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Teeth, Chewing, Digestion and Overall Health

When most people think about good nutrition, they assume that the only important thing is what’s in their food. Well, chew on this: Teeth—that’s right, teeth!—play a critical role, too. The connection may not be obvious at first glance, but if you have missing teeth or dental disease, you simply won’t get the maximum nutritional value from food. 

Maybe you already know that unhealthy teeth and gums can contribute to serious diseases, such as heart ailments, osteoporosis, and even diabetes, and severely stress the immune system. The end result is that your quality of life and longevity may suffer. But I’m betting you don’t know how teeth also fit into the nutrition part of this equation. 

Chewing: Key to Digestion

For the body to do its best job of assimilating food, two things are necessary. One is a healthy digestive tract; the other is the ability and willingness to chew. Here’s where human anatomy comes into play because, despite whatever notion we may have about being king of the jungle, our digestive system doesn’t measure up to that of other creatures. 

Carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores have digestive systems that are distinctly different and with teeth designed to match the needs of each system. Take cats, for example. These meat eaters don’t have to chew—sharp front teeth enable them to just rip, tear and swallow—because their digestive tract can handle tough animal tissue. 

Similarly, the digestive system of herbivores, such as cows, sheep and deer, has evolved to the point where it can digest and assimilate the tough cellulose fibers surrounding all plant cells. Though their system does that job very efficiently, herbivores still must effectively chew plant food so their bodies can completely absorb it. That’s why herbivores don’t have the tearing, canine teeth of carnivores; instead theirs are broad, flat molars that effectively break down the fibrous cellulose. 

Thankfully We are Omnivores

But what about human beings who are dentally classified as omnivores? Our digestive system is set up to effectively dispatch both meat and plants. But it’s no match for the digestive abilities of carnivores and herbivores and to make up for that shortcoming, we must use our teeth efficiently. Because we can’t digest cellulose we have to chew vegetables and plants very thoroughly to extract all of their nutritional content. The same goes for protein foods, animal or otherwise. 

Animals instinctively understand what is necessary instinctively, but for humans our conscious brain will play a key role here, too. What you decide to do with the food in your mouth—chew it well or gulp it down—is the last time you’ll have conscious control over how much nutritional value can be extracted from that salad or steak. 

After you swallow food, chemical digestion, which you can’t consciously control, takes over in the stomach and intestine. So chewing is your one chance to determine how efficiently food will ultimately be digested and assimilated. 

You aren’t what You Eat!

You’ve heard the expression, “You are what you eat.” That may sound true, but it’s not quite accurate. In fact, “You are what you assimilate.” It doesn’t matter what you put in your mouth because, first, if you don’t have your teeth, or their artificial replacements, to properly chew food, your body won’t be able to effectively digest it. Second, regardless of how healthy the food is, it can’t be assimilated if it isn’t digested. And third, if it isn’t assimilated, food has little or no nutritional value. 

This is where teeth come in. Our most efficient tools for grinding and breaking down both plant and animal products are molars. Humans have eight of these powerful dental food processors—two on the top and two on the bottom on each side of the mouth. 

Let’s say you lose a tooth and don’t have it replaced. Or you have gum disease or an abscess and simply can’t chew on that tooth or on that side. Functionally, you end up losing two teeth, not just one. Think about it for a moment or two. Take away a top tooth and the tooth below it has nothing to chew against; that makes the bottom tooth useless. It also means you lose 25 percent of your molars’ chewing efficiency. Take away two top or bottom teeth and you lose 50 percent of your molars chewing efficiency. 

Get the Most out of what you Eat

If you want to get the maximum nutritional value from what you eat you will not only need teeth but you will need to chew your food long enough for your molars to properly do the job they were designed for. Bite and swallow won’t do it from a nutritional standpoint. We may be living in the ‘fast food’ era but no matter how quickly you get your meal you absolutely should take your time chewing it. Ultimately your health will depend upon it because the nutritional substances, such as vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and amino acids, that provide the body with what it needs to fight off disease and stay healthy, can only be assimilated if the food you eat is properly chewed, digested, and assimilated. 

The bottom line: “You can’t be healthy without healthy teeth and gums.”



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