For most people, the topic of mastication is about as sexy as watching Phoenix grass grow in the summer! But there may be more relevance to this act of chewing as it relates to health and fitness. Let’s explore!
Why Mastication Is Important
Fueling properly and providing tips to our clients goes a long way helping them excel with their fitness routines. Mastication plays an integral role in digestion and as athletes, if we aren’t fueled properly, it negatively impacts performance. Why bother to focus on adequately chewing your food? It helps the human body get the most out of your food. Check it out:
Digestion & Nutrient Absorption
Enzymes found in saliva begin the process of digestion so chewing food adequately stimulates the digestive process. One such enzyme is called salivary amylase. It’s found in the saliva and begins breaking down food, specifically carbohydrates (CHO), making it easier and softer to swallow. This helps to increase the speed at which food is digested.
By chewing food 24-32 times—yes, 24-32 times!–the teeth are able to grind it down into smaller pieces before it moves to the esophagus where it is slowly pulsed into the stomach. After swallowing food and making its way down the esophagus, it mixes with stomach acid to form chyme. If the food hasn’t been adequately chewed, it’s harder for the stomach to do its job.
Without enough stomach acid, it is harder for the human body to digest food. A study published in “The Journal of Medical Investigation” in August 2006 found the people underwent tube feeding didn’t digest their food as well as people who chewed and swallowed their food. The authors purport that chewing might stimulate the secretion of stomach acid and autonomous nervous system function in the digestive tract, thereby increasing the speed and efficiency of digestion.
The stomach has three main jobs when it comes to digestion:
- store the food
- break it down into a liquid
- empty it into the small intestine
The stomach holds food while it mixes with enzymes to continue to break down the food so that the human body can use it for energy. The stomach uses peristalsis when it comes to the mechanical process of breaking down the food, meaning the stomach uses a series of muscle contractions to break down the food into a mixture called chyme. This is a soft liquid mixture that can then go through chemical digestion.
During chemical digestion, hydrochloric acid (HCL) and pepsinogen (a gastric enzyme) are released by the stomach. HCL helps dissolve the food, killing unwanted microorganisms and then converts pepsinogen into pepsin. The pepsin will break apart large protein molecules into smaller components called peptides.
(*Interestingly, people who take antacids to prevent heartburn are diluting the HCL, and creating a cyclical problem, whereby they don’t have enough HCL to properly digest food and experience additional symptoms of indigestion and then create what they believe is the need for more antacids.)
Finally, once chemical digestion successfully occurs, the stomach pushes the food through the pyloric sphincter into the small intestine. One of the small intestine’s jobs in this process is to absorb nutrients from the broken-down food. Other organs that enter the process at this point are the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder. All this helps to move the wastes or parts that remain that are not used by the body to be sent to the large intestine/colon. The leftover waste is then excreted at bathroom time.
But to underscore the importance of the first part of this process–mastication–imagine how much harder the stomach and your organs in the digestive system would need to work to break down food into chyme and to go through the mechanical and chemical process to continue to prepare it for the small intestine if proper chewing hadn’t occurred in the first place? The food would travel down in big chunks, forcing the following soldiers of digestion to work much harder to breakdown the particles…not to mention how uncomfortable it would be going down your gullet (aka your esophagus)!
Chewing food lowers the risk of choking by breaking it down into pieces that are small enough to swallow safely. Chewing also allows the food to mix with saliva and digestive enzymes, making it slipperier and easier to swallow. Teeth vary in size and jobs, some tear the food and others mash it. When the teeth do their job by chewing, your tongue can push the food against your teeth, turning the food into a bolus. This is the technical term for the moist mass that you actually swallow, and what goes down your esophagus.
Mastication makes the surface area of food increase so your portions go a longer way. More liquid-y foods should be treated the same as solids. Just because yogurt isn’t solid doesn’t mean it’s partially digested. We should all be ‘chewing’ these soft foods. As stated, your tongue would push the food up against the teeth while chewing and mixing the soft foods with saliva and its enzymes, preparing it to travel down your gullet.
Don’t knock it ’till you try it! The next time you eat something soft like Jell-O, try chewing it instead of gulping it, or even something that’s already ground up like apple sauce or mashed potatoes. By chewing these foods, it’s very difficult to inhale them without being aware of portion size.
Adequately chewing food also helps create the feeling of fullness. Foods that don’t have a lot of fiber and don’t require you to chew as much aren’t very filling because they pass through the digestive tract quickly. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted that chewing causes the release of hormones that increase satiety, in addition to making more nutrients and energy available. While we can coach our clients to make solid nutritional considerations, we can also educate them on the importance of adequate chewing.
The Risks of Not Adequately Chewing Food
Proper mastication is important for both the digestive process and overall health. We can show our clients how to avoid common nutrition mistakes and we can add that without properly chewing food, digestive problems can occur and there’s an increased risk of both short-term uncomfortable symptoms to long term situations that would need proper medical attention and intervention:
Rare, but more severe symptoms:
More common symptoms:
- acid reflux
- skin problems
Reading the list above, it’s clear these are common complaints we might field as personal trainers, or just people in general. If your fitness client happens to mention any of these, it might be a simple place to start to suggest incorporating more mindful eating practices, slow down the chewing, and enjoy better digestion and overall health.