Something to Chew Over

Donald NorfolkMany health fads have an exceedingly short shelf life. One of these was Fletcherism, a cult which was launched at the start of the twentieth century by an overweight American business man, Horace Fletcher. At the age of forty, Fletcher had been turned down for a life insurance policy as a bad health risk. He was so stunned by this experience that he immediately ceased his business interests and went in search of health. The panacea he formulated was based on what he called ‘the science of head digestion.

He freely admitted that his chief source of inspiration was William Gladstone, the Grand Old Man of British politics, a man noted for his exceptional vigour throughout his four, arduous terms as Britain’s prime minister. Gladstone claimed that he owed his vitality to his habit of thoroughly chewing every mouthful of food before it was swallowed. He trained his eight children to give every mouthful of food a minimum of thirty-two chews – a chew for every tooth. (This might be necessary for a tough piece of steak, but seems a trifle excessive for a spoonful of porridge.) His argument was that the stomach has no teeth, which means that unless a chunk of meat is ground down into its constituent particles it can’t come into full contact with the digestive enzymes in the saliva and gastric juices. This has since been proved by tests which confirm that if a lump of meat is swallowed whole, only its periphery will be digested after two hours in the stomach. By contrast, if it is broken down first into tiny sections, most of its fibres will have been processed during the two hour period. This discovery led veterinary scientists from Madrid University to make a trial of fitting elderly cows with stainless steel false teeth. This helped them chew better, gain enhanced nourishment from their food intake and so increase their milk yield.

The regular practice of ‘head digestion’ has a number of other health benefits. Chewing stimulates the flow of saliva, which helps to flush away particles of food lodged around the teeth, which is one of the prime causes of dental decay. It also helps to reduce the risk of ‘café coronaries’, the name given to medical emergencies caused when people choke on large portions of food. One minute they’re eating, drinking and laughing with their friends, the next they’re struggling for their life, showing symptoms which are often mistaken for an acute heart attack. Sometimes the piece of food which lodges in the throat is the size of a playing card, a hazard which can be totally eliminated by following the example of Horace Fletcher and William Gladstone.

Thorough chewing also improves the circulation to the gums. This helps lessen the risk of periodontal disease which affects approximately 90 per cent of adults in the Western world, giving rise to bad breath and bleeding gums. Overweight people can also derive great benefit from spending more time chewing their food. Studies show that obese subjects tend to eat more quickly than normal, giving their bodies no time to realise that they’ve had enough. It takes at least twenty minutes for food to be absorbed and messages transmitted to the brain’s satiety centre. During this time a good trencherman can consume a thousand calories more than they need to satisfy their calorie requirements. If they want to maintain an optimum body weight, gobblers must learn to eat more slowly, savouring each mouthful of food and chewing it until it is almost reduced to a liquid consistency. We must learn to be gourmets rather than gluttons, if we want to enjoy our food, improve our digestion and preserve our youthful figures.

This is an important topic, and in the near future we’ll have more to say about the benefits and hazards of chewing gum, and the emergency treatment or ‘café coronaries’.

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