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Chew Your Way to Health

By Greg Samples


Originally published in Everything Knoxville in June, 2015

Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, surmised that all disease had its origin in the digestive tract. That sentiment is still alive today as we are often inundated with information about the effects of what we consume. It is hard to think of a food item that has not been commended or criticized in some way for its effects on health. But possibly just as important as what we eat, is how we eat. Our way of eating is vastly different today than it was a few generations ago.

Instead of a family meal that was typical in the past, today we often eat alone. Instead of a relaxed atmosphere in which the meal is the focus, today we often eat while performing other tasks, which include working, watching TV, reading, or driving. But perhaps most importantly, instead of slowly and consistently masticating our food, today we gulp down the meal with very little chewing and top it off with some sugary drink to "wash it down." This can have detrimental effects on our digestion, and if Hippocrates was right, on our entire health.

There are three major types of nutrients that humans consume, known as macronutrients. They consist of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, yet their digestion takes place in distinct ways. Protein is mostly digested in the stomach, by the secretion of pepsin and hydrochloric acid. Fats are digested after food passes out of the stomach, by the secretion of bile from the liver and gall bladder, and enzymes from the pancreas. Carbohydrates, however, depend much more upon our habits for optimum digestion. The amylase found in saliva begins the digestive process for carbs, and the more we chew, the more efficient this process becomes. This is particularly true for the complex carbohydrates in beans and whole grains. You will find that the longer you chew these foods, the sweeter they become, as the complex carbohydrates are broken down. Thoroughly chewing beans and grains provides two important advantages. First, carbs that are not properly digested in the mouth can interfere with the digestion of protein and can lead to possible chronic complications. Second, thoroughly mixing beans and grains with saliva has an alkalizing effect on them, and makes them a much healthier food overall.

In the fast pace of modern life it can often be exasperating to enjoy a meal peacefully. But if you focus, you will find that you can always chew well regardless of where you are or what you are doing. How much should you chew? At least 40 to 50 times per mouthful is a good rule of thumb. If you chew more, you will notice that your food may become completely liquid by the time you swallow. In this way, you will find it unnecessary to have something to drink while you eat, and digestion will be much smoother if you enjoy liquids after the meal instead of during. Then you may realize the benefits of Hippocrates’ admonition to "drink your food and chew your drink".

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