly distorted the amount of food eaten for lunch; only two girls and one boy maintained their food intake at the level observed when the children ate individually without external influences (258 (38) g in girls and 289 (73) g in boys). Nine girls ate on average 33% less food and seven girls ate 23% more food whilst the remaining boys ate 26% more food. The average speed of eating during school lunches amongst groups increased to 183 (53)% in the girls and to 166 (47)% in the boys compared to the speed of eating in the unrestricted condition. These apparent changes in food intake during school lunches could be replicated by experimentally increasing the speed of eating when the children were eating individually.
If insufficient time is allocated for consuming school lunches, compensatory increased speed of eating puts children at risk of losing control over food intake and in many cases over-eating. Public health initiatives to increase the time available for school meals might prove a relatively easy way to reduce excess food intake at school and enable children to eat more healthily.