Something for you to digest
Lindsay M. Mulholland
Chewing is often mindless, but done properly, it can benefit digestion, weight control, and food absorption.
How many times do you chew your food? Until now, many of us have probably never thought about our chewing habits. Why would we? Chewing is an innate ability. Following just a few simple guidelines, however, can help you change a small habit to make a big health impact.
One habit change, three benefits
When we start to chew properly, three significant health benefits are unleashed—weight control, maximal nutrient absorption, and smooth digestion. Nutrient absorption and smooth digestion are both maximized by salivation and other physiological reactions that chewing triggers. Weight control, and potentially weight loss, can be achieved by reducing caloric intake.
These benefits were demonstrated by a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which indicated that chewing whole almonds 40 times, in comparison to 10 or 25 times, is linked to greater appetite control and better absorption of healthy unsaturated fats. Research participants were asked to chew two ounces of whole almonds 10, 25, or 40 times, and were monitored over four days. Participants also reported hunger both before and after consuming the almonds.
The results revealed that chewing almonds 40 times may lead to decreased insulin levels (an indicator of appetite) quicker and made participants feel satisfied faster. Participants also reported feeling fuller for a longer period of time. Increasing the number of chews was also correlated with lower lipid excretion in the stool, which means that more healthy fat may be absorbed and used by the body.
Mary Clifton, a doctor of internal medicine, explains that chewing is a very important part of digestion. Amylase and other enzymes present in saliva start breaking down carbohydrates, and more importantly, chewing and swallowing activate dozens of chemical reactions in the stomach, pancreas, and small intestine. Without chewing thoroughly, the gut doesn’t get the message that nutrition is coming.
Clifton recommends slowing down when chewing and when drinking smoothies or juices. This will give the body adequate time to prepare for the nutrients and calories coming its way.
Two studies conducted in 2014 indicate that chewing thoroughly may be an effective strategy to reduce food intake.
Both studies first established a baseline chewing rate for each participant. Participants were later asked to attend three lunches where they were instructed to maintain their baseline chew rate, increase chews by 150 percent, or increase chews by 200 percent. This means that a participant with an average chew rate of 10 would chew 25 times in the 150 percent increase condition and 30 times in the 200 percent increase condition.
When the number of chews increased, the amount of food consumed decreased significantly in younger adults. Researchers concluded that increasing the number of chews before swallowing may be an effective behavioural strategy to reduce food intake and aid weight management.
What does eating less mean in terms of caloric reduction? A 2011 study examined just that issue. Researchers first established a baseline chew count for each participant. Over a three-month period, participants were then randomly instructed to chew normally or slow down. On average, participants who were instructed to slow down their chewing by 50 percent ate 70 fewer calories during meals.
Now do the math. A reduction of 70 calories per meal equals 210 fewer calories per day (at three meals per day), 1,470 calories per week, and about 5,880 calories—or 1 1/2 lbs (0.7 kg)—per month!
Old philosophy, new approach
Using chewing for weight control is not a novel idea. Horace Fletcher was a self-taught nutritional authority from the 1800s who introduced a concept known as “Fletcherism.” He cautioned people to eat only when “good and hungry” and to avoid eating when angry or worried. He also suggested that chewing food until it was liquid or “until the food swallowed itself” would prevent overeating.
A 2011 study revisited Fletcher’s theory of increasing chews to reduce food intake. Participants were instructed to eat until comfortably full, and to either chew 35 times per bite or 10 times per bite. The results demonstrated that food intake to become comfortably full could be reduced by increasing chews per bite from 10 to 35.
Make a change
Ready to make a change in chewing habits? Tess Challis, vegan chef, wellness coach, and author, recommends starting small. If 35 chews per bite is too daunting, start with staying mindful for five chews. Just starting to pay attention will have an impact. Once you are in the habit of counting your chews, you can increase from there.
Challis also suggests paying attention to tastes and textures as you chew—so get indulgent! Before taking a bite, linger with the food in front of your mouth and savour the smell. Once you take a bite, notice the texture of the food and enjoy the flavour. Is it sweet? Salty? Spicy? After it has been chewed thoroughly, the food is ready to swallow.
Don’t think about chewing as a chore. In this fast-paced world, chewing is a great opportunity to slow down, centre yourself, and be present in the moment. Take in the sensuality of food. You may also learn about your relationship with food along the way.
Quick tips to chew on
Portion control may be achieved by using small dishes, small utensils, or measuring cups, but a simpler way is to chew more. This can be done anywhere, anytime, and without anyone noticing.