What do you associate
with the action of chewing?
Hearing your mother tell you to slow down? Chew with your mouth closed? Sit down when you eat? Well, turns out Mom is right on all counts.
It is time to take a closer look at something we hardly ever think about: chewing. You may be surprised – better chewing could impact your energy, feelings of fullness, appetite and even your body weight.
Think About Your Favorite Food
Quick, imagine your very, very favorite food. It’s perfect, you love the taste of it and love to eat it. Have you got it in your head? Think about it now for a second—the sight, smell, feel and taste of that favorite food, just as you are about to eat it. Pretend that it is right there, in front of you – on a plate, fork or in your hand.
Now, slowly bring this delicious favorite food of yours right up to your mouth and enjoy that first bite. Imagine the feel of the food in your mouth as the flavors spread out across all your taste buds and you chew, savor and then swallow that first delicious bite and head back for more. Ahhh yum.
What happened just now? Did you mouth water just a little bit at the mere thought of that delicious bite? Congratulations! You have done it, you have just experienced the very first step in digestion: the very thought of food!
Much like Pavlov’s dogs who were trained to salivate just by hearing a bell ringing before food was presented, we too anticipate our food. We begin the first step in digesting it even before a first bite is in our mouth– by salivating.
Want to know “What is Going On In There?” when you take that first bite of food? Put on your learning caps, it’s time for a science lesson. What happens before you even swallow is critical in helping your body to properly digest and absorb nutrients from your food in order to deliver energy to your cells.
The Low Down on Spit
Spit- or better known by the proper term “saliva”- gets a bad rap with images coming up of spit balls or major leaguers hacking out wads on the field, but it is one of those things we really should appreciate more! Without saliva, you would be unable to properly start the digestion process.
At the very thought of food, your smart brain sends a signal to your GI tract via your vagus nerve to get ready – food is on the way. The vagus nerve (yes, spelled differently than Vegas!) is the bi-directional connector of our vital Gut-Brain Axis that is crucial in preparing the body to “rest and digest.” This rockstar nerve is the longest nerve in your body and starts right at the base of your skull. Some of its roles in digestion include:
- Regulating secretion of stomach acid via the hormone gastrin
- Modulating insulin secretion
- Slowing the heartbeat
- Stimulating peristalsis (contraction of muscles in esophagus and intestines to move food)
- Provoking enzyme secretion
- Stimulating release of bile from gall bladder to help break down fats
- Helping to stimulate salivary glands to get your “mouth watering”
That feel of your mouth watering is coming from 3 paired sets of salivary glands surrounding your mouth, the parotid, submandibular and sublingual glands. Saliva is composed of 98% water, but it also contains electrolytes, mucus, antibacterial compounds and various enzymes.
And Now Here’s Your Cue: Chew
So you’ve thought about the food, you’ve smelled the food, you’ve gotten that first bite into your mouth and now it is time: CHEW!
Chewing is a critical – and often overlooked – part of digestion as it is essential to increase the surface area of your food, form a bolus to smoothly swallow and to maintain proper pH for digestion. The mechanical processing of food occurs when you chew. Your teeth and muscles are crushing, shearing, mashing and tearing your food into smaller size particles that will allow the enzymes to interact with the food and breakdown the carbohydrates, proteins and fats as the food travels through your digestive system.
Did You Know
If you chew a piece of bread in your mouth for a long enough time it will start to taste sweet? Why is that? It is because amylase, an important enzyme is saliva, is breaking down the carbohydrates in the bread into simpler sugars. This breakdown of carbs is essential for your small intestine to absorb then later down the road in the GI tract.
How many of you are guilty of this? Eating on the go, eating while on your phone, eating in the car, eating while on your computer. Basically, eating without thinking? So many of us are. And what happens when this mindless eating takes place is that we are often scarfing our food, for lack of a better term! What happens when you scarf your food? You don’t properly break down the food into smaller particles, the food isn’t able to be broken down efficiently by enzymes, the stomach and small intestines work harder at digesting the food. AND all of this takes extra ENERGY.
