When you think about eating, you may think of the work that happens in your stomach and intestines. But the entire digestive process starts in your mouth, with chewing.

When you chew your food, it gets broken down into smaller pieces which are easier to digest. When mixed with saliva, chewing allows your body to extract the greatest possible amount of nutrients from the food you eat.

Experts have a lot to say about chewing. One common piece of advice is to chew your food an estimated 32 times before swallowing. It takes fewer chews to break down soft and water-filled food. The goal of chewing is to break down your food so it loses texture.

Chewing 32 times appears to be an average number applied to most bites of food. Foods that are harder to chew, such as steak and nuts, may require up to 40 chews per mouthful. Foods like watermelon may require fewer chews to break down — as few as 10 to 15.

Chewing is the first step of digestion.

  1. Chewing and saliva break down and mix food together in your mouth. From there, food goes into your esophagus when you swallow.
  2. Your esophagus pushes food into your stomach.
  3. Your stomach holds food while it mixes with enzymes that continue breaking down the food so you can use it for energy.
  4. When food is digested enough in your stomach, it moves into your small intestine where it mixes with more enzymes that continue to break it down. Nutrients from the food are absorbed in the small intestine.
  5. Wastes are sent to the large intestine, known as your colon. The leftover waste is excreted through the rectum and anus.

People can forget to chew their food or get into the habit of swallowing before they’ve fully chewed it. People who take bites that’re too big or too small might not be chewing food properly.

Chewing is not only an important part of the digestive process but it’s also beneficial to overall health. People who don’t chew their food well enough before they swallow often develop digestive problems, and are also at a greater risk for:

Benefits of chewing food slowly

Experts say that the faster you eat, the more food you will tend to eat. Chewing your food many times at a slower pace can reduce your overall food intake.

In one study, 30 healthy women consumed meals at different paces. The women who ate slower consumed significantly less food yet felt fuller than those who ate quicker.

In another study, chewing more during mealtime was found to reduce snacking on candies later in the day.

Besides weight control, experts say that chewing your food properly can also help increase the amount of nutrients you get out of your food. In one study, experts found that chewing almonds between 25 and 40 times not only suppressed hunger but also increased people’s ability to absorb nutrients from the almonds.

When you’re eating, there is a right and wrong way to chew. Here’s how to get the most out of your meals:

  • Don’t overload your spoon or fork. Food should stay on without falling off.
  • With food in your mouth, close your lips and start chewing. Your tongue should move the food from side to side and your jaw should rotate slightly.
  • Chew slowly, counting to 32 with each bite of food. You may need more or less time depending on the type of food.
  • Once the bite has lost all texture, you can swallow.

If you have digestive problems, drinking water when you eat isn’t always good for you. Drinking water can slow the digestive process by diluting enzymes in the body that break down food. This effect is especially intense if you suffer from digestive disorders such as gastroesophageal reflux disease.

When you don’t chew your food enough, the rest of your digestive system becomes confused. Your body may not produce enough of the enzymes needed to fully break down your food. This could lead to digestive problems, including:

Get the most out of your food by eating right. Here are some tips for how to eat to improve your digestive health:

  • Drink 30 minutes before or after you eat, but not with your meal. This increases the efficiency of your digestion.
  • Don’t drink coffee right after a meal. That can speed up your digestion and send you to the bathroom. It can also cause heartburn from its acidity.
  • Avoid fruits and processed sweets right after a meal. Sugary foods are digested quickly and may cause gas and bloating.
  • Avoid exercising strenuously after a meal. Digestion requires energy, and it’s less efficient when you’re exercising.
  • Eat more fermented foods like sauerkraut and pickles. They contain digestive enzymes and beneficial bacteria needed to help your body absorb essential nutrients. Eating these foods can reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, gluten intolerance and allergies, and asthma.
  • Eat raw or slightly steamed vegetables, which contain higher amounts of enzymes and fiber. These are important for good digestion.
  • Go for a walk after a meal. This speeds the rate at which food moves through your stomach, aiding digestion.
  • Use probiotics. Poor sleeping and eating habits and travel can throw your digestion out of whack. Taking probiotics, made up of healthy bacteria, can help set your digestive system right again. Talk to a doctor to see which probiotics are best for your body.

Proper digestion starts in your mouth. When eating, be sure to chew your food thoroughly to get the full benefit out of it.

By focusing on chewing many times, you will eat slower. This can improve your digestion, help you eat less, and enhance your overall eating experience.