Is proper chewing the key to good health? Grandma certainly thought so and now dental science is proving her right. Akira Uehama, the president of the Academy of Clinical Dentistry in Japan, calls it a “chewing revolution,” because more than one study shows mindful chewing does have an impact on both physical and mental health.
A leading Japanese researcher set out to prove that better chewing habits are important, especially as people age. Japan, just like the U.S., is seeing an escalation in their aging population. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the number of people over the age of 65 will reach 83.7 million by the year 2050.
Researcher Hideo Kawahara wanted to see if restoring an older patient’s ability to chew would enhance their energy levels and thought process while improving their quality of life. As part of the study, he fitted a number of patients with dentures or dental implants. Once they had the ability to chew and bite, he taught them how to do it properly.
Kawahara stated that the results of this study were surprising. For example, one participant was refusing medical treatment after suffering a heart attack. This 80-year-old man was fitted with a full set of dentures and underwent chewing training as part of the study. With good teeth in place, he could once again eat the foods he loved. This small improvement in his quality of life was all it took to make him want to get better.
Through this study over 400 patients learned to chew and bite properly again, but why does that improve cognition? Uehama explains that chewing enhances blood flow because it stimulates the cerebral vascular system. That in itself has a positive effect on overall health. Chewing also enhances the senses, keeping them alert and functioning. When a person bites into fruit, there is more going on than just taste. Sight, smell, and touch are activated, as well. Losing that stimulation takes its toll on mental acuity.
Add to that, these older patients are getting back something they lost — the ability to really enjoy their food. The stimulation that comes from chewing triggers memories and enhances motivation. A 2012 research paper produced by the Department of Odontology and the Aging Research Center at the Karolinska Institute indicates a significant connection between the ability to chew and cognitive functions like memory. Good chewing habits may reduce the risk of dementia.
A 2013 study conducted by Cardiff University found that chewing in itself is what is important when it comes to improving mental function. Forty participants in this study completed various tasks that required continual updating of short-term memory. The researchers discovered that those chewing gum during the test were more alert and had better response times.
You don’t have to be old to benefit from better chewing habits, though. Eating is very much a mental exercise or it should be when done right. It’s supposed to be a pleasurable and sensory experience. That’s what the brain expects from a meal. Appetite is a complex process but it has just as much to do with what your brain wants as how much food fills your stomach.
Satiety cascade is a term medical science uses to describe the sensory effect of the first few bites of food during a meal. Those are the most important because they influence the brain. Practicing mindful eating especially during the first few bites can help control the appetite. If your brain doesn’t get the right sensation during the meal, it sends a signal that you’re not satisfied yet. Better chewing means the food sits longer on the taste buds to help satisfy the brain.
Mindful chewing slows down the process of eating and that has health benefits too. For one thing, chewing is an important part of digestion. It triggers the release of saliva helping to break down food into digestible bits. Better digestion means less bloating and a healthier intestinal tract with enhanced nutrition absorption. Conscious chewing slows you down when eating food and that helps with weight loss efforts, too.
Chewing may not be the answer to all life’s problems, but there does seem to be benefits when you take your time. Pick foods that have lots of crunch and really enjoy what you eat with all five senses. Add some gum to your strategy and see if you don’t notice the difference proper chewing makes.