By Dr. Mercola
You probably don’t give much thought to chewing your food. For most of us it’s second-nature, and once you put food in your mouth chewing it is likely as automatic as breathing.
Paying more attention to the way you chew, however, especially how long and how thoroughly you chew, may be a simple way to improve your health. People who are obese, for instance, tend to chew less (and for shorter periods) than those who are a normal weight.1
Research also shows that increasing the number of chews before swallowing reduces meal size by up to nearly 15 percent, which researchers believe might be an effective strategy to help with weight management.2
“Eating slowly contributes to a lower risk of obesity, probably because it could aid appetite control. Chewing thoroughly is an effective strategy to reduce eating rate … ,” the researchers explained in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.3
Yet, chewing slowly is useful for far more than just weight management.
Chewing Thoroughly Is the First Step to Healthy Digestion
The chewing process, also known as mastication, is the first step in your digestive process – one you don’t want to rush through. Chewing breaks your food down from large particles into smaller particles that are more easily digested.
This also makes it easier for your intestines to absorb nutrients from the food particles as they pass through.
Research presented at the 2013 Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo in Chicago showed that when participants chewed almonds longer, the smaller particles were better and more quickly absorbed by the body.
In those who chewed less, the larger particles were eliminated by the body. Purdue University professor and nutrition scientist Richard Mattes explained, “Particle size [affects the] bioaccessibility of the energy of the food that is being consumed. The more you chew, the less is lost and more is retained in the body.”4
Further, the chewing process mashes your food into small pieces and partially liquefies it, making it easier to digest. Digestion is actually a very demanding task for your body, requiring a great deal of energy, especially if forced to digest improperly chewed food.
Chewing properly allows your stomach to work more efficiently and break down your food faster. In addition, the longer you chew, the more time the enzymes in your saliva have to start breaking down your food, making digestion easier on your stomach and small intestine.
One of these enzymes is lingual lipase, an enzyme that helps break down fats, for example. Saliva also helps to lubricate your food so it’s easier on your esophagus.
Longer Chewing Helps You Eat Slowly
The longer you chew, the more time it will take you to finish a meal, and research shows that eating slowly can help you to eat less and, ultimately, to avoid weight gain or even lose weight.
For example, chewing your food twice as long as you normally would will instantly help you control your portion sizes, which naturally decreases calorie consumption.
It takes time (generally about 20 minutes), for your brain to signal to your stomach that you’re full, and this may explain why one study found people reported feeling fuller when they ate slowly.5
They also ended up consuming about 10 percent fewer calories when they ate at a slow pace, and presumably chewed slower, as opposed to when they were rushing.
Longer chewing even results in fewer calories being consumed and more favorable levels of appetite-regulating hormones that tell your brain when to stop eating.6
Counting Your Bites Might Help You Lose Weight
There are better strategies for weight loss than counting calories, like focusing on the nutritional content of your food instead, for starters. Another strategy you can easily try is to count the number of bites you take at each meal.
Researchers recruited college students and asked them to count their daily bites for one week, which were then averaged to obtain a weekly “bite baseline.” A bite is defined as each time your hand goes to your mouth with food.
For the next four weeks, the students were asked to reduce their bites by 20 percent to 30 percent. At the end of the study, participants had lost an average of about 3.5 pounds. According to The New York Times, if you want to give this a try:7
” … you must first determine how many bites you take during a normal day. Ideally, start now … Then during the upcoming [holiday] feasts, maintain or reduce that number, with a reduction of 20 percent seeming the most efficacious for weight loss, [study author] Dr. [Josh] West said.”
Keep in mind, however, that reducing your number of bites may help you lose weight but says little about the health value of your food. Ideally, to lose weight and improve your health you’ll want to focus on eating whole foods, i.e. replace empty calories and denatured foods with nutrient-rich ones.
How Many Times Should You Chew Each Bite?
Getting back to chewing your food thoroughly, you may have heard the old adage to chew your food 32 times before swallowing. Is this really the “magic” number? There are many theories about how many times you should, ideally, chew each piece of food.
The Times of India highlighted Horace Fletcher, a late-1800s health-food guru (also known as “The Great Masticator”) who was famous for chewing each bite 100 times a minute before swallowing (and to this he attributed his good health, strength and endurance).8
You needn’t be this strict, as the amount of chewing any given food requires will vary depending on its type and texture. The “32 times” rule is therefore largely ambiguous, although it does steer you toward slowing down your chewing, which is a good choice for most people.
Instead of strict counting, here’s a guide to ensure that you’re chewing in a way that will support your health. Generally speaking, you’ll want to eat in a relaxed, non-distracted environment; eating on the run or while you’re working or watching TV is not conducive to proper chewing.
- Take smaller bites of food to begin with (it’s easier to chew smaller morsels)
- Chew slowly and steadily
- Chew until your mouthful of food is liquefied or has lost all of its texture
- Finish chewing and swallowing completely before taking another bite of food
- Wait to drink fluids until you’ve swallowed
Aside from the potential health benefits, chewing properly helps you to really enjoy your food. If you rush through your meal with hardly any chewing, you’re not really tasting or enjoying the food.
When you take the time to properly chew, it forces you to slow down, savor each morsel, and really taste all the flavors your food has to offer.