Anyone who can remember being taught table manners by exasperated parents knows that there are loads of weird rules at dinner time. Some, like elbows off the table and eating with your mouth closed, just feel designed to annoy children. Others, like eating slowly and not grabbing everything with your hands, seem like bogus tips for the health obsessed. But, however frustrated we may get with conventional table wisdom, it turns out that there a load more weird rules that we should all be following.
Most people tend to view chewing as an option rather than necessity. When in the middle of enjoying something delicious, pausing to turn a juicy mouthful into flavourless mush feels like a waste of valuable time and energy. However, despite the fact that chewing often just slows us down, if scientists had their way we’d all be doing it a whole lot more.
Rather than the usual three or four chomps that most of us take rather begrudgingly, the general consensus from those in the know is that we should all be chewing as many as 30 times with each bite. To most normal people, this doesn’t just sound like overkill, but physically impossible.
The reasons for taking your time with your food focus around digestion. Contrary to popular belief, most of our food is not actually broken down in the stomach. Though digestive juices and stomach acid certainly play a crucial role, it is actually the enzymes in the mouth that kick the whole process off. Our saliva is full of powerful chemicals that help to break down food molecules before they reach the stomach and intestines. It is through chewing that amylase, ptyalin and lipase can work their magic.
Though the results of failing to properly chew may not be immediately obvious, the consequences can quickly become extremely uncomfortable. Poorly digested food can in some cases lead to fatigue, indigestion, heartburn and stomach cramps, as the digestive tract attempts to tackle the huge icebergs of meat and veg that we’ve wolfed down without a second thought.
Aside from the more obvious impacts of poor chewing, there are a number of surprising benefits to taking your time. Proper mastication reduces the risk of bacterial overgrowth in the colon - which can cause bloating and constipation, relaxes the stomach and helps to move food more effectively through the digestive tract. It may sometimes feel frustrating, but there is little doubt that increasing your chewing can make a big difference.
If, on the other hand, you feel it’s genuinely impossible for you to slow your eating down even slightly, there are a few other habits that can help aid digestion. Most doctors agree that you should avoid drinking as you eat if you don’t want your digestion to slow down, whilst cutting up your food into as small pieces as possible will help enzymes and digestive juices work their magic.
Despite protestations from the scientific community, it doesn’t seem likely that we will all suddenly start taking 30 chews to swallow every bite. Nevertheless, it’s useful to know that, if we do all start doubling over with stomach ache after a particularly heavy meal, we know where we’ve probably gone wrong. It might seem like a nuisance, but chewing is an unavoidable fact of food.