I once had my mind blown at a conference on “birth, breastfeeding and beyond” when one of the speakers asked the audience this question:
What is more important, breastFEEDING or breastMILK?
What the speaker wanted to cover was the idea that the action involved with breastfeeding was just as beneficial - if not more so - as the nutrition supplied by breastmilk.
For an hour and a half we looked at all the ways in which breastfeeding helped with infant development that were not related to the contents of the milk. It was quite amazing and I walked away with more knowledge than I had anticipated; which then triggered some burning questions.
There is a plethora of information out there - websites, books, blogs (like this one), documentaries and podcasts - all focused on nutrition. They primarily describe the content of what you put in your mouth. There are many theories on what you should be eating. They can vary greatly from “legalise all food” advice, to strict diet strategies like GAPS, paleo and raw veganism… and oh so much in between. But what I see very little of, is the importance of actual chewing and eating.
|Roast Pork sandwich!|
Which brings me to the reason for this blog. Which is more important; WHAT we eat, or that we EAT?
We live a life of convenience. We want quick, we want easy and we want minimal energy involved. What better way to save time and energy, than by taking in food that almost bypasses your mouth? By that I mean, we hardly need to chew most of our modern foods. In the supermarkets you can find myriad prepackaged meals of a uniform, fairly soft consistency that require almost no chewing. It is mostly bite and swallow.
On the other hand, we have the current fads of green smoothies, juice fasts, shake diets and the many versions of liquid meals.
All of this means that most of us are too often missing the important step of physically eating. But there are a number of processes involved in the physicality of eating that impact not only your digestive health, but also your nervous system, brain, and even your emotional wellbeing.
What the act of eating (chewing) does for you:
1. Chewing stimulates the vagus nerve.
Among other things, the vagus nerve connects your brain to your digestive tract. When you chew, you basically prime the rest of your digestive system to do its job of breaking food down, and absorbing nutrients and water into the blood stream.
When you consume something that doesn’t require chewing, it doesn’t give your stomach time to produce enough hydrochloric acid to break down the proteins into amino acids. This then has a flow on effect all through the gastro-intestinal tract.
2. Produces saliva.
Saliva is so much more than the lubricant that helps your food go down. It contains enzymes that begin the digestive process from the moment the food touches your tongue. Skipping this step, even when that food is in liquid form, puts more pressure on the rest of your organs to break food down into usable nutrients.
Saliva also contains minerals that are required to keep your teeth strong and healthy.
The release of saliva is aided by a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is one of your feel good hormones. It is associated with love, bonding and feelings of wellbeing. The act of eating and chewing can help to make you feel good.
3. Reduces stress.
Digestion requires loads of energy and when we are doing it properly, the body priorities it over other processes. When you take the time to chew your food, the body down-regulates stress hormones, so that some of the blood supply and energy going to your limbs is rerouted for your digestive system to use. Chewing your food can help lower feelings of stress and anxiety.
4. Increases memory and cognitive function.
Studies have shown that taking the time to chew increases stimulation to the parts of the brain that control memory, alertness and executive function. This occurs when pressure is applied to the periodontal ligament. In fact there is even a correlation between the number of teeth a person has and the onset of dementia.
5. It’s like weight-training for your teeth.
You often hear of the benefits of weight bearing exercise on bone health. Using your teeth for their intended purpose of chewing provides the same benefit. The load applied to the teeth helps to keep the join between teeth and jaw, healthy. Without chewing, bone density decreases and teeth can become loose.
I am quite the fan of good soup, a decent smoothie, or even the odd juice. However, I keep in mind that HOW I eat my macros and micros, is really important if I want to be truly healthy.