Did your parents, or grandparents ever lecture you on the importance of properly chewing your food? Well, chewing is certainly important. It is actually the beginning of the digestion process, where not only mastication starts to break down foods into smaller pieces, but an enzyme is released to begin the process of digesting starches. But why should you chew 32 times? Where did this precise number come from?
The 32 times figure comes a self-proclaimed expert on diet in the later 1800’s named Horace Fletcher. Without an ounce of scientific training, he conducted experiments which proved, to him at least, the importance of thorough mastication. He was so into chewing that he became known as the”Great Masticator” and those who followed his recommendations were said to be “fletcherizing.” And people certainly followed his advice, among them John D. Rockefeller, Upton Sinclair, Henry James and brother William James, Franz Kafka, and President Theodore Roosevelt.
Why 32 times? It’s once for every tooth!
Even Mark Twain, who was nothing if not a skeptic about the plethora of dietary advice of his day, is said to have tried the Fletcher diet. This is the man who said, “Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and have the food fight it out inside.” In retrospect, this quote isn’t that far from Fletcher’s philosophy, since he actually did advocate eating what you like, and he also spoke of the importance of being happy when you do so. In fact, he claimed that eating while in a bad mood or angry directly led to indigestion. Cheerfulness, he said, was as important as chewing. He probably wouldn’t have been very enthusiastic about food “fighting it out inside you,” though. I am not sure if Mark Twain uttered this quip before, or after he tried the diet, although something tells me it was after.
The great dietary reformer and cereal guru John Harvey Kellogg, not only touted Fletcher’s advice, he was the one who coined the term ‘fletcherism’ and helped to popularize the method, using it in his Battle Creek Sanitarium. See more on Kellog’s.
Bernar MacFaddan, an early ‘physical culturist’ or proponent of physical fitness and health reform, also helped popularize fletcherism in his writings. Eventually, it found its way into some school hygiene textbooks, which is likely how it was passed down to use as if it were a proven tenant of nutrition and health.
According to Fletcher, slow and considered chewing basically saved his life. He had been denied health insurance because of his obesity. Writing in books such as Fletcherism: What It Is and How I Became Young at 60 and The New Glutton or Epicure, most of his revelations were anecdotal: “I weighed two hundred and seventeen pounds (about fifty pounds more than I should have for my height of five foot six inches)…I was an old man at forty, on my way to rapid decline.” He claimed that his thorough chewing regimen led to him losing 163 pounds. Not only did the extended chewing time make the food nutrition more available to the body, but it made you eat less. “Nature will castigate those who do not masticate,” he said.
To Fletcher, it didn’t matter what you ate, as long as you waited until you were truly hungry, and then chewed, and chewed, and chewed each and every bite until it basically “swallowed itself.” Most people, he said, were wasting most of the food they ate by failing to chew it properly. You could subsist on much less food if you didn’t swallow too quickly!
Chewing 32 times was one of his recommendations, but he came up with other numbers in the course of his investigations, such as when he ran a study on groups of soldiers whom he had chew each bite 50 times.
For some foods, like a tough piece of meat, 32 to 50 times may not seem like a lot of chewing. But try chewing each and every bite of food you eat 32 times and you’ll quickly see that it is quite a long time chewing! If you chew a piece of bread this way, it becomes quite disgusting, although the bread will, curiously become sweeter tasting (as the complex starches break down into simple sugars).
Thirty-two chews may have been a simple guideline since his actual instruction was to chew until the last bit of flavor disappeared from the food. The food, before you swallow it, should basically be liquefied. This, he said, made the food neutral or alkaline, thus protecting the alimentary canal from being scratched or poisoned. When you chewed in this way, he said, the food, reduced as it was to an almost liquid, settled back into the folds of the mouth and excited the swallowing impulse, forcing you to swallow. He himself is said to have chewed up to 100 times.
From around 1906 to 1910 Fletcherism became quite popular and munching clubs sprung up in both American and Europe. It lost steam during the second half of the century.
Regardless of the lack of scientific support for Fletcher’s claims, many feel he was onto something. Slowly chewing your food could cause you to eat less, and this could positively impact weight loss, and perhaps health. There is certainly research that supports the idea that thinner people tend to eat more slowly. However, eating slowly doesn’t have to mean chewing obsessively like a cow on his cud. In fact, such a socially isolating behavior could not be maintained by many, and such a “diet” would likely fail. There are other things you can do to slow down your eating. For example, food behavior scientist Brian Wansink reported that study participants found that putting down their utensils between bites helps them to slow down their eating (update: The results of Brian Wansink’s many studies have been found to be questionable, at best).
Eating more slowly may certainly help you eat less. Another idea? Use chopsticks. That’ll slow you down!
Regardless, to eat more slowly doesn’t have to mean chewing your way to an aching jaw. Just eat slowly, and enjoy your food. Pay attention to what you are eating, and savor it, whether or not you chew it 32 times.