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T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies
Time to Chew: The Digestive System Starts in Your Mouth

I know… chewing is boring; disgusting; uncool. We’ve all been told that we need to chew more; we’ve heard it from our grandmothers, our gurus, and the internet. It’s old news.

So why am I writing about it?

Well, in my teaching, I’ve found that most people have never really chewed—in a life-changing way. They’ve never broken through to an experience of energy, peace and power that I’ve enjoyed now for over twenty years. And that’s too bad, because our bodies are capable of much more than we ask of them, and chewing is the way to unlock the body’s potential.

And why haven’t people chewed? I’ve discovered that many individuals carry one or more assumptions about chewing that get in their way. I’m here to challenge them.

Five assumptions about chewing:

Chewing Requires Mindfulness

Nope. You do not have to be a hipster, meditating on each grain of rice, in order to chew. You don’t have to be grateful, or contemplative, or pay any particular attention to your food, or your efforts. You can chew while watching TV, or driving, or paying your bills. I don’t care. You don’t need to be mindful in order to chew.

Chewing and mindfulness do intersect, however, 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. You’ll see.

Chewing is a Waste of Time

Au contraire: Chewing is about efficiency. By chewing thoroughly, you will get more energy and nutrition from your food, and your body will use them efficiently. By putting in a little oral elbow grease, every other digestive organ in your body will operate more smoothly, with less wear and tear, less discomfort and less, ahem… odor.

And when I talk about energy, I mean ENERGY. The complex carbohydrates that you’re eating on this whole foods, plant-based diet should convert to glucose in your body—lovely, smooth, get-it-done glucose. But that only happens when you release the glucose through proper chewing… and practically no one does that. Yes, you’re eating good food, but you’re only getting a portion of its benefits.

Think of it this way: when was the last time you went to the gas station and filled your tank halfway and then sprayed the rest of the gas all over your car? Of course, you’d never do anything so ridiculous with your car. But you are doing it with your body every day. By not chewing properly, you are wasting fuel and hurting your physical self. Chewing is sooo not a waste of time.

My Digestive Organs are Below My Neck

Not all of them. When it comes to digesting complex carbohydrates—i.e. plants—nothing rivals your mouth. Not only does it contain parotid glands, which secrete a digestive enzyme specific to carbohydrates (amylase), you have molars designed to crush grains and other fibrous foods. This is important. Complex carbohydrates are long-chain molecules that requiring some mashing, grinding and re-mashing—plus mixing with amylase—in order to release their sugars. This action can only take place in your mouth. Although your small intestine does secrete a small amount of amylase, there aren’t teeth down there.

Chewing is Anti-Social

I don’t expect you to chew at every meal, but the more you do it, the more benefits you’ll see and you may even start selling it enthusiastically—between mouthfuls—to your friends at dinner. By chewing when you’re alone, or staggering conversations so that you can chew as you listen, you can incorporate this habit into your life. The more you chew, the more you’ll want to.

Chewing is Dumb

Okay, I realize you probably don’t think that, but I needed an excuse to discuss how intelligent chewing is. You see, your saliva is alkaline, so it reduces inflammation. You’ve heard of inflammation—it’s the chronic condition underlying just about every serious health problem we experience. You name it: diabetes, cancer, heart disease, autoimmune diseases are all underscored by inflammation.

Of course, we need to overhaul our diets to tackle the inflammation problem completely, but isn’t it great that our bodies have given us an anti-inflammation kit? By chewing 50-100 times, you can alkalize just about anything. Chewing will also help you lose weight, save money on groceries, increase your energy and keep your teeth healthy. So it’s a million miles from dumb.

How do I do it?

I’m so glad you asked. What you may consider “chewing” right now is probably hacking away at a mouthful of food until you are reasonably certain you won’t choke on it.

That’s not chewing.

I’m talking about mashing complex carbohydrates and mixing them with saliva for a while… up to 30 seconds, or even a minute. For me, chewing well involves my molars chomping down on my green bean or brown rice, or tofu dog… fifty times. You heard me: fifty. And on my better days, 100.

Yes, this transforms what appeared to be an attractive, delectable item into a sweet, liquidy mush in your mouth before you swallow it. Yes, it takes practice. Yes, it will seem strange and awkward, at first. But it’s worth it; it’s worth every single, jaw-flexing chomp. I promise.

Here are some tips:

  1. Start alone: This practice is counter-intuitive, so best to start it alone, at first. Feeling the pressure to engage in conversation can reduce your saliva, and feeling self-conscious doesn’t help either. Once you begin to feel the benefits of chewing, stepping away from the table almost high from your glucose-addled brain, you’ll be able to take your practice out into the world.
  2. Chew the last third of your meal: It can be hard to chew when you’re really hungry. Let yourself wolf down the first third of your meal, enjoy the second, and chew the heck out of the third. You will get all the benefits, minus feeling light as a feather in the tummy. When you want to feel that, chew everything.
  3. Use a pickle: Add a tiny little bit of olive, or sauerkraut or dill pickle to your first few bites of food. This will help to stimulate saliva and make chewing much easier.
  4. Keep the back of your mouth closed: Imagine that you’re tasting a sip of wine, paying careful attention to its flavors and notes. When you do that, you close up the back of your mouth. Try that now, for chewing food. You don’t want to be swallowing as you chew. All the food should go down in one big swallow after your 50 chomps are done. You may not be good at this at first; the swallowing reflex is pretty unconscious. But practice. You’ll get better.
  5. Lean forward if you have to: If your swallow reflex feels beyond your control, tilt your head forward so that your impulse to swallow is interrupted. Yes, it’s weird. But hey, you’re not eating meat and dairy these days—you’re friends already think you’re weird!
  6. Count on your hands: I count my chomps (and I chomp pretty quickly by the way—remember this isn’t about mindfulness) by counting to ten, and then extending a finger on one hand. Then I count to ten again, and extend the next finger. This way, I never have to count beyond ten (it’s amazing how easy it is to lose track in the bigger numbers), and I can swallow when all the fingers on one hand are extended.
  7. P.S.: Sweets and fruits are hard to chew, so don’t worry about them so much. They are high in simple sugars so they break down in the mouth much more easily. Keep practicing on grains, vegetables and beans. They will all work well.

Finally, once you’ve gotten the hang of a good chew, try chewing every mouthful you eat—at every meal—for seven days. I call it the 7-Day Chew Challenge. This experiment will show you how your body is actually meant to feel. You will have tons of energy, feel light as a feather, experience a calm mental focus and poop like an Olympian. Seven days of chewing will hook you on this practice for the rest of your life. After that, you can relax and chew the last third (or even few bites) of each meal, but you’ll finally know what you—and whole foods—are capable of.

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