Do you ever get to the end of a meal and realize that you don’t remember how many times should you chew your food? It’s something we all do from time to time during busy meals or when distracted by conversations. But it turns out that what should be an automatic process is actually important for good digestion and overall health. In this blog post, we’ll explore why taking the time to properly chew your food is beneficial, including discussing the optimal number of times per mouthful as well as ideas on incorporating mindful eating habits into your daily routine.
Chewing Sets the Stage for Digestion
Chewing is the first step in the complex journey of digestion. It initiates a cascade of chemical reactions that break down food into molecules we can absorb.
The mechanical act of chewing breaks food into smaller pieces, increasing the surface area for the chemical breakdown initiated by saliva. Saliva contains enzymes like amylase that start breaking down starch and lipase which begins fat digestion. Chewing signals the body to produce more saliva, releasing these enzymes to start processing carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Thorough chewing also ensures food is properly lubricated by saliva as it passes through the esophagus into the stomach. Saliva aids in swallowing and protects the delicate tissues of the digestive tract from abrasion when food passes through.
Extracting Maximum Nutrition from Every Bite
The more we break food down with our teeth, the more nutrients we can extract from it. Chewed food passes through the stomach and intestines faster, allowing for more efficient absorption of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients into the bloodstream.
Conversely, swallowing large pieces of poorly chewed food means less surface area is available for digestive enzymes to do their work. Rushed eating gives your body less time to fully break down and assimilate nutrients before food residues are eliminated as waste.
Thorough chewing liberates more nutrients from your diet, whether you are focused on high protein, fiber, antioxidants, or any other health-supporting compounds.
Harnessing Your Natural Appetite Control
It takes anywhere from 12 to 20 minutes for signals of fullness to travel from your stomach to your brain after eating. Chewing slowly allows time for these appetite control mechanisms to kick in before overeating occurs.
Rapid eaters often override the body’s natural satiety signals and consume excess calories before realizing they are full. Slowing down and chewing thoroughly enables you to tune into body cues and stop when satisfied.
Conscious chewing also involves paying close attention to food’s texture and flavor. This mindfulness leads to increased enjoyment and satisfaction from your meals.
Benefits Of Chewing Food Properly
Supporting Gut and Digestive Health
The gut lining plays a major role in protecting your health. Compromised gut barrier function is linked to inflammation, food sensitivities, and a range of diseases. Saliva production during chewing aids digestive health by providing a bicarbonate buffer that neutralizes stomach acidity and prevents damage to the intestinal lining.
Overgrowth of harmful bacteria is another consequence of digestive issues. Thorough chewing starves bad bacteria by breaking food into small particles and initiating robust digestion in the upper part of the GI tract before residues reach the colon.
Preventing Common Digestive Complaints
Digestive distress affects nearly 70 million Americans. Insufficient chewing is a major yet preventable cause of discomfort like gas, bloating, heartburn, and constipation.
Bolting down large chunks of food leads to uneven digestion. Undigested food ferments in the intestines, releasing gases that cause bloating and flatulence. Poor chewing also forces the esophageal sphincter open, allowing gastric acids to splash up and cause acid reflux or heartburn.
Gulping food floods the stomach with excess volume, stressing the digestive process. Particles forced into the intestines draw fluids into the bowel, resulting in diarrhea. On the flip side, tough chunks that transit slowly lead to constipation. Thorough chewing remedies many common GI complaints by initiating smooth digestion from the start.
Supporting Nutrient Absorption and Weight Goals
Obesity is a major public health concern linked to malnutrition despite excessive calorie intake. This paradoxical situation arises when food passes too quickly through the digestive tract and nutrients remain trapped inside undigested particles.
Insufficient chewing limits nutrient absorption even when you are technically eating enough calories. Your body may continue sending hunger signals in search of the nutrition it did not extract previously.
Fast eaters also end up consuming more portions before feeling full. Chewing thoroughly remedies this by allowing appetite control mechanisms to activate before overeating occurs. For those seeking to manage their weight, conscious chewing reduces calorie consumption while maximizing nutrition.
Impacts on Teeth and Oral Health
Chewing is a balancing act – applying just enough force to break food without overtaxing teeth and jaw joints. Aggressive chewing stresses the temporomandibular joints and wears down tooth enamel over time.
Yet the abrasive action of chewing also cleans teeth and produces more alkalizing saliva to neutralize cavity-forming acids. Insufficient chewing allows food debris to remain stuck on and between teeth, promoting bacteria growth that corrodes enamel.
Properly chewing fibrous fruits, vegetables, and whole grains also provide a cleansing action. Their texture removes plaque film while their abrasiveness naturally scrubs teeth.
A Natural Stress Reliever and Brain Booster
The rhythm of controlled chewing activates the body’s rest-and-digest nervous system, triggering relaxation responses that lower cortisol and decrease anxiety.
Chewing also boosts cerebral blood flow and elevates brain serotonin levels, explaining why mindful chewing can enhance mood and alleviate depression.
