Zen Eating, a US-based startup with an R&D center in Israel, has developed a sipping straw shaped like a small golf club that it says can help cut obesity and snoring.
The company says the device can help people eat less if they sip water through it for five seconds before eating. That same device, the company says, can also curb snoring and help with sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that is defined by pauses in breathing or periods of shallow breathing.
Scott Hirsch, founder and CEO of the company, came up with the idea two years ago while researching how to solve his sleep problems. “I had severe sleep apnea and I couldn’t bear the idea of sleeping with a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device,” he said in a phone interview.
A CPAP device is a ventilator that keeps the airways continuously open.
When Hirsch found out that apnea could result from improper swallowing, he got in touch with Dr. Oron Zachar, CTO at Airway Medix, a company producing disposable devices mainly for mechanically ventilated patients in intensive care units.
Hirsch and Zachar worked in close collaboration to create a device that keeps “the tongue from falling into the throat,” Hirsch said. But first they developed a device that had to be worn at night, which can cause discomfort.
Then, he continued, “I realized that the research was starting to show that nature had a way to keep the tongue out of the throat simply by using proper swallowing and tongue posture.”
The second product the two came up with that met their standards was the Dream Sipper, which focuses on helping people with sleep apnea. By strengthening both tongue and soft palate, the device helps to reduce snoring, which is “a big part of treating sleep apnea,” Hirsch said.
Zen Eating’s method and device are based on scientifically proven strategies reported in clinical studies about the effects of tongue positioning on sleep breathing, Hirsch said.
While developing the product, Hirsch and Zachar also found that it could be used — with a different set of instructions and under the brand name “Zen Eating Sipper” to also enhance swallowing techniques to help people eat better and less.
Hirsch said that for both the Dream Sipper and the Zen Eating Sipper, learning to swallow better is essential, because the goal is to get “your oral muscle” to “work for you and not against you.” This could be extremely important especially for people who seek to lose weight, he said.
In both cases, the device has to be used for about one to two weeks to “build up the oral muscles and coordination,” he said. After that training period, people can then just use the sipper for five seconds before eating.
“We swallow 2,000 times a day,” Hirsch said, “and 85 percent of people over-swallow food.” Not chewing correctly and “sucking” un-chewed food from the cheeks can make us overeat.
Indeed, as the company’s explanatory video says, the average meal takes nine minutes, while our stomach needs at least 19 minutes of eating to convey to the brain a feeling of fullness. Diets, Hirsch said, lose their effectiveness in the long term, since 95 percent of people will regain the weight within five years.
What does the device technically do to improve swallowing techniques?
Hirsh explained that the sipper trains the tongue and the throat to be fully active while chewing, to prevent the cheeks from vacuuming un-chewed food. The sipper does this by developing a press and sip motion that helps build coordination to swallow less at a time.
Using the sipper trains the mouth to shrink “the space that causes over-swallowing,” he explained. As a result, “the volume of food you can swallow is lower,” which improves the digestive process.
According to Hirsch, Zen Eating’s sipper can help a user eat 10 to 30 percent less at any meal and still feel satiated. Also, smaller bites mean fewer calories per swallow and as a consequence, fewer per meal. Digestion is improved and acid reflux is less likely to happen, and use of the device leads not just to slower eating but also to greater enjoyment of food, he said.
In addition, swallowing big gulps of food triggers a stress response, while eating correctly “promotes feelings of calmness and satisfaction by activating your parasympathetic nervous system,” he said, adding that this feeling of wellbeing is what inspired the name of the device, Zen Eating.
“Eating should be one of the most relaxing moments of the day,” Hirsch said.
The product has been out for six months now and has been launched online, he said.
Asked about competitors, Hirsch answered that none have a tool like that of Zen Eating, which tackles the mechanical causes at the root of bad swallowing habits.