Over the last several months I have discussed some cutting edge technology that comes from abroad. So, for a change of pace, let’s consider some old technology, some very old technology, innate to all of us. The incredible mechanism built into our jaws that allows us to chew. It isn’t really ‘low tech’, because these mechanisms are actually quite complicated and involve not only a highly developed group of specialized muscles, but also many aspects of the nervous system. This includes the innervation of these muscles and the sense of taste, the perception of size and place of the food morsels, as well as coordination with the impulse to swallow. All these are more or less involuntary activities carried on without our conscious input. But chewing, like breathing, is one of the few physiological activities that we can also control consciously.
Because of that, it can be a wonderful tool for us to work with. Through chewing we can influence our digestion and our nervous system for the better. Unfortunately, few of us take the time to do it…
On the most basic level, our digestive tract is a long tube running through our body. So, it could be said that food in the gut is not really in our body at all, but just passing through. To get inside the body, it needs to pass through the walls of the digestive tract.
The size of the food that enters the mouth is too large for this to happen, so it has to be broken down into smaller morsels. Chewing is the first step in that process. When we chew, glands around our mouth secrete saliva that moistens and shape food to facilitate swallowing. An enzyme called ‘amylase’ also starts the digestion of starchy foods such as bread, potatoes, pasta and rice. At the same time, lipase, an enzyme that helps in fat digestion, is secreted by the tongue.
It is thought that chewing also helps stimulate the secretion of acids, bile and enzymes lower down in the tract that are essential for proper digestion.
Chewing thoroughly breaks the morsels down so that there is a greater surface area for the saliva to penetrate, and it gives more time for both the saliva to act on the food as well as the lower GI to begin get the digestive juices flowing, as it were.
Aside from influencing our digestive process, chewing also has an effect on the nervous system. When done with attention and patience, it can be an incredibly calming experience. In the ‘real world’, that can be an elusive thing. We are on the run, we are talking, we are ‘enjoying ourselves’. Sharing a meal is one of our greatest social pleasures and draws our attention from what we are doing. And how many of us are reading while we eat if we are alone? I plead guilty to that one. I haven’t really shown up for the meal at all…
But the effect of slow, deliberate, attentive chewing can be quite profound. Not only does it have a tranquilizing effect, but I’ve found that one starts to appreciate the taste of the food, appreciate the quality of the food and becomes satiated much easier with a smaller amount of food – which for most of us is a very good thing.
In fact, with what we might call ‘intentional chewing’, it can become downright difficult to overeat. First of all, I find for myself overeating often correlates with a desire to stretch out the time I am eating – to enjoy the atmosphere of the dining place or the company or the sensual pleasure of the morsels in my mouth. But if I chew food, there will be plenty of time to do all those things – and the sensual aspect will be heightened enormously.
Secondly, when one slows things down, it is easier to feel and acknowledge the signals the lower parts of the GI tract is sending that enough food has been consumed. If one is paying attention, overeating can be quite unpleasant.
It isn’t necessary to recount all the dire health consequences of food over-consumption for each of us as individuals and for society as a whole. Look around and you won’t be able to avoid them… So, if we’d all listen to Mom’s nagging voice somewhere in the recesses of our mind to, chew our food, there would be great benefit all around.
Many religious traditions cultivate a simple awareness and appreciation of the basic mundane things we do while going about the business of life. Body movements like walking, lying down, extending one’s arms or simple tasks like lifting, washing oneself, and raking the leaves are all examples. Chewing is also one of these activities.
So, you might want to try this as an experiment the next time you take a meal: Sit down, take a deep breath, and notice the food on your plate – its color, its smell and how it makes you feel.
Watch yourself as you move your hand to take the food. And as it passes into your mouth, notice the flavor and begin to chew. Just chew. Feel what is happening in the mouth, how the flavors are changing with the chewing, the saliva flowing into your mouth and the impulse to swallow. Try to discern the different flavors and textures, along with how you are breathing and how that affects you taste.
See if you have developed the habit of putting more food in your mouth before you have fully swallowed what is already there. And notice the different thoughts that are coming to you. If you get lost in your thoughts (other than those about chewing), bring yourself back to the task at hand when you can.
And finally, acknowledge those signals from your stomach that you are full and stop eating.
Oh, and one last thing: Enjoy it while it lasts!