In a busy world where we tend to feel short on time, we’re always on the lookout for shortcuts. We aim for amped-up workouts and fast food — whether that means a drive-through or something quick-and-easy to prep at home. While being super-efficient can reap big rewards in some areas of life, when it comes to rushed eating, the consequences may not be so great.
“So many people are always in a hurry when they eat,” says registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, Lauren Graf, MS, RD. “When people scarf things down, they aren’t chewing their food well and they are missing out on truly enjoying their food.” Here are five reasons chewing your food a bit longer can reap big benefits for your health and happiness.
1. Chewing May Help You to Eat Less
“Chewing more automatically slows down the pace of your eating,” says Kristine Clark, PhD, director of sports nutrition and assistant professor of nutritional sciences for Penn State University. “This allows you to gradually feel yourself get full and then you stop eating, so you eat less.”
A 2014 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found the more the participants chewed the less they ate. While eating pizza, participants who chewed 50 percent more than their typical amount ate roughly 10 percent fewer calories. Those who doubled their chewing ate about 15 percent less.
Hormones play a large part in this. The hormone ghrelin sends an “I’m hungry” message to the brain and the hormones GLP-1 and CCK send the message, “I’m full.” When you start eating, ghrelin drops and GLP-1 and CCK gradually start to be released. But, if you scarf down three hamburgers before your brain receives the “I’m full” signal, then you’ve consumed all those calories and feel uncomfortably full. However, if you take the time to chew your food, the “I’m full signal” may reach your brain after, let’s say, one burger and you may be fine to stop eating since you’re satiated.
Researchers in a 2011 study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, measured hormone levels of participants who ate food with low versus high amounts of chewing. The study showed that when participants chewed more, they had lower levels of ghrelin and higher levels of GLP-1 and CCK, therefore they felt full after consuming a lesser amount of food.
Chewing may also help you feel fuller longer, leading to less eating overall. A study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics had 70 normal and overweight or obese men and women eat a test meal two times: once eating slowly, and the second, eating quickly. When they ate slowly and chewed their food thoroughly, the participants reported feeling less hungry one hour after the meal compared to when they ate quickly.
2. Chewing May Make Food Taste Better
“Chewing well, by slowing down your intake, helps you savor every bite,” says Graf. Here’s why: What makes food taste good is a blend of taste and smell. By chewing longer, you’re allowing the food to linger in your mouth and stimulate more taste receptors on your tongue. But that’s not all: The breakdown of food from chewing also releases molecules that are sensed by odor receptors in the back of your nasal cavity, and this is how we perceive the flavor. Chewing more sets up a scenario where you’re more likely to get the maximal pleasure from what you eat.
The Slow Food movement (as opposed to fast food) is an international network trying to improve the food system globally, so food can be enjoyed more. Their philosophy is “saying no to the rise of fast food and fast life.” They promote “living an unhurried life, taking time to enjoy simple pleasures, starting at the table.”
3. Chewing May Help Digestion
Your body digests food so nutrients can be extracted and absorbed to be used by cells all over your body. Chewing, also known as mastication, is the first mechanical step of digestion: As your teeth grind, they break down food into smaller pieces, or even mush.
Chewed food mixes with saliva. This not only helps moisten it, making it easier to swallow, it allows the first step of biochemical digestion to begin. “Enzymes — amylase and lipases — in your saliva start to break down both carbs and fat in your food,” says Graf.
Chewing is also a prep step for the entire digestive process downstream. When you chew, your brain senses food in your mouth and signals the pancreas to get ready to release digestive enzymes that will help break it down once it passes the stomach. If your pancreas doesn’t receive this message, food may not be broken down properly leading to large food particles in the small and large intestines, which may cause a host of digestion problems.
Of course, there are a number of non-chewing factors that can lead to gastrointestinal symptoms. But you may find that some foods that give you symptoms do not have the same effect if they are processed — or chewed well. This may be one reason why some people experience GI issues when eating chickpeas, but don’t have symptoms when they eat chickpeas made into hummus.
4. Chewing May Boost Energy
A nutrient-rich diet may help put a pep in your step, but if you’re not chewing those healthy foods properly, the nutrients may not be absorbed by the body — leaving you feeling fatigued.
This is how it works: Once food is broken down, both macronutrients (like amino acids, fatty acids and glucose) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are absorbed through your small intestines into your bloodstream. “The better you chew, the more nutrients you will absorb from the food you eat,” says Graf.
One study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, had adults chew 55g of almonds (about one handful) either 10, 25 or 40 times. Not only did participants feel more full when they chewed more, they also absorbed more nutrients from the almonds, such as Vitamin E.
Of course, what you eat will also determine how much you can chew and how many nutrients you get. Whole foods, by nature, require more chewing. Just make sure to chew well to get the most nutrients from them that you can. “The more processed food is, the more likely it is to dissolve or breakdown with very little chewing,” says Graf. “But the more processed it is, the fewer nutrients it contains, since many will have been stripped out.”
5. Chewing Prevents Choking
More than 5,000 people died from choking in 2015, according to the National Safety Council. Most of those incidents happen at home. “Chewing food well can prevent choking,” says Clark. That’s because choking is caused by portions of food that move in the wrong direction when swallowed, getting lodged in the airway rather than moving down the esophagus. When food is chewed into smaller pieces, even if it gets trapped it can usually be coughed out. But if the piece of food that gets wedged is large enough, it blocks off breathing.
A person choking may be unable to speak, make noise, breathe or cough it out and the lack of oxygen can lead to a bluish tint on the lips, skin or nails. Time is precious: After four minutes of no oxygen to the brain, a person can die. Chewing more decreases your risk. (If you or someone around you is choking, do this.)
How Many Times Should I Chew My Food?
So what’s the magic chewing formula? A 2011 study in Physiology & Behavior found that women averaged 15 chews per mouthful. If that’s average, how much is optimal? Interestingly, the Japanese government’s Ministry of Health was so convinced of the health benefits of mastication that in 2009 they proposed a public health campaign to encourage people to chew 30 times per bite. This echoes what Horace Fletcher, an American Victorian-era health food guru known as the ‘The Great Masticator” espoused. He recommended that food be chewed up to 100 times, grinded until it became liquid. He even recommended chewing drinks.
“But how many times you chew each bite really depends on what you are eating,” says Graf. It might take only 10 chews to pulverize one steamed edamame bean. But, if you put more beans in your mouth, there’s more to chew, so more chomps are required. Chewing an apple or a potato with skin or brown rice is going to need more mastication than chewing a processed cracker (which is likely to dissolve with no chewing at all.) And chewing meat? If it’s raw, forget about it. You can chew till the cows come home and it will still be like chewing rubber — human teeth aren’t designed to chew it. Only processing meat with cooking and cutting makes it manageable.
The bottom line: “Chew enough so that your food is well broken down before you swallow,” says Graf. “And focus, so that you are aware of how much you chew. Don’t eat while you watch TV or sit at your computer.” Not only are you apt to find your meals tastier and have a healthier digestion system, you’ll most likely eat less while still feeling full — a prime recipe for weight loss. Plus, you’re less likely to choke and die, to boot!