Chewing Your Food - Ask a Nutritionist

August 10, 2023

Why is it important to take the time to properly chew foods? Well, taking bites and chewing our food thoroughly is the very first step in physically digesting our food. Tune into this week's episode of Ask a Nutritionist with Leah to learn all about the benefits of properly chewing food.

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Welcome to the “Ask a Nutritionist” podcast, brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness. We are thrilled to have you join us today as we discuss the connection between what you eat and how you feel, and share practical real life solutions for healthier living through balanced nutrition. Now let's get started.

LEAH: Hello and welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition's midweek segment called “Ask a Nutritionist”. My name is Leah Kleinschrodt. I am a Registered and Licensed Dietitian with Nutritional Weight and Wellness. And on today's show I will be answering a question about one particular topic that we've received from our Dishing Up Nutrition listeners.

This listener asks, “Why is it important to take the time to properly chew foods? What are the benefits to chewing our foods well?” So thank you for that question. And I love this question actually because this gets into how we eat our food, which I, I think is an overlooked and tends to be kind of an underappreciated aspect of our eating experience; underappreciated in how it actually makes our bodies feel during a meal, during a snack, and how we feel after we finish that meal or snack. I'd argue that how we eat is equally important as what we choose to eat.

So we, that is what we typically address on Dishing Up Nutrition and at Nutritional Weight and Wellness is okay, how can we make the best choices possible for our bodies, but we also have to think about how we eat and how we are taking that food in. One kind of little side note, as I was putting together some thoughts on how to answer this question, I came across this term called eating hygiene, which I thought was just kind of an interesting term. We often hear about sleep hygiene. That was the first thing that came to my mind, which is just, you know, what does our sleep environment look like? You know, do we sleep in a cool room? Is it dark? Do we have a face mask on? I mean all sorts of things like how do we cater our sleep environment to optimize our sleep?

Eating hygiene habits to keep in mind

So we think about eating hygiene. I would say along those same lines, like what does our eating environment look like to optimize our digestion, what we get out of our foods and just how we feel in our interactions with food. So we think about in terms of eating hygiene, like how fast do you eat. Do you eat distracted a lot? So think about it, do you eat a lot in front of the TV or in front of a computer or our phones or even reading a book or a newspaper or a magazine? Where do you eat a lot of your meals and a lot of your food? Do you eat on the go a lot? Do you eat standing up, kind of just kind of hunched over a bowl or a plate over the kitchen counter? Do you eat meals or snacks in the car often? I mean, so on and so forth.

So we can say that chewing our food falls into this category of eating hygiene. And the nice thing about the thing, when we talk about chewing our food, this is a hundred percent a free intervention that we can use. We don't have to buy certain tools; we don't have to spend extra money or do this and that this is something free and something that we can do at our very next meal or snack in terms of trying to improve our experience around food. So I just think that is so cool and that's why I love this question so much.

Chewing food thoroughly assists in digestion

So let's take a minute or two and just talk about like what does chewing do for us? Like why do we need to chew our foods? So chewing food, taking bites and chewing our food thoroughly is the very first step in physically digesting our food. This is the first step in digestion and I would say if you took nothing else out of this particular episode, I'd want you to think the more you chew your food, the less stress on the rest of your digestive tract. Okay? So I'll say that again. If nothing else, if you take nothing else away, just remember that the more you chew your food, the less stress is going to be on the rest of that digestive tract.

So this means that no matter where in the gut or in the digestive tract that you may have problems, I, some clients have troubles in the esophagus, kind of that tube that goes from the mouth down to the stomach or if you have heartburn or reflux, if you struggle with gas and bloating, if you have diarrhea or constipation, if you have an autoimmune condition that affects the digestive tract like celiac disease, Crohn's, ulcerative colitis, microscopic colitis, I mean any of those things, chewing can absolutely be one simple, not always easy, but simple step to support the rest of that digestive tract and it can help any of those conditions that I mentioned.

So just to go a little further into that concept, the more you chew your food, the more surface area is available to the mouth and that is available to be exposed to saliva and the digestive enzymes that are in your mouth. So we do really start both the mechanical digestion so that physical chewing of our food in the mouth, but saliva, our spit also has some digestive enzymes in it, more so for carbohydrates than anything else, but it does have digestive enzymes in it. So we start some of that biochemical digestion in the mouth as well.