The concentration required for proper chewing engages the mind, potentially aiding memory, focus, and cognition. Avoiding distraction during meals and chew-counting both contribute to increased mental clarity from this simple act.
Strategies for Conscious Chewing
Cultivating an optimal personal chewing practice takes a little strategy and mindfulness. Here are some tips to make chewing work for you:
- Set the scene for distraction-free, relaxed dining when possible.
- Use chopsticks or put down utensils between bites to intentionally slow the pace.
- Choose foods with more texture like apples, carrots, granola, and nuts that naturally require more chewing.
- Establish a chewing goal based on food textures – firmer foods need more bites.
- Count your chews or use a timer to build more mindful eating habits.
- Drink water between bites to cleanse the palate and naturally space out forkfuls.
- Eat slowly without gulping to allow your stomach time to signal fullness to your brain.
- Focus on the textures, flavors, and sensations of each bite without distraction.
- Check for the urge to swallow and continue chewing until food is liquefied.
- Adopt chew counting as a short-term strategy to increase awareness and reset habits.
Tailor your chewing to the unique needs of your body, diet, and dental health for sustainable success. Periodic check-ins help reinforce optimal chewing behaviors long-term.
Adapting Chewing Habits by Age and Ability
Chewing capacity changes across the lifespan and may require modification for some. Here are a few tailored tips:
- Aging: Seniors produce less saliva and have reduced chewing force. Softer foods are often easier to consume. Serving meals with sauces or gravy adds essential fluids. Dentures may need adjustment for proper chewing function.
- Young Children: Babies move food to their molars around age 2. Toddlers’ chewing skills continue developing as new teeth erupt. Child-size bites of tender cooked foods help prevent choking.
- Dental Issues: Missing, cracked, or damaged teeth impair chewing and require compensation like avoiding hard foods. Dentures can replace missing teeth but may need adhesive to improve retention and chewing performance.
- TMJ and Oral Pain: Temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders may require soft foods. Gentle chewing with jaws relaxed improves comfort. Physical therapy helps strengthen mastication muscles.
- Medical Conditions: Some neuromuscular conditions like cerebral palsy affect chewing and swallowing coordination. Speech pathologists provide feeding therapy to improve safety and efficiency.
When Chewing Becomes Difficult?
If chewing causes significant discomfort or difficulty, seek professional support to identify the cause. A dentist can spot dental problems impeding function. For nerve, muscle, or joint dysfunction a neurologist, physiatrist, or physical therapist can help diagnose and treat the issue. Speech pathologists specialize in swallowing difficulties. Medical evaluation is warranted to check for underlying conditions if poor chewing arises suddenly.
Finding Your Optimal Chew Count
The popular advice to chew each bite 32 times originates from Victorian England. While catchy, this arbitrary number fails to reflect the nuance required for optimal chewing. Three factors influence how much you should chew:
- Food Texture: Soft or wet foods like casseroles require fewer chews than raw fibrous vegetables. Crunchy items need some initial crunching before the remainder is ready to swallow.
- Mouth Size: People with smaller mouths and teeth should chew more to achieve the same particle size reduction as those with larger oral cavities before swallowing.
- Digestive Efficiency: Those with dental issues or digestive conditions may need to chew even firmer items to a pureed consistency to compensate for reduced digestive capacity.
- Rather than focusing on a set number, chew until food liquefies and can be swallowed smoothly without significant effort. This ensures particles are small enough for optimal digestion. Adjust chewing based on food types and your unique needs.
Choosing Foods that Naturally Improve Chewing
Some foods are chewing superstars based on their texture, fiber content, hydration needs, and density. Here are prime options:
- Raw fruits and vegetables – carrots, apples, celery, broccoli
- Tough meats – jerky, steak, pork shoulder
- Dry grains – granola, nuts, seeds, whole grain bread
- Fibrous cooked foods – beans, lentils, peas, winter squash
- Crunchy snacks – popcorn, rice cakes
Pairing these chewing-intensive foods with sauces or dips ensures palatability while promoting thorough mastication.
Make Meals Work for Your Chewing Goals
Certain recipes and meal components actively encourage better chewing habits. Some ideas:
- Begin meals with a crunchy raw vegetable salad.
- Add toasted nuts, seeds, or granola to foods for texture.
- Choose whole grains like quinoa and brown rice over refined options.
- Grill or bake meats versus preparing softer stewed or ground meats.
- Incorporate fruits and vegetables with skins for fiber like apples, pears, and potatoes.
- Enjoy crusty whole grain breads that require chewing effort.
- Save soft, creamy foods like yogurt and ice cream for the end of a meal.
Bobby Kelly is a bartender at Molly Magees, an Irish pub in Mountain View. He’s been working there for two years and has developed a following among the regulars. Bobby is known for his friendly demeanor and great drink specials. He loves interacting with customers and making them feel welcome. When he’s not at work, Bobby enjoys spending time with his friends and family.