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An Overachieving Underchewer

In an attempt to be the healthiest man in America, A.J. Jacobs learns to masticate like a master—and finds that the benefits of taking 50 chews per bite justify the extreme social awkwardness.

Although I have to instruct my kids on a lot of things, I never have to remind them to chew their food. They chew like champs. You see, my wife and I have lapsed into the bad habit of letting our three-year-old twin boys watch TV while they're having dinner. Problem is, they've figured out that as long as they're still eating, they can keep watching Yo Gabba Gabba! So the crafty little buggers will stretch out dinner for an eon or two by chewing their food to a fine pulp. They're the poster children for the Slow Food movement. They'll make a simple plate of mac and cheese last as long as the tasting menu at Per Se. It drives my wife and me crazy. But it turns out, my kids may be on to something.

We are a nation of underchewers. And while that may seem like a pretty minor food sin—along the lines of drinking brandy from a wineglass instead of a snifter—it actually has real health implications. If we all started using our molars more, it would improve both our waistlines and our digestion. Chewing a lot would make us eat more slowly—which, some studies show, means we would eat less. And we would get more nutrition out of every bite: A recent study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that when people chewed almonds at least 25 times, they absorbed more unsaturated fat (the good kind of fat) than those who chewed only 10 times.

I'm currently writing a book about my attempt to be the healthiest person in America, so after hearing about the possible benefits of proper mastication, I decided to try an experiment. I pledged to become the world's most thorough chewer and see how it affected my life. At least for a week. After that, I'd reassess. I would, as the chewing community says, ruminate on it.

The first question I faced: How many chews is the ideal amount? Recommendations are all over the board. The Japanese health ministry recently suggested 30 chews per bite. My mom used to tell my sister and me 20. But the founder of the chewing movement—mastication's Martin Luther, a man named Horace Fletcher—argued for up to 100 chews. To be safe, I figured why not go with 100?

Which quickly turned out to be insane. First, it's really hard. You have to suppress the urge to swallow. After about seven chews, food really wants to slide down your throat. I watched a how-to-chew YouTube video (yes, there are several) that recommended closing your throat. But I'm not sure how to do that without asphyxiating.

And that's not to mention the time required. One mouthful takes more than a full minute to get through. During that first lunch—a plate of whole wheat pasta with pesto that I ate with my wife, Julie—I spent the majority of the meal with my finger raised in the please-hold-that-thought position.

"The thing is," Julie said, "You're a grazer. So you're going to be doing this all day. You basically won't be able to talk for a whole week. I kind of like this project."

"Very witty," I said, after pausing for 40 seconds to finish chewing and swallow.

On the second day, I cut down to 50 chews per bite, which is still quite a lot. Enough that I became the subject of anti-chewist humor. My pun-loving brother-in-law called me Chewbacca. One clever friend just made mooing sounds. Julie accused me of taking a bite in the middle of an argument to avoid confrontation.

I'll say this much: Extreme chewing has made me a better listener. It's the only thing I can do while I'm waiting for my mouth to free itself up. At least until the third day, when I began to talk out of the side of my mouth, ventriloquist-style.

Oh, and I should mention: My jaw is killing me.

A brief history of chewing: the man who started the munching craze, Horace Fletcher, was an early-20th-century evangelist for chewing. The Great Masticator, as he was called, even had a trademark maxim: "Nature will castigate those who don't masticate." Which is the second-best chewing poem ever, after The Bob Newhart Show's "Thirty-two times keeps your tummy from danger; then you can stay up and listen to The Lone Ranger."

Fletcher became hugely influential with his theory that chewing is crucial to health and digestion, reportedly attracting such diverse followers as oil baron John D. Rockefeller, novelist Franz Kafka and cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg. The man practiced what he preached, too: He would allegedly spend 45 minutes "Fletcherizing" an apple. He even thought proper chewing could save the world. After World War I, he traveled to a famine-stricken Europe to teach its citizens to chew more, which would allow them to wring more nutrition from their food, and thus survive on less.

He wasn't alone in his thinking. Over the decades, many others have argued for more gnashing of the teeth. Gandhi himself, some say, advised his followers to "Chew your drink and drink your food." And while we're on the topic of non-meat-eaters who don't wear a lot of clothing, I'd also like to mention that vegan actress Alicia Silverstone discusses aiming for 30 chews in her recent book, The Kind Diet.

