Digestive Series: Chewing. Yes, it's Really That Important!

It’s official! The name of my holistic health and nutrition coaching practice is officially called “The Nourished Belly!” I wanted to find a name that described how I felt about food, and nourish is a word that should describe everything that we do, for ourselves and for others. The word “belly” is important because when our stomachs are happy, our entire well-being is at its pinnacle. When it isn’t, well, this is when we start to encourage and set the stage for disease. “The Nourished Belly,” thus describes the path I follow to find my own optimal health and how I encourage my clients to find theirs. So, to usher in this new name, I wanted to write a series of blog posts dedicated to nourishing your belly. The first of which, and one of the most basic things you can do to dramatically improve your digestion, is to CHEW YOUR FOOD.

Yup. It’s that simple. Many of us are accustomed to eating, and eating on the run. We often eat in front of the TV, or while reading a book, or in our cars!  According to dosomething.org, 20% of all American meals are eaten in our cars.  Yikes!  All of these habits put eating on the bottom of the list of priorities, when it really should be with the top.  Plus, it makes the nutrients from the foods less absorbable and harder on our digestive system.

Why Should We Chew?

1) It signals to our bodies to be ready for digestion. There are two modes that our bodies run in, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. Most people refer to the sympathetic mode as the fight or flight mode, so our bodies are preparing to run from that tiger.  Thus, every non-essential function is switched off. Including our digestion. When you are on the go go go, this is the state in which your body functions. I experience this most clearly if I exercise too soon after eating. I can literally tell that the food is just sitting in my stomach, and it doesn’t feel good.

When we chew, we are signaling the body that we are in a relaxed state, and therefore our digestion will switch on. We are activating our parasympathetic mode. Turning off the TV and closing that book will also help prepare your body. Eating is not a time you should be multi-tasking!

2) Digestion begins in the mouth. We have enzymes that begin to work on carbohydrates, and to a small degree, fats, in our saliva. Chewing is designed to not only break food down into digestible pieces, but to also thoroughly mix our food with the saliva in our mouths. When we don’t chew, we miss an important step.

3) Not Chewing Can Lead to:

Overworking of the Pancreas: Our pancreas picks up the slack to release whatever enzymes are still needed to break down fats and carbohydrates. Interestingly, it is often referred to as the “mother," because who picks up the slack for you? Your mother! So true.

When you are young, your pancreas might be able to keep up, but over time, the function will decrease. Plus, your pancreas has so many other jobs, not only releasing digestive enzymes, but is also a key player in blood sugar regulation and a producer of many hormones. We want it in tip-top shape!

Food Allergies and Inflammation: Not chewing enough can lead to larger food molecules being absorbed through the intestinal wall. (and also could aid in the development of a syndrome called leaky gut.) Our bodies will perceive these molecules as foreign, and create antibodies against them. This is how food allergies can develop leading to inflammation and possibly other complications.

I’ve tried to chew my food the recommended 25 - 30 times, which is much harder than it sounds, especially if you are used to eating fast, like me. But we can start at a much easier place. Here are some tips:

  • Set the stage for eating: Clear your table, turn off all distractions, and prepare your food on a beautiful plate.
  • Once you start eating, taste your food! Focus on what your food tastes like, and make sure there are no chunks before you swallow.
  • Take a deep breath when you are finished. Take a moment, savor the fact that you just took some time out of your day to nourish yourself.

Next time you eat, think about it how important chewing is for you, and just take a couple more minutes with your meal. One of my favorite sayings from Traditional Chinese Medicine is that “the stomach has no teeth.” Happy Nourishing!


N.D.,  Your Digestive System and How it Works.  http://www2.niddk.nih.gov/.  Retrieved from http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/yrdd/