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Here’s why you shouldn’t worry about chewing the right number of times

Perhaps you’ve heard the recommendations to chew your food a certain number of times. Why is this number so important?

It’s not.

The number isn’t important, but the act of chewing is super important–so important that people with your best interest in mind are trying any trick (including making up numbers) to help you get into the habit of chewing your food.

Why is chewing even something that we need to work on? If it’s so important, wouldn’t our bodies do it automatically?

Indeed, under ideal circumstances, we’d observe elaborate rituals around eating that would support relaxation and enjoyment. We would delight in every meal, take in the flavors of every bite and enjoy the company of our friends and family as we eat. As a result of the light atmosphere, our bodies would naturally slow down, and chewing–just the right number of times–would be second nature.

Many meals these days, especially in societies where there are lots of screens (hi there, you, reading this) have discarded the rituals that encourage relaxed, enjoyable eating environments in favor of working through lunch, eating on the road, or grabbing a quick bite. In these situations, we tend to skip most of the chewing, which can be a problem for our digestive systems.

Chewing is the first step in a long series of steps that result in complete digestion. Breaking down the food into smaller pieces increases the surface area of the food so that important digestive juices in the stomach and small intestine will work effectively. If a large piece of food is swallowed whole, the stomach may need to make more acid in order to break it down, potentially resulting in an irritated stomach lining if the problem occurs repeatedly.

Just as important is the work that our first digestive juice, saliva, does in the mouth while we are chewing. Saliva contains an enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates, which is important enough, but it also contains a lot of immunoglobulins which can coat the surface of pathogenic bacteria even before we swallow it, helping to protect us from potential infection.

There’s still more magic that happens in the mouth: flavor! Tasting your food sends signals to the rest of the digestive system that there’s food on the way, kicking the stomach, liver, pancreas and gallbladder into action, preparing to play their role in digestion.[1] Also, why not try to enjoy the flavors of our food? We’d be irresponsible to skip such an opportunity!

So how do we get better at chewing? Here are a few ideas that may help:

  • Work to carve out space and time in you day and life for meals.
  • Value enjoyment and pleasure while you’re eating.
  • Develop a culture among those around you that values eating and eating community.
  • Take a few deep slow breaths before eating.
  • Say a few words of gratitude before eating.
  • Close your eyes during your first bite and focus in on the flavors and textures of your food.
  • Pause to notice how you feel in your body before, during and after each meal.

[1] Power ML, Schulkin J. Anticipatory physiological regulation in feeding biology: cephalic phase responses. Appetite. 2008;50(2-3):194-206.