Chew your food. Mom’s been telling us this since our first teeth came in, yet, like a lot of what mom told us, we’ve forgotten this golden rule of digestion. Whether it’s because we’re always in a rush or we’re suffering from low blood sugar and thus starving when we finally sit down to eat, many of us aren’t properly chewing our food.
Although it may seem a nit-picky subject to harp on in a nutrition column, chewing is a very important, although often overlooked, part of healthy digestion. The drill is simple – put the food in your mouth, chew it a few times and swallow, right? So why aren’t we doing it?
“OK smart guy, first you tell me my dream of a cookie diet is a bad thing, then you go on at length about the fact that I’m probably riddled with hidden food allergies and now you’re telling me I don’t know how to chew?! So what’s the proper way?” While some health professionals recommend a specific number of times food should be chewed, you know how I feel about mixing math with eating. Nothing takes the fun out of eating more than counting; be it calories, grams of carbs or number of times you’re chewing.
Instead, I offer a short rule of thumb – if your food still feels like it did when it was on your plate, you haven’t chewed it enough. If you can still tell you’re eating an apple because it still feels like an apple, the peel distinct from the fruit, keep chewing. The food should basically be chewed to a paste before it is swallowed.
Chewing is important because it’s what initiates the whole digestive process. By mechanically breaking down food in the mouth, you’re increasing the surface area of the food (just as a ground up apple spread on a tray has more surface than a whole apple or even one cut into chunks) and by increasing this surface area, the digestive juices and enzymes have more to contact to start breaking down. Swallowing food in large chunks could mean that these enzymes never get to the middle to break down the food, meaning it goes through your whole system undigested (you may notice this the next day…).
Without completely digesting your food, many of the nutrients and necessary components of food, ie. the entire reason we’re eating in the first place, are not absorbed as they exit the body undigested. Undigested food also feeds the not so nice bacteria in your colon, leading to overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria, indigestion, cramping and flatulence.
Chewing is also what signals the rest of the digestive system to prepare for food and even what type of food to prepare for. The action of chewing actually helps to move food along the digestive tract by preparing the involuntary muscles. Chewing, by activating the taste receptors in the mouth, prompts the nervous system to relay information to the remaining digestive system to optimize the process of digestion. Chemical messages are actually sent to places like the stomach, signaling the release of hydrochloric acid, or to the pancreas, signaling the release of bicarbonate and enzymes.
But overall, it’s important to slow down when eating. We’re so “go go go!” all day long, our meals should be a time to relax, slow our pace and enjoy our food. The digestive system does not function properly when you’re stressed, so maybe getting yourself into a nice zen state by really concentrating on your chewing is just what you need. After all, if you’re not digesting your food properly, why are you even eating it?
The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale