Does the number of times I chew my food impact my digestion?


Chewing is an extremely important, yet oftentimes overlooked, part of healthy digestion. Most people put food in their mouth, chew a few times and swallow their food, as if their sole focus was how quickly they could get their foods to their stomachs.

While our mother’s might have repeatedly told us to “chew your food”, most people do not do this well, probably out of habit, conditioning and attitude towards food. When the idea of sitting down for a relaxing meal that focuses truly on the enjoyment and nutritional benefits of food takes second fiddle to the pressures and stress of our modern-day, on-the-go lifestyles, it is no surprise that many people do not slow down when they eat and take the time to chew their food.

Yet, in reality it doesn’t really take much time and effort to chew your food, and what you get in return is well worth it with better health and a greater enjoyment of food being some of the rewards.

Digestion begins in the mouth

Most people think that digestion begins in the stomach. Yet, with proper, health-promoting digestion, this process actually begins in the mouth. The process of chewing is a vital component of the digestive activities that occur in the mouth, inextricably linked to good digestion, and therefore, good health.

The mechanical process of digestion begins with chewing

The action of chewing mechanically breaks down very large aggregates of food molecules into smaller particles. This results in the food having reduced surface area, an important contributing factor to good digestion. In addition to the obvious benefit of reduced esophageal stress that accompanies swallowing smaller, versus larger, pieces of food, there is another very important benefit to chewing your food well that comes with its ability to be exposed to saliva for a longer period of time.

The chemical process of digestion begins with chewing

Food’s contact with saliva is not just important because it helps to lubricate the food, making it easier for foods (notably dried ones) to pass easier through the esophagus, but because saliva contains enzymes that contribute to the chemical process of digestion. Carbohydate digestion begins with salivary alpha-amylase as it breaks down some of the chemical bonds that connect the simple sugars that comprise starches. Additionally, the first stage of fat digestion also occurs in the mouth with the secretion of the enzyme lingual lipase by glands that are located under the tongue.

Incomplete digestion can lead to bacterial overgrowth

When food is not well chewed and the food fragments are too big to be properly broken down, incomplete digestion occurs. Not only do nutrients not get extracted from the food but undigested food becomes fodder for bacteria in the colon which can lead to bacterial overgrowth, flatulence and other symptoms of indigestion.

Chewing relaxes the lower stomach muscle

Chewing is directly connected with the movement of food through your digestive tract, and in particular, with the movement of your food from your stomach into your small intestine. At the lower end of your stomach, there is a muscle called the pylorus. This muscle must relax in order for food to leave your stomach and pass into your small intestine. Sufficient saliva from optimal chewing helps relax the pylorus, and in this way, helps your food move through your digestive tract in healthy fashion.

Chewing triggers the rest of the digestive process

Yet, the contribution of chewing to good digestion does not even stop there. The process of chewing also activates signaling messages to the rest of the gastrointestinal system that triggers it to begin the entire digestive process. This is because when chewing is a well-paced, thorough process, it can actually be said to belong to the “cephalic stage of digestion”, the phase in which you first see, smell and taste your food. The length of time spent chewing the food is related to the length of the cephalic stage of digestion since with more extensive chewing the longer the food gets to be seen, tasted and smelled.

Cephalic phase responses have been extensively analyzed in the research literature. The release of small messaging molecules that are critical for digestion, such as cholecystokinin, somatostatin and neurotensin, have been found to increase by over 50% just by the mere sight and smell of food. Additionally, research has shown how chewing as well as the activation of taste receptors in the mouth can prompt the nervous system that, in turn, relays information to the gastrointestinal system that expedites the process of digestion. For example, stimulation of the taste receptors can signal the stomach lining to produce hydrochloric acid that helps in the breakdown of protein. Additionally, chewing signals the pancreas to prepare to secrete enzymes and bicarbonate into the lumen of the small intestines.

Practical tips

For healthy digestion to occur, it is important to thoroughly chew your food. While various health professionals advocate distinct numbers of times you should chew food, we recommend more personal guidelines. We feel that instead of prescribing a set number of chews for each biteful that people should instead get a sense of their own eating, and develop more of a relationship with their food, enhancing their own knowingness about what is best for their health.

Our suggestion is that you chew your food completely until it is small enough and dissolved enough to be swallowed with ease. A good rule of thumb is as follows: if you can tell what kind of food you are eating from the texture of the food in your mouth (not the taste), then you haven’t chewed it enough. For example, if you are chewing broccoli and you run your tongue over the stalk and can tell that it is still a stalk or over the floret and you can still tell that it is still a floret, don’t swallow. You need to keep on chewing until you can’t tell the stalk from the floret.

The benefits of thoroughly chewing your food will extend beyond improved digestion. It will cause you to slow down when you are eating, making more space for the enjoyment of your meal. Food will begin to taste even better when there is more focus and concentration on the process and act of eating. By chewing your food well, you will be able to better enjoy the benefits of the World’s Healthiest Foods – their abundance of nutrients and great, lively tastes.

This page was updated on: 2002-05-27 05:52:50
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation