During a recent family dinner, I watched in utter fascination as my boys shoveled down their meals at record speed. I then realized I was beginning to shovel, too. It was like NASCAR at our dinner table, a race to see who could clear their plate the fastest. We had forgotten to chew and it was unclear whether any of us had tasted a bite of our dinners. Where's the fun in that?
When I paused to slow us down, my boys asked why the speed we eat matters; if it wasn't clear they were incredibly hungry. Well, boys, shoveling our food creates all kinds of issues, such as indigestion, constipation, inflammation and malabsorption of nutrients, which can then contribute to larger health problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis and heart disease. So it would certainly be beneficial to our health to put the brakes on our dinners, no matter how instinctual it may be for ravenous teenage boys to wolf down a meal.
To explain the importance of unhurried eating in a way my boys might embrace, I told them to think of their digestive tracts as the engines for their bodies. Just like car engines, their digestive tracts take the food (or fuel) they eat and process it into forms that make every part of the body run: brain cells, heart cells, muscle cells, skin cells and more, depending on the nutrients extracted. If digestion does not work as it should, we cannot obtain and use the nutrients we need.
A typical adult digestive tract is about 30 feet long, and if laid flat could cover a tennis court. It also begins in the mouth. Digestion starts when you smell and then taste your food. Smell and taste trigger the body to produce enzymes and hormones necessary for digestion. Some of these enzymes are found in your saliva and begin to break down food in your mouth so that it is partially digested when it hits your stomach. If we don’t chew properly, undigested food ends up in our stomach, causing distress. Then when it arrives in the small intestine, still not fully digested, the nutrients cannot be easily absorbed into the bloodstream. This leaves our body missing important nutrients.
To top it off, when we do anything in a hurry, including eating too hastily, we stimulate our body’s fight-or-flight response, which then causes our digestion to slow down or even stop so the body can divert all its internal energy to facing the perceived threat. Since when is eating a threat?
Too much adrenaline from this perceived threat could also alter our serotonin production. Serotonin is the “happy hormone” that directly affects our moods, sleep, appetite and ability to relax, and 95 percent of it is located in the gut. So let’s not mess with digestion, or we could be messing with our moods.
In his book, “May All Be Fed,”John Robbins tells the story of three concentration camp survivors who managed to outlive their peers in the prison camp because they chewed every limited bite of food until there was nothing left to chew. Robbins says they absorbed more nutrients because their food was in a more absorbable state than that of their mates, who shoveled meals down in large gulps.
In other words, boys, let's be thankful we have plentiful and delicious food to eat, take a minute to breathe deeply before dinner, cherish the smells and tastes of our meals, then chew, chew and chew our food some more. In this fast and furious world, any time to slow down together sounds awfully nice.
First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, October 27, 2016.