What Happens When You Chew Your Food
I’m not sure what animal eats the way I do. Maybe a dog. I love the idea of eating from a trough, feeding myself with a shovel, or, better yet, with my bare hands. Since dogs don’t have hands and generally eat from a bowl instead of a trough, maybe I am my own kind of animal. A combination of a gorilla and a hyena when it comes to feeding time.
Why would a person want to eat like an animal? Well, first of all, let’s look at why I would want to eat at all. Hunger is the first reason that comes to mind. The only trick is there are different kinds of hunger. I might be hungry for nutrients because my stomach is empty, or I might be hungry in a more systemic way. Hungry for more. Hungry to feel filled. Hungry not to feel alone. Hungry to feel safe. Hungry to feel seen or heard. Hungry to find a sense of belonging. Hungry to feel needed, purposeful.
I have this idea that when young children (and probably adults, but I’m focusing on the kids right now) have some sort of decisive break with a parent before a solid sense of self is in place (does that even happen for most of us?) it’s like the mirror the child has been looking at to see who he or she is shatters, and suddenly their world, their brain, is all busted. This could happen because a mother gives her baby to another family. This could happen because a parent has addiction issues and is not mentally or physically present enough to properly mirror their child. The parent could be mentally or physically abusive and break the parent/child bond of trust. The parent could be a narcissist and unable to reflect anyone’s presence aside from their own. The child could be in the NICU and not have adequate touch and eye contact.
(Boy, is having a child a lot of work! I mean, wow, you have to be so PRESENT to give that kid of yours the best chance possible so they don’t want to jump in front of a train after fifth period junior year.)
I need to get back to my main point which is hunger and food and how I eat. This is not to say I was completely off topic with the above comments. One reason I am so hungry has nothing to do with food, is what I was saying. One reason I am so hungry is because I’m trying to eat myself whole or safe or present, and this complicates both hunger and how I ingest the food I eat.
Last week I was reading Robyn Youkilis’s book Go With Your Gut. There’s a chapter on the importance of chewing. Now, I have been told to chew my food before. By COUNTLESS people. You can’t live a life of eating like a Hoover and not have friends or spouses (or horrified family members) suggest you use your teeth. I didn’t care. I wasn’t interested in chewing or impressing people with my table manners. I was interested in getting the most food possible in the shortest amount of time into my stomach. I can polish off a piece of pizza the way Edwin Moses cleared lines of hurdles. I learned to fold slices in half so I could get the pizza down twice as fast. That’s just one of my tricks. The other is to chewjust enough to make the pizza ball go down my throat without choking me in the process.
I read Youkilis’s chapter on chewing because I was over having stomach and gut issues. I was open to almost any suggestion that would help me live a life where my body wasn’t dictating what I did based on how sick or weird I was feeling. In this chapter, she talked about a man who survived his time in a concentration camp perhaps because, when he had no food, he learned to chew water. The act of the chewing itself somehow helped to keep him alive. Youkilis talked about the digestive enzymes the mouth releases when a person chews, and she said that if you chew until your food is liquid, your guts won’t have to attack the chunks of food it sees as foreign invaders.
Imagine! Just because I’m in a rush to ingest as much food as possible, my guts are having to act as soldiers, beating back hunks of broccoli and gluten-free English muffins I was too rushed to 1. Enjoy 2. Taste 3. Do my work as a person with a mouthful of teeth and break down into a substance that would feed my body instead of putting it on high alert. If I swallow loads of barely masticated potato, I am causing myself so much work. Instead of letting my guts do their normal job of pulling essential nutrients from the food I have carefully chosen (organic, low-sugar, gluten-free, dariy-free, etc. etc. etc.) I am asking my guts to go into attack and save the castle mode.
No wonder I’m often so tired after I eat.
The first meal I committed to chewing was lunch. I cooked my standard meal where I put some Bragg’s Coconut Aminos and coconut oil in a pan with a handful of almonds, a chopped up cooked sweet potato, some greens (often chard, dandelion, collard), and sometimes some nut cheese (I know). I sauté this panful of food until it’s heated through, and then I shovel it in. I mean I sit down, take a deep breath, say thank you for this meal, and chew.
So, the first meal I had committed to chewing was halfway gone until I remembered about the chewing thing. The first bite that I actually chewed more than thirty times (I think Youkilis recommends 50 chews per bite. I have conveniently forgotten.) something incredible happened: my mouth filled with spit after about fifteen bites in a cool, we’ve got this kind of way. All those other times I had been eating food it was like I’d been racing through a carwash before the water ever got a chance to turn on. This waterwash felt so good. It felt like my body was taking this food seriously, working with it, welcoming it to the party. The other thing I noticed was that the food started tasting even better after about chew 20. Tastes opened up. The almonds were more almond-y. The chard was flipping sweet and delicious.
The third thing I noticed was panic. How was I ever going to eat this huge bowl of food I still had left in front of me if it took me this long to eat every bite? How could I ever get enough if I didn’t shovel it in? What if I got bored? What if I died from lack of…lack of…lack of…?
This, dear reader, is when my life blew apart in the most amazing ways. It felt like almost everything I knew about myself and life shifted in that moment. I will write more about this later, after I have chewed on it a while.
I am still working on chewing each bite 30 to 50 times for an entire meal. Chewing is like meditating. I keep forgetting my intention and I have to remind myself to re-focus on the chew. Sometimes I feel despair. I love the shovel and I miss it.
But every day, every meal, every snack, I miss the shovel a little less. Oh, the beauty of a bite of orange. Look what Proust did with the madeleine. If one bite brings the world to me, maybe this is an invitation to slow down, an invitation to take less, to enjoy more.
My stomach is so much calmer. Mostly it feels like it’s at the beach, stretched out, having vacation thoughts.
This is all such a process. I forgot to chew half my breakfast.
But I remembered to chew the other half, and soon it will be lunchtime.
Here’s a link to Youkilis’s blog and book: http://www.robynyoukilis.com/gowithyourgut/