The Power of Chewing: Improving Digestion, part 2

Try this experiment–take a bite out of a piece of bread and chew it at least 50 times before swallowing it.  What happens?  That’s right, it actually begins to taste very sweet.  I’ll explain why in a minute.  When I try this little gimmick with my nutrition class they are always amazed at how long it takes to actually chew something that thoroughly on the one hand, but also at how it changes the flavor of the food.

Chewing is crucial to good digestion, and it’s the step that most of us skip or shortchange (that is we give a few hasty chomps, just enough to get the food down without choking.) Here’s what’s supposed to happen: when you chew you should liquify the food in your mouth, thoroughly mixing it with saliva.  Saliva contains amylase, a starch digesting enzyme that starts breaking down carbohydrates right away.  (Your pancreas also secretes amylase later on in the process but thorough chewing will get the job started and ease the load on your pancreas.) By the way, this is why that starchy bread began to taste sweet in your mouth–your amylase was breaking the carbohydrates down to simple sugars.  Chewing also increases the surface area of your food, making the stomach’s job easier.  And one less well-known function of chewing is that it stimulates the parotid glands (under your jaw) to release hormones that activate parts of  the immune system.

Chewing is so important, but so often neglected, that I sometimes give my patients the following homework assignment: Every time you eat, chew each mouthful at least 50 times.  To insure that you don’t get impatient and rush through this, put your fork down between each bite.  Don’t pick it up again until that mouthful is liquid.  The benefits of this practice are many.  Your digestion will very likely improve.  But also, you may find yourself eating a lot less and maybe even losing some weight.  The reason for this is that thorough chewing slows you down considerably, and it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to get the message from the stomach that it’s full.  If you’re bolting down your food, you will have overeaten by a considerable amount before you realize you’re full.

So take the chewing challenge test for a week, and see what changes for you.  At the very least you may find yourself among the slow-food, slow-eating enthusiasts of the world who believe that eating should be a joy, not an irritating interruption in the day. Enjoy and watch your digestion improve.

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