Chewed for Thought…?

I am fairly new to the world of microbiome and how it has the potential to help us with our immune systems and our ability to live healthy active lives. During my recent training as an FMT therapist, I have noticed that the “Warp speed” eating regime at mealtimes seems to be a common issue with many of the patients who come to us with digestive conditions.  For me this subject is very close to home and I can relate with my own experiences, which I will explain.

In this blog, I hope I can give you tips to help you to improve your digestion, achieve better nutrient absorption and make mealtimes more meaningful during our busy lives. This can be achieved with little, or no cost and the benefits are HUGE.

Throughout my professional working life (as a personal trainer and Elite sports coach), I have helped people lose body fat and get fitter (and also improve in their sport), but digestion and how we eat our meals is so very important.  By implementing small changes, we could improve our overall wellbeing which will be a great way to boost and improve health and performance in all that we do, not just sports.

One particular moment in the past that springs to mind as an example – several years ago, my children were looked after by a childminder, and because she needed to follow a strict routine of time-keeping and organisation to care for several children, she would set a timer for eating meals.  When the bell sounded, the plates were then removed from the children, even if they had not finished.  Tears would follow and sadly an unhealthy relationship with food was seeded for some.

That was 17 years ago and I hope that this is not today’s practice, but this may be one of several reasons why many of us eat our meals with such speed and vigour.  This habit can be hard to change as it is often of long-standing for most of us, not just those unfortunate children in that child-minder’s care.

We learn a lot in our younger years, and these times are the most important and influential and can have a huge impact on how we live our lives as adults.

The best practice for chewing (mastication) has been suggested as chewing each mouthful 30 to 40 times. This allows our digestive juices to really get going and allows the digestive enzymes to work on the food and prepare it to be in the correct consistency that our gut microbes can thrive on.  Of course, this has to be alongside a diverse and healthy diet.

Mechanical and chemical digestion begins in the mouth, but before this, we sense the initial signal from our sense of smell/touch/prepare/visual responses sent from the brain. It can be hard to retrain yourself to allow more chewing, but we have to be conscious to manage our time and concentration during the feeding process.

In the UK we have witnessed a decline in sitting around the meal table together.  We are often stretched for time as modern families are doing more activities and have many more demands on their time than in previous generations; coupled with tricky working commitments and different hours, trying to fit it all in is really hard.

For the majority of our mealtimes, we are in a state called “Sympathetic Response” – known as flight or fight mode.  This is the stress zone and it has a negative impact on our digestion, making it hard for us to settle down and chew slowly and thoroughly (masticate).  However, social interaction at mealtimes has been shown to have a slowing effect on mastication and allows us to be in a more “Parasympathetic Zone” (the opposite of stress), which prompts a calmer mood.  When we are stressed, our bodies are not focussing resources on digestion, they are focussing on running away from the danger;  so we cannot digest well when we are frightened, stressed or sensing danger.

Mastering eating slowly seems to be a tough nut to crack but the following suggestions may help – with no timer required!

  • Encourage sitting together at the dining table
  • Silence mobile phones or hide them
  • Switch off TV or computer
  • Mouthful-chew-drop-fork-breath routine*
  • Candles
  • Gentle and subtle music that calms you
  • Place your hands under your thighs whilst sitting to break the hand to mouth speed
  • Avoid excessive hunger – don’t go too long between meals
  • Be patient

*Practice a rhythm of putting a (not too large) mouthful of food in your mouth; put the fork back down on the plate; chew slowly and thoroughly until the mouthful of food is liquified; swallow; take a breath; re-load the fork and begin again.

Research shows that overweight people consume fewer calories when recommended slower and more thorough chewing speeds were achieved. This allows for the feeling of fullness and appetite satisfaction to reach the brain from the stomach (signals can take up to 20 minutes).

This explains why it’s more common for fast eaters to fit the obese profile.

When we chew our food improperly, we miss out on absorbing many more nutrients.  Getting your chewing in order and slowing down your eating can also help with weight loss and offers free and easy better gut health.

All this is food for thought – or perhaps it is more thought for food…?  Definitely something for all of us to chew on!


Stephen Willis

FMT Therapist

Taymount Clinic

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