We talk a lot in functional nutrition circles about improving our internal terrain so we can improve our health trajectory. One aspect of improving the terrain pertains to how we fuel our bodies. We want to be fuelling our bodies with the right types of food, but what we eat is only part of the story. If we aren’t digesting and assimilating that food well enough, all kinds of health complications can ensue. I hear this in my practice all the time, when clients are eating very nutritiously but still, they aren’t seeing the health improvements they desire.
When trying to correct this concern, we need to go back and start at the very beginning. It is easy to assume that digestion begins in the mouth, with chewing, but it actually begins in the brain. The very sight, smell, sound and even thought of food triggers our brain to transmit signals to our nervous system through the vagus nerve which in turn stimulates the release of enzymes and digestive juices to aid with the future digestion of the foods that we eat. This is the first part of the process known as the cephalic phase of digestion.
What this means is that our state of mind, and the thoughts we have while preparing food impacts how we process the food that we eat and determines how well we break down the foods we eat into their individual components to fuel important bodily processes.
How do we improve the cephalic stage of digestion:
- Find joy in the preparation phase of meals
- Enjoy the aroma of the foods we are cooking, the sound of the sizzle in the pan, and all the other factors that go along with meal preparation
- Have gratitude for the food we have. Simple acts like saying grace or some type of positive affirmation with a meal can be beneficial in enhancing the digestive process
The cephalic stage continues with actually eating the meal. This is where chewing comes in. This is the beginning of the mechanical breakdown of the food we eat. While chewing our food seems like such a simple task, it can be easily neglected when we are busy focussing on something else like the TV, your computer screen or even conversation. This is where mindful eating comes in. If we start to focus on the ‘how’ aspect of eating a meal, we can improve the level of beneficial nutrients we get from each meal.
Do you know how many times you should chew a mouthful of food? I’ve heard some say 32 times is the magic number, but naturally it depends on what you are eating. Soft foods will require less chewing than something like steak. Chewing is important in breaking down our food into smaller particles to continue its journey through the digestive tract. It also allows for better lubrication of these food particles with saliva, which is the start of the chemical breakdown of our food through exposure to enzymes.
In addition to aiding digestion and assimilation, chewing sufficiently can improve digestion further down the gastrointestinal tract which can improve symptoms of bloating, gas and abdominal pain.
Some tips to help you remember to chew more:
- Eat mindfully. This means slowing down and really thinking about chewing more during mealtimes.
- Take smaller portions and practice chewing more than usual. Initially you may benefit from actually counting your chews. I know it may seem cumbersome, but it can help you get into a great habit, and you won’t need to count forever.
- Put your cutlery down between mouthfuls to allow more time for chewing.
- Chew until your mouthful of food has lost its texture and then finish swallowing completely before taking the next bite.
By focussing on chewing more, you will be eating more slowly, and this allows for the satiety effect of the food you eat to kick in. This can take 20 minutes from when you start eating, so if you eat quickly, you might be tempted to go back for seconds when you don’t really need them. Another benefit of eating slowly and concentrating on chewing is that you will naturally eat less, which can benefit health in the long term too,
Some other tips to help improve digestion:
- For those who experience digestive discomfort such as reflux after meals, it can help to trial avoiding liquids with meals.
- Avoid drinking coffee immediately after a meal as coffee has a tendency to speed up transit time of food through the digestive tract, which can lead to ‘bathroom urgency’.
- A casual walk/stroll after a meal can improve digestion but avoid vigorous exercise on a full stomach. Digestion requires energy, meaning if we are using up energy with vigorous exercise, we likely won’t be digesting our food all that well.
- Consume your veggies lightly steamed so they retain enzymes that can be helpful in the digestion process.
I hope these tips on improving the digestive process help you get more nutrition from the food you are already eating.
To learn some more great tips on digestion and assimilation of nutrients, check out my blog post here.