One of the mistakes I made back in the day when I was heavy into the bodybuilding game is that I used to drink some of the food I took in. I made shakes that included everything from bananas to oats to eggs. I even sometimes put canned tuna fish in them. Kinda disgusting, I know, but certainly not unheard of in the lifting community. I’ve later come to realise that this practise of not chewing one’s food, which is fairly common not just within bodybuilding circles, but also among health & fitness-conscious people in general, and in particular the smoothie-lovers out there, is imprudent…
The evolutionary essentiality of chewing
Before we get into the physiological reasons for why I think it’s mistake to skip the first step in the long journey that food usually undertakes as it enters the body, I’d like to point out that the practise of skipping this step is evolutionary novel. This can be inferred from the fact that our ancestors didn’t have access to any of the electronic food processing devices that we – contemporary humans – have available to us. They didn’t have the option of creating a smoothie for breakfast. They could hammer their food with something hard, like a rock or piece of wood, if they wanted to, but they didn’t possess the technology required to easily turn tough foodstuff that has a definite form to it into mush. Nor did they have access to any of the many soft junk foods and drinkable nutritional products that we have available to us today, such as protein powders and shakes.
In other words, as I see it, it’s safe to assume that our forefathers chewed their food. They were basically forced to do so, seeing as they didn’t have a food processor at hand. This situation extends into traditional communities of the present, in which the norm is to eat, not drink, food.
The recognition that chewing has long been an essential component of the nutritional assimilation process would lead one to think that it not only serves an important digestive function, but that it’s integrated into the overall dynamics of our Darwinian selves. Several observations and scientific findings support this view…
5 reasons why mastication is important
Here are some of the main reasons why chewing is important…
- By chewing your food, you mechanically break it down
One might argue that this can also be achieved via the use of a food processor; however, it’s not going to yield the exact same result. The act of breaking down the food that one takes in is essential, as it lays the foundation for the rest of the digestive process. In particular foodstuffs that are difficult to digest to begin with, such as meat and largely unprocessed grain products, should preferably be chewed well.
- By chewing your food, you’re strengthening your jaw musculature
One of the key things that the Darwinian/evolutionary medicine enterprise has contributed to bring to light and emphasise is that the jaw and mouth-related problems that plague us in this day and age relate to recent human nutrition transitions. In addition to having wreaked havoc on our oral health by providing excessive amounts of starch and simple sugars, the modern diet has undermined the development of our jaws and faces, thereby contributing to driving up the rates of now-widespread disorders like malocclusion (1, 2, 3). A key issue is that we’re eating unprecedented amounts of soft, easily chewable high-calorie foods these days. Top that off with the fact that a lot of people, including many children, are consuming much of their calories in liquid form, and one can quickly understand why we have a problem. We’re simply not stressing our jawbones and muscles sufficiently.
- By chewing your food, you’re stimulating the release of digestive and antimicrobial enzymes
Alongside the point on the mechanistics of chewing, this is the most compelling rationale for mastication, as I see it. By chewing and keeping the food you’re eating in the mouth for some time before you swallow it, you’re basically kickstarting the digestive process by stimulating the release of digestive enzymes. One particularly notable enzyme in this respect is salivary amylase, which aids in the digestion of complex carbohydrates. Along for the ride also comes other important, albeit less-recognized factors, such as lysozyme – a non-specific antimicrobial compound. In light of this recognition, the practise of chugging down food that has been turned into mush via the use of a food processing device comes across as unwise.
- By chewing your food, you’re more effectively stimulating the appetite/satiety centers in your brain
It’s widely recognized among nutritionists and researchers focused on the effects of food on the brain that “liquid calories” aren’t as satiating/filling as non-liquid ones. The lack of chewing is major issue in this respect, seeing as mastication is known to have an effect on appetite and food intake, partly by influencing the release of brain-stimulating hormones (4, 5). It’s part of the problem with all the soft drinks and milk products people are taking in these days. We’re simply not physiologically wired to get our energy in liquid format.
- By chewing your food, you’re ensuring a slow, gradual release of food into the gut
This point relates to the one above, in that it has to do with the rate at which food comes into the gut. If you’re chewing the food you take in, as opposed to chugging it down as part of a shake or smoothie, you’re not only assisting the biochemical side of digestion, but you’re mindful of the physical/structural aspects of it. What I mean by that is that you’re not “overloading” the system. The stomach is highly distensible and also capable of regulating the release of food into the duodenum; however, that doesn’t mean that it’s irrelevant at which rate food is brought into the system. My experience is that it’s better for one’s digestion as a whole to eat in measured fashion, as opposed to being in a hurry to get things down.
The bottom line: The digestive process starts in the mouth
It’s a critical, albeit often overlooked, nutritional point that the digestive process starts in the mouth. It’s not a good idea to regularly skip the act of chewing by drinking one’s food as part of shakes instead of eating it via the use of one’s masticatory system. This is not to say that it’s ‘necessary’ or worthwhile to eat extremely slow, chewing for a longer time than what feels natural, or that the occasional smoothie is going to do much harm; however, as a general rule, food should be chewed.