When is the last time you consciously thought about chewing?
Unless you’ve had major dental work done recently, it’s probably been a while. Maybe never.
But, as it turns out, chewing is a very big deal. In fact, the extent to which you chew your food, as well as other factors involving mastication (the medical term for chewing,) can have an impressive impact on your quality of life, oral health, and overall health as well.
The first step in digestion
While you probably don’t give it any more conscious thought than any other part of your digestive process, chewing is a vital first step in your body’s efforts to extract nutrition from everything you eat.
That’s because mastication is actually a two-part process:
- Your teeth, jaw, and tongue work together to crush and disintegrate the food…
- While your saliva applies potent digestive enzymes to it, helping to chemically break it down before it even reaches your stomach.
Together, these activities help your body extract the most nutrients from your food, and make the whole process faster and easier on the rest of the digestive system.
An aid in weight loss
Chewing your food more slowly and thoroughly has been noted as a way to help lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
Part of the reason is what’s outlined above: the better you chew, the more nutrients you get from every bite you put in your mouth. The other part is simple math: chewing longer means you’re eating slower. As a result, the concept is that you feel satisfied eating less food at each meal, tend to remain satiated longer, and consume less calories overall.
As interesting aside, the more nutritious the food you’re consuming, the more likely you are to need to chew it. This rule has exceptions, of course, but most of the healthiest foods — fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, lean meat — take some effort to chew. Many less nutritious choices — sugary beverages, ice cream, pastries — do not.
A boost for your immune system
Researchers at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom published their findings recently in the journal Immunity. They found that chewing food “can stimulate the release of T-helper-17 (Th17) cells in the mouth.
“Th17 cells form a part of the adaptive immune system, which uses specific antigens to defend against potentially harmful pathogens, while enduring "friendly" bacteria that can be beneficial to health.”
Dr. Joanne Konkel, the research team lead, states she believes “these findings indicate that chewing food may help to protect us from illness.
"The immune system performs a remarkable balancing act at barrier sites such as the skin, mouth and gut by fighting off harmful pathogens while tolerating the presence of normal friendly bacteria. Our research shows that, unlike at other barriers, the mouth has a different way of stimulating Th17 cells: not by bacteria but by mastication. Therefore mastication can induce a protective immune response in our gums."
Just don’t overdo it
Even with all these benefits of chewing thoroughly, it’s important not to overdo it or to try to force your teeth and jaws to chew on anything too hard or otherwise potentially harmful.
Many oral health concerns — ranging from abrasions that can become infected to painful broken teeth — can be caused by chomping down on ice cubes, hard candy, popcorn kernels, and a number of other items that probably shouldn’t be in the mouth in the first place. (If you’re facing an oral health issue right now, contact your dentist before it progresses. If cost is making you hesitate, dental discount plans can help.)
Additionally, chewing when you’re not eating may counteract some of the health benefits of chewing when you are eating. For instance, chewing gum tricks your body into assuming food is on its way to the stomach, so a number of chemical changes take place in preparation for normal digestion.
To summarize, chew this over: By giving an natural action like chewing your food just a little extra thought, you can boost your oral health, your overall health, and even your quality of life. But moderation is the key.