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Chewing your food well boosts your digestive system

In this week's Ask the Nutritionist column, Nonie De Long highlights the importance of good digestion, and shares helpful tips and trick for those with weak systems
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Dear readers, this week’s question comes from Ross. He wants to know if it’s really that important to chew food thoroughly. He notices his wife chews her food very meticulously while he is a much faster eater. Yet she suffers gas and stomach problems while he doesn’t. So is there any benefit to chewing our food or does it really matter?

Constitution matters

This question actually brings up a few different issues we need to understand when we talk about digestion.The first is constitution. This refers to innate strength of any particular person’s body — be it related to immunity or to digestion or to their ability to heal.

We all know someone who smokes and drinks and eats anything you can imagine and never seems to get sick. This is a person who naturally has a very strong constitution. Over time these habits usually catch up to them and they get very ill or seem to age overnight. But if a person of a weaker constitution were to live this way s/he would be sick all the time. 

It’s important to recognize we are all born with varying degrees of hardiness, not unlike plants. Some of us are just more prone to illness and environmental factors than others.

And we all have our genetic fault lines. These are the genes we inherit that determine the diseases we are susceptible to. For example, one person may have a lot of heart disease and diabetes in her family so she knows she may be more susceptible to those diseases. Another may have digestive and addiction problems running through her family tree. This does not mean we will necessarily develop these diseases.

We now know that various stressors determine whether genes are turned off or on in our bodies. These stressors can include emotional, environmental, and food-related toxins. Epigenetics is the study of these processes — that is, the activation and deactivation of genes based on stressors that change our biochemistry.

So in this case, it seems that Ross’ wife has a naturally weaker constitution than he does. It’s likely she chews her food so well because she knows she suffers with her digestion a lot and is trying to do what she can to avoid some of that suffering. Ross questions her logic because he doesn’t chew his food but doesn’t have digestive problems. This doesn’t mean that chewing our food thoroughly doesn’t enhance digestion. In this case, the two are not related. It just means that for some people it’s not necessary because they have a very strong digestive system. They seem to have tanks for stomachs. For others, however, chewing can make a big difference. Let me tell you why.

What does chewing do?

Chewing is actually a form of predigestion. It breaks down the food into smaller pieces while stimulating saliva and the digestive juices and enzymes that continue to work on food lower in the digestive tract. Saliva starts to break down the food in the mouth and ensures food is prepared for the stomach. More saliva production reduces plaque build up and subsequent decay of our teeth.

The mechanical motion of the teeth also breaks up fibrous foods to more easily extract nutrients from them, since some fibres are not digested by the body at all. These insoluble fibres can play a beneficial role in digestion, in a sense sweeping out the intestines and bulking the stool for easy passage. Flaxseeds, popcorn, avocado, coconut, fruit skins, beans, lentils, potatoes, and whole grains all contain forms of insoluble fibre. These can be beneficial for the digestive system, but sometimes they cause a lot of distress if a person has an imbalanced gut microbiota or very weak digestion or a sensitivity to a component of the food, like gluten.

Chewing food well creates smaller pieces that are more easily broken down since more surface area is exposed to the digestive juices and enzymes. If someone has weak stomach acid or low enzymes, chewing food well can help ensure foods don’t pass through the body undigested. Large, improperly digested food particles can ferment and this causes uncomfortable bloating, acid, and gasses. Even smaller particles can cause this if the digestive juices are not strong enough.

How do you know?

How do you know you’re not digesting your food completely or that there’s a problem with your digestive system? The first thing is to notice if there are undigested food particles in your stool. The next is to discern if you have acid reflux, gas, bloating, constipation, or digestive discomfort. Then ask if you have anemia but eat ample iron rich foods. Or do you suffer from multiple food intolerances or celiac’s disease? Do you have a lack of smell and or appetite that is prolonged (zinc deficiency). Or have you had your gallbladder or any part of your stomach or intestine removed? These all indicate the need for interventions to aide your digestion. Remember, your food is only of benefit to you if it’s absorbed!

Tips and tricks

One way I advise clients to help when they have weak digestion is to chew an all natural gum for half an hour before or after meals. This stimulates the digestive juices to prepare for food. For someone with a strong digestive system this can be over stimulating and can cause a lot of gas. But if the digestive system is weak, it can help activate it more. Of course, chewing the food better is also important.

Another way to boost digestive fire is to add a good, broad spectrum digestive enzyme with HCL to our meals. HCL is the acid that helps break down proteins in the stomach. Anyone who has had H-Pylori or ulcers or food poisoning is a good candidate for this supplement. Usually these issues arise as a result of low HCL, as does low zinc and chronic anemia when the diet isn’t lacking. Adding these supplements in this case can help us extract the nutrients from our foods better.

In addition, if the gallbladder has been removed it’s essential to include bile salts in that enzyme blend, or on their own. This will help replace the work that the gallbladder does in the digestive process so that fat soluble vitamins are able to be absorbed. Without this, people tend to develop deficiencies in these important vitamins after the gall bladder removal.

Lastly, raw apple cider vinegar - about a tablespoon in a cup of water - can really help stimulate digestion if you feel you don’t digest proteins well. Just drink it right before your meal. You will know if you don’t digest proteins because you will have gas that smells. This is a telltale sign that proteins are not being broken down effectively. Enzymes with protease and HCL will help in this case, as well.

Consider soups and juices

One often overlooked solution for those with weak digestion is eliminating the need for the stomach to break the food down by doing the work for it. I’m talking about soups, smoothies, and juices. These are particularly therapeutic where there are digestive problems because nutrients don’t require digestion to be broken down and as such are highly soluble. Of course I’m not talking about sugary smoothies you get at the mall here. I’m talking about whole food and protein smoothies that capture the benefits of foods in a nice blended drink.

Soups are particularly healing for the digestive system since they not only contain liquid nutrients but they also contain bone broth which is incredibly healing for the intestines and nervous system. In addition, the food is well cooked to be very easy to digest. Soups are a great addition to every diet this time of year. Again, I will be offering my Sensational Soups cooking class online in the coming months. If you’d like to be included, send me an email to put your name on the list.

Thank you to Ross for the great question! As always, if readers have their own questions they can reach me by email and they can find me online.

Nonie Nutritionista