Chew, Chew, Chew: Part One
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In last week’s newsletter, I promised to delve further into the subject of chewing, having ended the newsletter (on the subject of dietary patterns) with the Macrobiotic principle of “Chew your drink and drink your food”. In these days of fast food, and multi-tasking, many of us wolf down our food without thinking about it, or even chewing well. But, these are also days of rampant digestive disorders, including bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea, reflux, heartburn, etc. And, to the surprise of many people, even eating healthy whole foods does not ensure ideal digestion. This is because it is not so much about the type of food we are eating, but how we eat it.
Could it all come down to insufficient chewing?
Macrobiotics (term refers to both the philosophical system and its adherents) are not the only ones who put emphasis on proper chewing. The East Indian medical system, Ayurveda, also advocates for slow and thorough chewing, considering it a requirement for good digestive health. And Chinese medicine is of the mind that all healing begins first with digestion, therefore we can see that proper chewing, and good digestion, can be of importance for total body health.
While the Macrobiotic system sometimes suggests chewing up to one hundred times (mostly for the seriously ill), Ayurveda suggests chewing each mouthful of food for a minimum of thirty times, which will be sufficient in most cases to turn the food to liquid. (Thus you “drink your food”.)
What Does Chewing Do?
In the West, we evidently chew each bite of food around eight times, a far cry from the 30 times Ayurveda recommends, and the main reason so many of us suffer from digestive disorders. The more we chew, the more nutrients we can extract from our food, and the easier it is for the rest of the digestive system to process that food comfortably. Furthermore, our saliva breaks food down into simple sugars, which creates a sweet taste (however subtle).
In this way, serious chewing can make the food “sweet” enough to curb our desire for dessert. (Dessert is never a good idea: adding sugar to the gut after filling it with carbs, proteins and fats, just impedes the digestion of everything. I am a firm believer that dessert should stand alone, and I always have my sweets away from meals.). Saliva carries a digestive enzyme called ptyalin which, when well mixed with carbohydrates, breaks them down, separating the nutrients, protein, and starch from the fiber. Since we have no saliva (or teeth) in the stomach, if we don’t chew well enough, the food passes through the intestines only partially absorbed. Unabsorbed food in the intestines is fermented by intestinal bacteria. This produces gas, as well as possibly some emotional side effects (irritability, moodiness).
Either over-eating, or the presence of undigested food, requires more blood flow to the lower digestive regions. This takes blood away from the brain, reducing mental clarity. As well, the more we chew the more endorphins we produce, and these chemical messengers are essential to maintaining a good mood. But, even more than just influencing our mood, “Chewing activates several brain regions that are essential for cognitive processing, including the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex”. (Source)
Digestive health expert, and author of Go With Your Gut, Robyn Youkilis, points out to her followers that there are digestive enzymes in our saliva, so “when you don’t chew your food until liquid, you’re skipping an important part of your digestive process”. She goes on to add, “Your stomach doesn’t have teeth”, and “because the rest of your digestive system is having to do more work, you may feel that dreaded post-meal food coma when you don’t take the time to chew”. (As a related aside, in Western Naturopathy it is believed that if you are tired after eating it is because your body is lacking enzymes. Put another way, you are expending more energy during digestion than you are receiving from the food. From this perspective, simply taking enzyme pills is sort of cheating. And you risk becoming dependent on enzyme pills for your future digestive needs. Far better to properly masticate, and increase your enzyme intake through raw, sprouted, and fermented foods.)
Another interesting point that Youkilis makes is something I’ve also heard practitioners of Chinese Medicine subscribe to: “I believe that the way we digest our food is the way we “digest” our life. If something is off with our bellies – we’re eating too quickly, giving ourselves way too much to eat at any given meal and our guts are unhappy, our lives are going to reflect that.” (For those who like support when engaging in new endeavours, Youkilis offers a free, 21 day, Chewing Challenge.)
One does not have to be overly religious to appreciate the value of feeling gratitude for our food before we dig in. Even if we do not say “grace” at the beginning of our meals, taking a moment to reflect on how lucky we are to have good food and plenty of it, to consider the many lives that were involved in getting that wide variety of foods to your table, starts the process of mindful eating. Then chewing, at least 30 times, will slow you down enough to further the process of mindful eating.
Now, many will look at this from a strictly pragmatic point of view, and, if they believe in the potential value of chewing, will chew to liquid, but may do so while scrolling, watching, or reading. They are missing the opportunity to engage with their life-sustaining food on a more intrinsic level, and to develop patience and self control. Food is not just fuel. Food is life, and how it is grown, how it is cooked, and how it is consumed, all reflect and affect our lives. This is the essence of Macrobiotic principles, and is a philosophy also found in the Slow Food Movement.
In Part 2, I will examine how chewing well has been proven to aid in weight loss, and look at a practical example of extreme chewing saving lives.