On the Internet, the chewing movement is as strong as ever, with fervor bordering on the religious. One wag coined it "Chew-daism." There are many chewing aids for sale, like a CD that chimes every minute, directing you to swallow. Absurdly detailed videos teach viewers how to chew (rip tough food with the incisors, then grind with the molars). Proponents post diatribes insisting that chewing will cure stomachaches, cut down on gas, improve energy, clear the mind and strengthen bones.

These claims are no doubt overblown. But even today's practical-minded nutritionists believe that there are benefits to chewing food more thoroughly. "Digestion starts in your mouth," says Ellie Krieger, a registered dietitian and the host of the television show Healthy Appetite on Food Network. "Chewing breaks down food physically as the enzymes in saliva begin to break down food chemically. This all helps to release nutrients from cell walls, making them more available for absorption. It also makes the food easier to digest as it moves through the rest of your system, potentially preventing gastrointestinal upset like bloating." This is especially true for whole grains like brown rice or oatmeal, which still have the fibrous bran.

On day four of my week of chewing, my jaw felt better. So much so that I started to get a bit macho. I went to Whole Foods and loaded my cart with the chewiest foods I could find. If I'm going to spend all this time working my jaw, I thought, I might as well put it to good use.

I passed the whole afternoon in front of the television eating raw cashews, marshmallows and squid sushi. The most challenging food for my teeth? Surprisingly, dried mangos. They kept me happily chewing for an entire commercial break.

And I do mean happily. By this time, I had started to really like my dental workout. Yes, chewing 50 times is still a huge time vacuum, and yes, I cheated often. But I also found several upsides. Namely:

Food Tastes Better (At Least Sometimes)

In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan argues against overchewing by saying it's a reductionist approach that turns eating into a chore. I disagree. Chewing more releases extra flavor and allows a heightened sensation of texture, especially in bland foods. When I chewed my organic Greek yogurt (yes, devotees claim you must chew even soft food to get all its health benefits), I found new notes of sourness and creaminess. During a dinner of Israeli couscous with kale and sun-dried tomatoes, I spent a lovely few moments distinguishing the textures of the ingredients before they melded into each other. It all comes down to that trendy but useful word: mindfulness. When I'm chewing, I can't help but be mindful of the food. It's impossible to take it for granted.

More Chewing = Less Food

Just as using smaller plates and putting the fork down between bites makes people eat less, so does the very act of chewing more. You're plowing through your food more slowly. "It takes your stomach 20 minutes to send your brain the 'I'm full' message," Krieger says. "So you're eating less overall, which can help with weight management." The previously mentioned almond study also showed that intensive chewers felt more sated than slacker chewers.

I had Thanksgiving dinner during my week of chewing. And never have I left the table so blissfully light. I didn't have to undo a single button.

Chewing Is Good For Your Teeth

Toward the end of my week, I went into mastication overdrive by sampling several chewing gums. I've never been a gum fan, but some studies have indicated that chewing sugar-free gum after meals can help prevent tooth decay. This is especially true if the gum contains the sweetener xylitol, which bacteria can't break down. In Finland, schoolchildren are encouraged to chew xylitol gum.

Chewing gum provided a double thrill—unconsciously, I felt like I was doing something wrong, thanks to years of anti-gum propaganda from my parents. But intellectually, I realized I was doing something right.

I finished my week with a midnight snack of steel-cut oatmeal with berries, then rested my weary mandible on my pillow.

It's been a few days now since I ended the experiment. I no longer chew my food 50 times. It's just not realistic, at least not while I have a full-time job and the gift of speech. But I have ratcheted up my chewing. Before my experiment, I averaged about six or seven chews per mouthful. Now I'm at 15. I may not be a zealot, but I'm a believer. I think Freud was wrong about most things (I don't know many women angry at their mothers for an imagined castration), but I do think we all suffer from oral fixations. There's something pleasurable about having things move around the mouth.

Tonight, while my sons were watching Yo Gabba Gabba! and chewing their turkey dogs relentlessly, I gnawed on red-pepper hummus and pita bread. "So yummy, so yummy!" said the green-striped creature on-screen. "There's a party in my tummy." Which seemed overly stomach-focused. Digestion, I reminded my kids, starts long before the tummy: "There's also a party in our mouths."

A.J. Jacobs, the author of The Year of Living Biblically and The Guinea Pig Diaries, is an editor at large at Esquire magazine.

Published March 2010
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