So when we chew our food really well and, and we'll talk about kind of what that definition of really well is, but the more we chew our food, the more surface area we are exposing that food to so that it can get exposed to saliva and digestive enzymes. So the more efficient digestion that we're going to have further down the pipe and really the more nutrients that we're going to be able to get out of our food in general. So that's always a plus.

Chewing food sends signals for stomach acid & pancreatic enzymes to produce

Chewing food also sends signals to the rest of our gut to the rest of our digestive tract that food is coming. So the more we chew, the more stomach acid we're going to produce, the more pancreatic enzymes we're going to produce. And this is all a good thing because this means that once that food arrives in the stomach or in that first part of the small intestine, these organs are already prepped and they're ready to hit the ground running with their digestive jobs when that food arrives. So they kind of get that message ahead of time that food is coming, they start doing their job and then they're just able to do their job much more efficiently, which makes a lot of sense.

I mean most of us I think usually do a better job, think, think at your own job. Do you do a better job when you have a heads up of what's coming down the line? Are you able to prep? Are you able to wrap your head around things or even kind of get some things ready for when that job really, really hits the fan? So not only does chewing again, start some of these mechanical and biochemical processes, but it is really important. And I think most people have heard this part before that when you chew really well, it slows you down. It forces you to take time with that snack or with that meal. And the longer you chew, the more time you have to register that, oh yeah, I'm getting food, I'm getting nutrients, I'm getting energy. And really overall, the less you're going to eat in the long run and potentially this has the potential to help with more weight loss.

I came across one study as I was putting together some thoughts for this question that showed subjects who were in this particular study, and this was done in 2019. Subjects who chewed their food 50 times versus 15 times took in fewer calories the more they chewed. So again, 50 times, chewing your food 50 times versus 15 times led to eating less overall. So again, for some of our clients who have those weight loss goals, again, this could be a free intervention or a free tool that you can use to help you along that journey.

Why don’t we always chew our food well?

So why don't we chew our food well? I mean, what gets in the way? What are some of our barriers to this? So this was something I wanted to flush out a little as well. You know, for some people there's mechanical or physical problems with their mouth, with their teeth, with their jaw that just might impact how well they're able to chew.

Another thing that I came across as well that I didn't even really think about was people who tend to be more mouth breathers or if you tend to be chronically congested in the nose, that can lead to issues with chewing or just kind of with that chewing process in general, 'cause When you chew your food and you're trying to breathe at the same time, doesn't necessarily work super well. So if you breathe through your nose, you are able to get some of that oxygen flowing a little bit better and you're able to spend a little bit more time in that chewing mode versus I have to chew and I have to swallow so that I can breathe as soon as possible.

We don't chew well when we're in a rush, when we are trying to get out the door for work in the morning, when we're trying to prep the kids to get where they need to go in the evenings. I mean so many different factors play into why we might be in a rush and why we just need to shovel food into our mouth and move on with our day.

I mentioned being distracted before, so we don't necessarily, we're not focused on chewing or focused on how we're eating our food when we are paying attention to the TV, watching the nightly news, looking at our phones, scrolling on Instagram or something like that. It can be a habit that some of us are just fast eaters. And one thing I was thinking about of I've had some clients who have mentioned this before, when you're raised in a bigger family, so think like eight, 10 kids, something like that, you, if you were on time to the table and if you wanted seconds or you wanted extra food in that meal and there were other mouths to feed, you might have had to eat really quickly just so that you made sure that you got enough food. So some of that might even go back a long time into childhood about, you know, how fast am I eating and what was my eating environment like even as a kid or as a teenager or as a young adult.

And the last one that I want to hit on that we talk a lot about actually at Nutritional Weight and Wellness is low blood sugar if you get overly hungry. So if you arrive to a meal and we've all had this experience, when you arrive at a meal and you are starving, you're just ready to gnaw your arm off, you had to work through lunch or you missed your afternoon snack or something like that and your blood sugar is low, you are much more likely to really dive into that food and just start that inhaling process versus sitting down, being calm, taking that food in and being calm and in control of, of your bites. So that is something, and, and we'll talk about that in just a minute too as a solution. If you are really trying to focus on chewing your food, well, that blood sugar balance actually can be a big part of this.

