As food judging assignments go, Fall for Greenville is notorious.
The annual local restaurant showcase, which occupies downtown Greenville streets for three full days, typically draws upward of 40 vendors. Each of the participants is allowed to enter one dish into the festival’s Silver Spoon contest. It’s the judges’ job to roam the event and sample every submission.
This year, when I was on the judging team, there were 49 separate dishes to try, including a pulled bacon slider; chocolate chip cookie dough balls; baked ziti; pimento cheese biscuits and almond cream crepes with strawberry coulis.
In past years, organizers told me, the task has broken people. At least one judge had to bow out without finishing. After I posted the 2018 entry list on social media, I heard from a few former judges who ate everything but still rate the event among their greatest professional challenges (in the category of supposedly fun extracurricular activities, I presume).
Organizers advised us not to worry. They reassured us on Friday afternoon that we didn’t need to return our judging forms until Saturday night, leaving us plenty of time to space out our swallows.
But I had another idea. My plan was to work through all of the dishes on Friday night.
I was confident that I could size up a dish in a single bite. And even if I had to take a confirmation bite here or there, it seemed like I was dealing with 75 bites at most. Was that really so far off from the number of bites I invest in an average review meal?
Probably not, according to a Clemson University researcher who studies bite behavior. Bite counts vary tremendously, since people have differently sized mouths and eat differently sized food. But psychology professor Eric Muth generally takes 20 bites at breakfast, 20 bites at lunch and 40 bites at dinner.
“Counting calories is really hard,” Muth says. “Counting bites is way more intuitive.”
For more than a decade, Muth has been encouraging people to establish their bite counts and stick to them. He and fellow Clemson professor Adam Hoover recently released smart watch apps that help eaters determine how many bites they take on average.
“The more you self-monitor, the more successful you will be,” Muth says. For example, he says, “Eating lunch out was a problem for me. I’d go, ‘I’m already at 25 bites, and I still have a plate of French fries in front of me.’”
When Muth and Hoover first invented the Bite Counter device that preceded their current apps, they figured they could develop an entire diet around it. They couldn’t.
“100 bites a day doesn’t work for everyone,” he says. Additionally, research showed that people were too skeptical of the underlying theory to buy into the plans that Muth and Hoover cooked up. And when it comes to weight loss, Muth says, faith goes a long way.
“It’s kind of ironic to me that people believe by increasing their step count, they’re going to lose weight,” Muth says. “There’s very little concrete evidence that leads to weight loss.”
Still, the Bite Counter’s detractors invariably pointed out that it takes more bites to polish off an apple than a candy bar. But Muth says it’s important not to get caught up in the specifics.
“What research taught me is weight loss and weight gain doesn’t happen in a single bite of food,” he says. “It’s about making small changes, but sustaining them, so you find a way to cut a few bites out of your diet if your can.”
According to Muth and Hoover’s calculations, men consume an average of 17 calories per bite, while women consume 11 calories. So if an eater takes 10 fewer bites a day, the reduction could potentially translate to about a two-pound weight loss over the course of a month.
“The general idea is that the more attentive you are to what you’re eating, the more likely you’ll be successful,” Muth says.
For me, Fall for Greenville was a complete success. I didn’t lose any weight, but ate every dish on the list in one marathon session, including the winner, a Hawaiian pork grilled cheese sandwich from One Love Fusion Foods. It was so good, I took three bites.