Chew your Way to Good Digestion

Your mum must have told you when you were little, “Don’t eat so fast, chew better!” But you were too eager to leave the table and go play. Your mum was right, though: digestion does begin in the mouth, and proper chewing can make a difference. Alas, most of us are used to eating fast and swallowing on the go, thus missing out on many benefits.

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We don’t just chew in order to break down the food. Nature has designed all parts of our digestive system – including the mouth – to work together; however, people often wrongly assume that their mouth serves just to break down the largest chunks and send them down. On average, we make 10-15 chewing motions per mouthful, but you can benefit your health greatly by chewing slower and longer.

  • Break down those carbs. There are special glands in and near our mouth that produce digestive enzymes: lipase helps break down fats, while alpha-amylase does the same for carbs. Thus, digestion does actually begin in your mouth! You’ll find more info on these enzymes here 
  • Absorb better. While smaller pieces of food are definitely easier on your throat, making particles really small increases their total surface that comes in contact with digestive enzymes, thus allowing for a fuller absorbtion of nutrients. Besides, food that is well lubricated with saliva has an easier time passing through the intestine.
  • Fight bacteria and gas. While it is more difficult for your body to absorb nutrients from large pieces of food, bacteria living in your gut has no problem with that at all. The less you chew, the more food your provide to bacteria: it grows faster, causing flatulence and discomfort.
  • Burn calories. Apparently, it is possible to burn calories by eating – not many, though. According to this study, slow chewing can help you burn up to 2000 calories a month (here is the study).
  • Relax the stomach. In order for half-digested food to pass into the intestine, a special muscle at the bottom of the stomach, called pylorus, has to relax. This process is greatly helped by saliva.
  • Eat less. How do you know when you are full? Your brain has to give a signal to the stomach, but it happens with a delay of up to 20 minutes. When you eat slowly, this fullness response arrives in time, so that you stop eating just when you should. On the contrary, people who swallow fast end up eating more than they need – they simply don’t feel full.
  • Prevent weight gain. Be it thanks to better digestion or eating smaller meals, studies have shown that people who eat slower are less prone to gain weight (more details here).
  • Help your brain. A recent study links chewing to the activity of hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Thus, chewing can help preserve cognitive funcion, especially in older age.

So how many times should you chew each mouthful? There is no agreement on this point: some dieticians have recommended to chew each piece till it liquefies, while others recommend specific numbers, like 40 chews per bite. Some expensive clinics, like the famous Austrian Mayr clinic that caters to celebrities and millionaires, put their clients on very stric diets, where each bite of stale bread is chewed for minutes on end. That may be excessive, but try to follow this basic rule: go on chewing until the food loses its texture (though not its taste), don’t drink until you have swallowed, and don’t talk while chewing. Help your body to digest, and soon you’ll feel its gratitude!

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