Strategies to consider to help with eating hygiene & how you chew your food

So as I mentioned, just changing your eating hygiene and changing how you chew your food, this is a free intervention. This is something that you can do and it doesn't require extra equipment, extra, extra anything. It just requires a little more intention and a little more mindfulness about how you're approaching your food. A couple of things to think about. If this is, if you know that you tend to be a really fast eater, if you know you have some of these digestive problems or if it's just something that you want to start making more of a practice for for yourself. These are a couple of thoughts or a couple things that that you can try.

One thing that I heard a long time ago that actually resonated with me is we have 32 teeth in our mouth. So aim to chew your food at least 32 times before swallowing. So 32 times for 32 teeth. Count it out. I mean, it might feel weird. You might feel kind of silly doing it. Maybe you try it when you're just eating by yourself and not necessarily with other people or out to out to eat or with the family the first couple of times, but try it like chew 32 times every single time you're taking a bite. And really what we're aiming for is to grind that, that food down into like a baby food consistency. So if you think about like a puree type of thing almost, or just like very small bits, that's what we're aiming for.

Another thing you can try is setting a timer for yourself. And again, that might seem silly or something that maybe you want to try by yourself first, but setting a timer for a meal and try to, if you know, typically you're done with a meal in eight to 10 minutes, set a timer for 20 minutes and can you pace yourself over the course of that 20 minutes to really sit down, focus, relax, and see can you draw out that meal and just spend more time with that food and with that meal chewing that food really well.

You can put your fork or your spoon down between each bite. So this kind of lends itself well into, into extending that meal. Can you put your utensils down every single time you take a bite? Can you take a breath or two every single time you take a bite? Can you just even sit back? A lot of us, we sit hunched over kind of, you know, pitched forward over our plate, over our food, but could you even just kind of relax and sit back and focus on chewing that food really well?

Even before you sit down for a meal, I mentioned taking a breath before, even before you sit down for a meal, especially if you're kind of arriving to this meal, you just walked in the door and like everything went wrong at work that day or there were demands as soon as you got home. If you're arriving to that meal in a really frazzled state already, what if you sat down and just took five deep breaths and recentered and refocused on that food in front of you?

Like that brings you more out of that fight or flight type of mode and more into a rest and digest mode. So that in and of itself is going to have benefits for better digestion and it'll allow you again to just kind of refocus, slow down and be able to chew that food much more efficiently.

The importance of keeping blood sugar balanced

And then the blood sugar piece. So coming back to blood sugar. Again, we've talked a lot about this over the years at dishing of nutrition and at nutritional weight and wellness, but if you can avoid it, and no one's ever a hundred percent all the time, but keeping your blood sugar balanced throughout the day so you that you never arrive at a specific meal or at a specific snack, famished, overly hungry again, like ready to rip the fridge door off its hinges as soon as you walk in the door, that is going to allow you kind of, again, goes back to that fight or flight mode versus rest and digest mode.

It keeps you more present in your body, it keeps you more aware and it keeps you more in control of your thoughts and of your actions when you have steady blood sugar and you have good blood flow to the brain and good energy to the brain, that you don't arrive to that meal overly hungry and just ready to dive in and just tear that meal apart. And this is especially important I would say too, when we think about, especially if that meal that you're looking forward to is, you know, maybe it does have more processed carbs to it or it is more of a refined food type of meal, or if even if it's a meal that has some of your favorite foods on it, that anticipation and just wanting some of those things a little bit more will lead you to want to eat it faster and to not chew as much and then you just don't get as many nutrients out of that experience and you also kind of lend yourself to having some more digestive problems down the line as well.

You know, it seemed like a simple question, honestly as I was answering this, but really we could go in depth into this particular topic of chewing well and, and and eating well and having good eating hygiene. So hopefully there was some nice takeaways out of this particular topic and, and that if nothing else, again, it gives you pause and gives you some food for thought about, you know, what is that importance of, of actually sitting down chewing your food well and, and helping that digestive tract out.

So I want to thank you all for listening to Dishing Up Nutrition's “Ask a Nutritionist” segment and if you have a nutrition question you would like us to answer, we invite you to join our Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook community by searching Dishing Up Nutrition on Facebook.

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