When does your body begin digesting the food that you eat?
For many people, their first reaction is to say something like “oh, about an hour after eating”. At first this may seem to make sense, after all isn’t that what that rule about no swimming for an hour after eating is all about?
The truth is that digestion begins the moment you put your food into your mouth. The mouth, teeth and saliva are the first step in the lengthy digestion process. But as the typical answer to the question above illustrates, we tend to see food in our mouth as eating and everything else after swallowing as digestion.
The digestive process involves both voluntary action and involuntary action. Swallowing is voluntary, but everything after is involuntary through the automatic process of our stomach, large and small intestines, pancreas, liver and gall bladder. Its during this voluntary part of digestion where poor habits create problems down the line.
Choking is one of the first problems that can arise because of poor chewing habits. More than 10,000 children under the age of 14 wind up in the emergency room each year because of it – about 1700 of them are from choking on hot dogs alone. It’s such a problem that the American Academy of Pediatrics have called for hot dog manufacturers to redesign the shape and texture of the death-tubes into something less lethal – ingredients not withstanding.
While I’m not trying to promote hot dogs here, maybe the problem isn’t with the food, but rather how we eat it. It seems to me that the choking problem is best addressed by teaching our children how to chew.
Digestion is a complex process. Chewing starts that process by grinding food into small bits, creating more surface area for the enzymes in saliva to do their job. Salivary amylase and lingual lipase are both enzymes in your saliva that begin uncoupling carbohydrate and fat molecules respectively while the food is still in your mouth! The more you chew, the longer the food is exposed to these powerful enzymes and the more complete your digestion will be. Additionally, saliva lubricates the esophagus, making swallowing easier.
When you try to swallow with minimal chewing, assuming it made it to your stomach without choking, the larger food pieces are too big to be broken down farther by the stomach. As they travel through the rest of the small and large intestine, they become breeding grounds for excess bacteria which can produce gas, bloating, cramping and other symptoms of indigestion.
Research has revealed that the simple act of chewing triggers the brain to release hormones that activate the other organs of the digestive system so they are ready to receive the food you are about to swallow. The stomach begins secreting hydrochloric acid, the pancreas puts other enzymes and bicarbonate on stand-by for secretion into the small intestine all while the food is still being chewed in your mouth. Digestion is a “de-assembly line” that is carefully coordinated, where one stage is dependent upon the previous stage for it all to work properly. Trying to rush it by inhaling your food without enough chewing is like showing up early to a house party while the hosts are still in the shower.
While the old wisdom of my grandmother to chew 40 times before swallowing has some merit, each type of food will require a different amount of chewing. For example, yogurt requires a whole lot less chewing than broccoli (yes you should chew your yogurt, re-read the previous paragraph again). Most experts agree that you’ve chewed enough when you can no longer identify the food in your mouth by its texture. If you’re chewing on a ham sandwich with lettuce and tomato and you can still distinguish between the meat, bread, lettuce and the tomato, then keep chewing.
Not only will you experience better digestion and the resulting better absorption of the nutrition, but you’ll enjoy your food by experiencing the complex tastes that are unlocked in your mouth by your teeth and saliva. But that also requires that you pay attention to what you are eating and how you are eating it. Maybe that’s the real key to chewing, being mindful while you are eating.
If we teach our children to pay attention to what they are eating and eliminate competing distractions while they are eating, then maybe the number of food related choking incidents can be reduced and the people at the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council can sleep better at night not having to worry about how to redesign the shape of a hot dog. Bon appetit.
– Paul Kulpinski, LMT