Digestion is one of the biggest stressors we encounter all day. If you chew your food properly, it will require less energy for digestion. If you need less energy for digestion, your body will use this energy somewhere else. It’s a win-win!
How to Become a Champion Chewer
So, here’s the meat of the matter, literally! YOU NEED TO SLOW DOWN AND CHEW YOUR FOOD!
- If you properly chew your food, that alone can help eliminate gas, bloating and abdominal pain.
- By pausing to think about, smell and even bless your food you are giving your body time to properly prepare for digestion and start producing enzymes, saliva and stomach acid.
- It takes 20-30 minutes of eating before your stomach starts to feel full. If you are scarfing and eating in a hurry, you are much more likely to overeat which will add to excess calories and body weight.
- Mindful chewing and eating involves eating your food slowly, enjoying every bite, chewing until it is very easy to swallow and eating while in the presence of nature, family or friends. A screen of any kind—Does. Not. Count.
Tips for Mindful Eating
- As you are preparing the food, try to go slower. Be thankful for the food you are preparing, the opportunity you have in cooking it and the love you are giving your body by providing nourishing foods. When you think of cooking less as a chore and more of an experience, you will be more prepared to digest once you start eating. I know, easier said than done in our busy lives, but just a change in mindset will help.
- Pause before your first bite. Take an opportunity to say a blessing out loud or to yourself. Thanking the hands that have worked to help grow or provide this food, the animal’s life (if you are eating meat), the earth for providing, yourself for choosing nourishing foods and your body for healing and strengthening with every bite.
- Take one meal and try to chew every single bite 30-40 times. Yep, count it out. It’s hard! Then note your normal chewing pattern, how many times would you normally chew before swallowing? How much more broken down is your food when you thoroughly chew it first. This is a particularly enlightening task when eating a salad or raw greens. Break them down!
- Robin Openshaw[i] of Green Smoothie Girl even advocates “chewing your smoothies.” Before swallowing a sip of smoothie, move it around in your mouth and make a chewing motion. “You’ll create saliva—along with the necessary enzymes and digestive juices—you’ll need for your stomach to digest all of the nutrients from the greens in your smoothie.”
- What are the effects of chewing on hunger? Studies have found that better chewing significantly reduced feelings of hunger. So, chew better, feel fuller and eat the proper amount your body really needs without gaining excess weight.
- In addition, research has shown that increasing the number of chews per bite increased gut hormone release. Better chewing = stomach better prepared to digest your food. Which leads to less gas, bloating, inefficient absorption and better energy.
- Another reason to chew more? A study found that increasing the number of chews prolonged meal duration and reduced eating rate. Researchers concluded that increased chewing might be a behavioral strategy to reduce food intake and potentially aid in body-weight management.
Aya Inspired Takeaway
Your mother was right – you do need to sit down when you eat, chew with your mouth closed, and most importantly, you need to SLOW DOWN and CHEW YOUR FOOD!
In addition, for optimal health while eating you should also take time to appreciate and savor your meal, get off of your screen, give thanks for your food and the people you share it with, and chew slowly and thoroughly.
You will then reap the benefits of improved saliva production, enzyme utilization in breaking down food, improved digestion, less bloating, gas and abdominal pain, improved sense of feeling full, reduced food intake and even improvement in overall body weight and energy. All of that from chewing better. It is indeed time to take you cue and chew!!
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Miguel-Kergoat, S et al. (1 November 2015). Effects of chewing on appetite, food intake and gut hormones: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Physiology & Behavior, Vol 151, 88-96.
Nakayama, A. (2019, Feb). Digestive Intensive Week 3, Members Section, Functional Alliance. Retrieved from Functional Nutrition Lab: https://members.fxnalliance.com/my-classes/full-body-systems-2019/digestive-intensive/week-3/
Openshaw, R. (2019, Feb 12). Why You Should Chew Your Green Smoothies. Retrieved from Green Smoothie Girl: https://greensmoothiegirl.com/chew-green-smoothies/
Yong Zhu PhD, James et al;. (June 2014). Increasing the number of chews before swallowing reduces meal size in normal-weight, overweight and obese adults. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 114(6), 926-931.