Today, in an age when eating on the run has become a way of life, the fundamental act of mastication is suffering badly. People seem too busy to chew their food adequately and may even be getting lazy about it. People who don't chew enough swallow larger bites and have more stomach trouble and take more antacids.
Chewing is essential to health, a lesson dramatized by a health enthusiast and weightlifter you probably never heard of. His name was Horace Fletcher (1849-1919). He was probably the greatest crusader for chewing that the world has ever known. Fletcher had been a gulp eater like most of us. We gulp eaters have grown accustomed to reading, watching TV or talking while eating and giving little attention to chewing, a key element in digestion.
Fletcher was forced to pay attention to chewing because his health was on the line. Before the turn of the century, he was a 40-ish college professor, extremely overweight, beset with poor health, chronic indigestion and limited energy. During a trip to Europe to restore his vitality he came across a statement by British Prime Minister William Gladstone that bites of food should be chewed 32 times, or once for each tooth.
That made sense to Fletcher, so he tried it. And he tried other things related to how you eat, such as never eating when you are tired, disturbed or angry, and never eating until you are hungry, and avoid unpleasant thoughts at mealtime.
Applying these principles, Fletcher regained his health within six months, totally conquering fatigue and illness. With his newfound vigor he began entering long distance bicycle races and even outperformed college athletes in feats of strength and endurance. He also wrote and lectured widely on his eating style, which became known as Fletcherism. Among his followers were leading physicians and politicians.
On chewing, Fletcher went beyond Gladstone's suggestion and recommended 50 chews per mouthful. He told people to count while they chewed, to chew their food to a pulp until it practically swallowed itself, and face downward so the food could slip through the 'food gate' at the back of the mouth.
Fletcher's idea may seem extreme, but he made people think about chewing. Indeed, chewing is the first step in digestion. Properly done, it breaks food down into smaller, more digestible pieces while at the same time mixing the food with saliva. The saliva contains enzymes that begin the digestive process, particularly for carbohydrates, and lubricates the food for a smooth trip down to the stomach.
As the chewing starts, the stomach begins to produce its own lubricating and breakdown juices that further enhance the digestive process. The mechanical act of chewing is especially essential to digest vegetables. Most vegetables, especially raw ones, have fairly tough cellulose encasements around the nutrients in their cells. Unless you mechanically break that covering down, you don't get the full benefit of the nutrition. You must chew vegetables properly or much of what you eat will be wasted.
Chewing is not quite as important for protein foods as it is for carbohydrates. You will notice a dog will gulp a piece of meat down. Give him a piece of bread and he will chew it. The reason is that the acid in the stomach will take care of the protein even if it is not chewed. That doesn't mean you won't choke if you swallow too big a piece of meat.
Most people won't persist through the 50 chews recommended by Fletcher, so for the sake of practicality and efficiency, we should aim for maybe 25 chews per mouthful. Sit down to eat. Leave one quarter of your stomach empty. Eat at regular times. Sit quietly for a few minutes after each meal.
The Eating Environment
Rarely, do people sit down just to eat. They usually sit down to eat and talk, or to eat and watch TV. People talk too much and chew too little. Talking between chewing would be a better habit. It would slow you down. Slowing down, in fact, may be a valid strategy for losing weight. Wolfing down food with hardly a break between bites results in excessive amounts of food in the stomach. By contrast, slow, careful chewing seems to put less food in the stomach. More time is spent chewing and less on swallowing, giving the person more of an opportunity to get in touch with feelings of fullness.
Additionally, the more you chew, the more you taste. Chewing forces air and odor back into the nose through your throat. That's the way we get most of our odor and taste from the food we eat. We don't smell it through the nostrils. We get it retro-nasally. When you put it into your mouth you may think it's taste, but it's really odor that's going up the back of the throat and being picked up by the nose.
It is perhaps for this benefit of chewing that hardcore epicureans argue that the dinner table is a place to conduct the business of eating rather than business while eating. Conversation is the enemy of good food. There is a strong connection between improper eating and digestion, gas, constipation and diarrhea.
People who don't chew properly have a lot of gas, a lot of bowel problems, a lot of difficulties, and they may even be in what we call secondary malnutrition. They may be taking good food into their mouth but don't get good nourishment out of it. Nobody can eat for you. That's your job.
The consequence of how you eat can involve more than just a bit of gas and bowel discomfort. It can be a life and death matter. This is a typical situation where the person is eating in a restaurant, often has some drinks to go along with the meal, is busy yacking and not paying attention much to the food. The person will then swallow something too big and it gets lodged in the windpipe. He starts choking and can't breathe.
Keep Cool to Keep your Digestive Fire Hot
Emotions also affect digestion. Deep relaxation appears to be the single most important factor contributing to optimum oral digestion and subsequent absorption of complex carbohydrates, the most important food for high energy. When deep relaxation is combined with thorough chewing, the process of digestion is enhanced even more. Stress, in the form of mathematical exercises performed during eating was found to negatively affect the saliva and enzyme production necessary for breaking down foodstuffs in the mouth.
Getting back to Horace Fletcher, the great chewer promoted his eating style through physical feats. In 1907, at the age of 58, he claimed a world record of sorts by lifting 300 pounds dead weight some 350 times with the muscles of his right leg below the knee on an endurance testing machine. The previous record was 175 lifts.
Later, that same year, Fletcher lifted 770 pounds with the muscles of his back and legs, a feat that weightlifting athletes find hard to perform. He performed these stunts eating two meals a day. One at noon and one at about 18:00.