Friday, July 16, 2010
Back in my school days,
my professors emphasized the importance of chewing your food. This topic felt
inane at the time. I wanted to learn the grand science of nutrition, and
instead my teachers repeated the same information my mother gave me when I was
But what they said made sense, and
I listened. Digestion is central to healing the body; if you can’t absorb what
you put in your mouth whether it’s a drug, supplement or food, it won’t do
you any good. And not chewing is a sure fire way to prevent yourself from getting
all the nutrient goodies in your food.
And yet, is there anyone who isn't prone to chewing just enough to fit the food down their throat? It’s interesting
that we rush through an experience that we anticipate. We dream of the flavors
we crave, and yet we rush through tasting them.
Reasons why we hurry:
A sense of deprivation: We wait too long to eat and now we are
famished. We feel guilty over our choice of food and so we rush through our
treat before someone catches us (or regret sets in.) I’ve caught myself eating
faster at the end of a meal because I could sense myself becoming full, and I
didn’t want to leave anything on my plate.
Lack of time: We juggle multiple projects while
we eat. We eat standing up, or in the car. It feels important to be so
busy. Or we think we are being thoughtful, putting others people's needs before our own. We get used to pushing along, and slowing down becomes alien.
The high we get from certain foods: This is the
most unconscious reason we eat quickly. Most people don’t eat steamed broccoli as
fast as pizza. Everyone has experienced the pain of brain freeze from drinking a milkshake too fast. Some foods trigger feel-good chemicals in our body. We fantasize
about eating a second serving while we are still on our first, or we can’t keep
a particular food in the house without eating it all. In these cases, eating is
not about hunger anymore. Food can provide a drug like experience.
Digestion involves a shift into a different
mental state, called the parasympathetic system. When we are in a hurry, digestion shuts down and blood rushes
to our limbs so we can take action. When we sit down and smell our food, move
our jaws, feel the texture of the food and taste it with our tongue, our entire
body shifts into digestion mode. Our hypothalamus send messages to our mouth to
produce saliva, our stomach to produce hydrochloric acid, to our
pancreas to make digestive enzymes, and to our gallbladder to squirt out bile. In order to digest, we must relax.
It’s easy to treat this as another
reason to feel guilty for not “eating right.” Instead, can you treat this like
an experiment? What do you notice when you keep chewing? Can eating become an excuse to take a break?
The process of relaxing and chewing
your food has a lot in common with meditation. You sit down and focus your mind
on a single action. Your brain wanders, but then you go
back to your original focus. It’s not a problem if you space out. You just come back to chewing. No big deal.
You notice different things when
you slow down and chew. It’s fun to bite the seeds in okra. Apples
dissolve into nothing. Your body can tell you things. I feel tense
and my jaw tightens when I eat cashews. When I avoid cashews I
noticed my joints stopped hurting.
Once again, this is not about doing
everything perfectly. I’ve been eating my dinner of beef stew followed by
coconut ice cream as I write this article. But once you begin to pay attention on a regular basis, chewing and slowing down becomes automatic, and it no longer feels like a big deal.
I now include a little chewing
exercise in my first session with clients. These are people who
suffer from a variety of health problems, many of them severe. Everyone confesses
that they don’t chew enough, and all of them are surprised by how much better
they feel once they slow down, chew and start observing how they feel. When we eat better, we feel better.
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