NUTRITIONDietChew on This

Chew on This

By: Rae Krick

Here’s a thought to chew on: Your mouth is a big part of the answer to healthy eating. The digestive tract is a long, muscular tube that begins at the mouth and ends at the anus, with ten organs performing unique functions along the way. Many of us know the shape and general purpose of our main organs such as the stomach, liver, gallbladder, and small and large intestines, but there are other, lesser-known stages of digestion that tend to happen under the radar. Let’s start with chewing.

The most under-recognized stage of digestion

The act of chewing, combined with our sloshing saliva, turns food into a moist lump called a bolus, which is then, after swallowing, transferred to the stomach via peristalsis, the automatic wavelike movement that moves food through your system. As the only stage of digestion that happens consciously, or on purpose, chewing and swallowing serve as points of control over the success of the digestive process. When you combine proper chewing with all of the natural acids, enzymes, and hormones of digestion, you set up the process of digestion for success.

What happens to the digestive system during times of stress?

When we’re experiencing stress, the body undergoes physiological changes to prioritize necessary systems and processes known as the “fight or flight” response. Systems less critical to survival (referred to as our “rest and digest” functions) are temporarily put on the back burner until the threat has passed. As a firefighter, it is important for you to understand that your body, not your mind, decides whether or not a situation is threatening. 

What can be done to improve digestion while on shift?

Recognizing the toll that stress can take on digestion, it’s up to firefighters to prioritize eating habits that best support the breakdown, motility, and absorption of meals. 

Here are four easy solutions to help improve your digestion

1. Prepare easy-to-digest foods. With knowledge of the inhibitive nature of stress on digestion, it may make more sense to prepare salmon, mashed potatoes and steamed carrots for dinner on shift, rather than steak, rice and a raw broccoli salad, all of which are harder to digest.

2. Take a few deep belly breaths prior to taking your first bite. The practice of deep breathing expands the belly on each inhale, assisting the body in entering “rest and digest” prior to a meal.

3. Chew each bite to an applesauce consistency. Properly chewing each bite not only breaks food down into smaller particles for easier digestion but also signals to the stomach that food is coming, promoting the release of digestive enzymes.

4. Slow down and pay attention to fullness cues. The person who finishes their food the fastest is not the winner. Eating fast not only impairs the ability of the digestive system to do its job, but also results in overeating. 

Bon appetit – and happy chewing!

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