5 Surprising Signs You're Chewing Your Food Wrong

And how it could be messing with your digestion.

If your parents ever told you to "slow down" while eating as a kid, you probably rolled your eyes and kept on shoveling dinner into your mouth. But your parents were actually on to something—whether or not they knew exactly why. As it turns out, chewing slowly and thoroughly is not only necessary for actually eating and swallowing food, but also for avoiding a range of digestive woes and health issues as well. We spoke to doctors and nutritionists to find out more about why chewing enough matters for your health, what "enough" actually means (how many times should you chew each bite?), what happens when you don't, and simple strategies to improve your chewing habits.

dice formed red bell pepper forming
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The Importance of Chewing for Proper Digestion

Contrary to popular belief, the digestion process doesn't start in the stomach; it begins in the mouth. The first step of digestion is chewing, which both reduces the size of food and activates the salivary glands to secrete more saliva, according to Johanna P. Salazar, MS, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Healing Nutrition. Saliva contains enzymes like amylase and lipase, which break down carbs and fats, respectively. It "also contains mucus, which helps bind the food particles together, and provides a lubricant to aid swallowing," Salazar explains. Furthermore, saliva triggers the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, helping it get ready for incoming food.

However, in an age of multitasking, time pressures, and distracted eating, many people tend to eat quickly, mindlessly, or on the go, says functional medicine physician Julie Taylor, MD, MPH. As a result, we don't think twice about how well we're chewing our food, let alone the rate at which we do it. Aside from the obvious choking hazard (yikes!), not chewing well enough can be the hidden culprit behind various unpleasant (and, at very worst, dangerous) issues, below.

01 of 05

You get heartburn easily.

Anyone who's struggled with heartburn knows, it's not a fun sensation. As mentioned, chewing triggers the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. This gets the stomach ready to break down food. But if you don't chew your food completely, there won't be as much acid in your stomach to aid digestion properly, Salazar says. The combo of low stomach acid and unchewed food "can cause gas bubbles, which rise to the esophagus and throat, leading to heartburn," says Salazar.

02 of 05

You experience digestive troubles.

Insufficient chewing is bad news for the gut. Here's why: As food moves from the stomach into the small intestine, the pancreas secretes enzymes and the gallbladder releases bile, according to Salazar. Both components further break down food, but they can only do so much. So, if the food particles are too large (i.e., they haven't been fully chewed), the naturally occurring bacteria in your gut may ferment the undigested food and multiply. "This can cause bloating, gas, indigestion, [or] constipation," says Salazar.

RELATED: Digestive Woes? These 5 Easy Eating Habits Will Give You a Healthier Gut

03 of 05

You don't absorb as many key nutrients.

According to Salazar, chewing helps the body break down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (i.e., macronutrients, or the building-block nutrients you need in the largest amounts) into molecules called monosaccharides, amino acids, and fatty acids, respectively. These molecules are absorbed by the small intestine, where nutrient absorption mainly takes place. But when food isn't chewed enough to begin with, the carbs, proteins, and fats won't be fully broken down, making it difficult for the small intestine to absorb these nutrients.

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04 of 05

You end up overeating.

If you're not chewing food thoroughly, you're likely eating too quickly, which can lead to eating too much. This can make it difficult to listen to your body's satiety cues that signal when you're full, says Supriya Rao, MD, quadruple board-certified physician, gastroenterologist, and manager partner at Integrated Gastroenterology Consultants. In turn, you may end up overeating, which not only makes you feel sick and sluggish, but increases the risk of metabolic syndrome—a condition marked by central obesity, high cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and glucose levels, Dr. Rao adds. Metabolic syndrome is a serious condition, as it can "increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers," she adds.

05 of 05

It's harder to enjoy your food.

Chewing too quickly can hinder the sheer pleasure of eating. In contrast, when you eat and chew in a mindful manner, "you can engage all your senses [and notice] how the food looks, how it smells, its texture, and how it tastes," Dr. Rao says. Not only will this help you truly savor the food, but it makes it easier for your stomach to determine when you're satisfied and full.

Tips for Healthier Chewing Habits

Chew each bite around 20 to 30 times.

How thorough is thorough, exactly? If you like prescriptive instructions, here's a good general guideline: "On average, food should be chewed about 30 times before swallowing, [but the exact number] depends on the consistency of the food," Salazar says. "For example, eating oatmeal may take 20 chews, whereas nuts can take up to 30 chews."

Chew until your food is basically mush.

That said, don't overthink it or stress about counting the exact number of chomps for every bite (that could really put a damper on a dinner out with friends). What's most important is to try to chew until your food is basically liquified—we're talking baby-food consistency. Dr. Rao says you can tell your food has been properly chewed if it's completely lost its texture. Additionally, you shouldn't have a hard time swallowing it, nor should you need to take sips of fluid to wash it down. If you do, "there's a high chance that it was not fully chewed," adds Salazar, and that you'd benefit from slowing down a bit.

Start by paying attention to your habits.

If chewing slowly feels like a struggle (especially when you're starving), know that mindfulness is the first step. As Dr. Taylor, notes, "if we realize how [our] system works when food is chewed properly, it might help us slow down and be more aware." From there, you can make simple adjustments for developing healthier chewing habits.

To begin, try to avoid distracted eating: eating while scrolling Instagram, answering emails, or watching TV, notes Dr. Taylor. (Don't worry, it's not forever, but just while you're getting a sense of things.) The same goes for eating on the go, which often happens during driving or commuting. Salazar also suggests eating upright and with a good posture, as poor posture (like lying down or slouching) can make it tricky to chew or swallow properly. Another good tip is to try as much as possible not to let yourself go without food to the point of feeling ravenous, because being desperately hungry makes it harder to slow down and eat with awareness. Finally, it's helpful to eat in a calm environment whenever possible, since dining in high-stress situations (e.g. at the airport with 12 minutes to spare before your flight boards) can make you subconsciously scarf down food.

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