There's an ancient story of a military commander who came down with the deadly disease leprosy. Hearing that there was a healer in a neighboring country, he set off with a contingent of soldiers. Finding the healer in a small, unassuming house, the commander made his request. "Go wash seven times in our river, and you will be healed," said the old man. The officer was indignant! The river was small and muddy. The healer had not performed a grand ceremony nor said any magic words. Insulted by the simplicity of the counsel, the commander determined to ride home without attempting the remedy. But his soldiers reasoned with him, "Sir, if the old man had asked you to do a hard thing like climb a mountain or cross a desert or pay a large sum of money, would you not have done it? Why not try this easy thing?" The commander relented. He dismounted his horse, waded into the stream, and began dipping down into the muddy water. As he surfaced the seventh time, the commander found his skin clean and beautiful, free from the dreaded leprosy. The moral of the story is that many times we expect health advice to be something that is hard to do or that requires us to purchase something expensive; we don't want to believe that the greatest health lies in simple remedies.
Every day, I tell patients about optimal health based on eating simple foods like beans, greens, squash, and yams. Although many patients give it a try and find help for their hypertension, angina, erectile dysfunction, diverticulitis, obesity, diabetes, allergies, or high cholesterol, there are a few patients who are insulted by the suggestion that simple foods can foster healing. When I begin to discuss with my patients the finer points of achieving optimal health through diet, I tell them that something as simple as chewing their food can make a difference in their health and longevity; they find that even harder to believe. I understand. So let's take a look at the science on chewing.
Chewing, Disease, and Longevity
There were two studies done on an elderly population in Japan over the course of four years. The study participants were asked to assess which foods they were able to chew. The first study concluded that inability to chew thoroughly was an independent risk factor for death from cardiovascular disease. The second study found that there was an association between chewing ability and mortality; the fewer foods which could be chewed was associated with higher mortality rates. Commenting on these studies, Jeff Novick, MS, RD, says, "I just do not see this kind of information, even on a casual level, for the benefit of juicing." Juicing, of course, involves swallowing nutrients without the action of chewing.
Chewing seems to have benefits due to the secretion of saliva during mastication. In a study conducted on participants with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), researchers found "a profound and significant increase in the secretion rate of inorganic and organic protective components in saliva during masticatory stimulation." Based on this finding, the study authors suggest that chewing might have therapeutic value for GERD patients. Jeff wonders if there are other health issues which the increase in saliva might benefit. "Maybe one of the reasons we do not absorb nutrients as well as we should is because we do not chew our food as well as we should," suggests Jeff.
Chewing and Weight Loss
We all know that if we chew less food, weight loss is sure to follow! But what if we chew more? In his book, The McDougall Program for Maximum Weight Loss, John McDougall, MD, writes:
Satisfaction from our food begins in the mouth. Increased chewing results in greater satisfaction of the appetite. Not surprisingly, high-fiber vegetable foods also require more chewing. In addition, taking time to chew your meals, rather than speed-feeding them, allows the stomach and intestines to communicate to the brain that your nutritional needs have been satisfied and you can stop eating.
While science pushes forward with new insights, the simple truths remain. Dr. McDougall's classic book was published in 1994, yet we can see the evidence for Dr. McDougall's simple advice on chewing in a study published 14 years after his book went into print. In the study, thirty women were given two all-you-can-eat meals and asked about their perception of satiety (fullness and satisfaction). When the women were allowed to eat slowly, they consumed significantly fewer calories and they reported higher rates of pleasantness after the meal. But the results were much different if the women ate in a hurried manner. When the women ate quickly, they took in more calories, but they reported significantly less satiety. While chewing was not specifically studied, the results of this research support Dr. McDougall's assertion that eating more slowly — which allows time for more chewing — will lead us to feel full and satisfied with fewer calories.
Chewing Through the Myths
The T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies published the article "Time to Chew: The Digestive System Starts in Your Mouth." In it, author Jessica Porter dispels five myths associated with chewing:
(1) Chewing Requires Mindfulness - Nope. One doesn't have to be in a particular frame of mind to experience the benefits of chewing. However, Porter says there is an intersection between chewing and mindfulness, "but it’s on the back-end. By chewing complex carbohydrates thoroughly, you will send peaceful pulses of glucose to your brain and they will create an effortless mindfulness. After you chew."
(2) Chewing is a Waste of Time - Not true. Chewing not only increases the efficiency of all of our digestive organs, but when we take time to chew, we also release the full spectrum of nutrition and energy in our whole plant foods. Thus, thorough chewing ensures the best use of our time and our fuel. Plus, points out Porter, well-chewed food digests better, which means less unpleasant-smelling gas.
(3) My Digestive Organs are Below my Neck - Not all of them. Our molars begin the process of digestion by crushing and grinding our food. As our molars are working physically, saliva begins the chemical aspect of digestion with a carbohydrate-specific enzyme, amylase.
(4) Chewing is Anti-Social - You can balance this. The more you get used to chewing, the more you'll want to do it. You'll learn to stagger conversations so that you can chew while you listen.
(5) Chewing is Dumb - No, it's actually very intelligent. Think of chewing as our body's anti-inflammation kit. Saliva is alkaline, so it helps reduce the inflammation which underlies lifestyle diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases. Of course, eating a low-fat, whole plant food diet is the most important step in alkalizing our bodies. Chewing is smart on other levels, too. It helps us lose weight, saves us money at the grocery store, increases our energy, and keeps our teeth healthy.
Outsourcing our Chewing
Chewing is so basic that some may wonder why I need to write an article on it. After all, humans have been doing it for centuries. But hold it right there. That's the point. Sometimes we think we're "improving" our nutrition by skipping the chewing process with a high power appliance. I must admit, from time to time I enjoy banana ice cream made with my husband's rugged, 30+year-old, avocado-green Champion juicer. I love to whiz up a whole flax seeds, herbs, and veggies into a tangy salad dressing. And smooth, blended bean sauces are delicious on many foods. So although I don't recommend smoothies as a go-to breakfast plan, I'm not an anti-blender advocate. I do, however, believe that it's a mistake to outsource our chewing for the bulk of our nutrition. Simple, old-fashioned chomp-it-and-chew-it works best for extracting nutritious goodness from our veggies, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Jeff Novick prefers the simple approach, too. He says he owns an inexpensive Oster blender, and that's enough to meet his needs. Jeff tells about how he got back to the basics in his kitchen:
Sometimes, with all the stuff that is promoted for living naturally and healthy, it is a wonder how the Japanese on the island of Okinawans, and the Tarahumara Indians living in the secluded mountains of Mexico, and the Italians on top of that mountain in Sardinia, and those living on the island of Crete.... got to be the longest lived healthiest populations ever.
Many of these populations live with very low economic standards of living and have barely enough to get by, let alone any money for extras or extravagance.
One day, many years ago, I came home to my kitchen and looked at all the gadgets, appliances, blenders, juicers (citrus and Champion), sprouters, dehydrators, water purifiers, grinders, etc, etc, and said to myself, "If this is healthy natural living, I don't want any part of it."
So I put them all up for sale on some message boards. Now I live much simpler and healthier.
Jeff finishes his statement on simplicity by affirming that appliances do have value in our modern lives, but that we need to keep them in their proper context. He ends with what I believe is the simple truth on the matter: "Don't forget to chew your food."
(1) Dr. Pam Popper - Adaption for a Health Promoting Diet
(2) Dr. Pam Popper - Chewing Your Food