Food for thought

Can chewing really change your life? Doctor Harald Stossier thinks so. Sitting in his consulting room at the Viva Mayr clinic on the shores of Lake Wörthesee in southern Austria, he explains that just by chewing more (and making another few simple changes in my eating habits) I can lose weight, age better, feel better, put an end to any digestive problems, sleep better, have more energy, clearer skin, concentrate on my work more effectively, eliminate my pot belly and avoid major illnesses and diseases such as heart attacks and asthma. It seems a small price to pay for such a huge reward. I am keen to find out more.

The Austrian doctor Franz Mayr was the first to prove a direct link between one’s digestive health and overall health and attractiveness. He developed the famous Mayr Cure in the early 1900s, and thousands of people still follow his advice. Before setting up the Viva Mayr clinic in 1984, Stossier was head physician at Mayr’s original clinic.

The Viva Mayr Clinic’s mantra is that good digestion equals good health. Stossier estimates that up to 90 per cent of us are wandering around with irritated intestines, which if left alone can result in diabetes, heart attacks and cancer, he says. He reckons that almost all chronic illnesses we suffer from are caused by problems in our intestines. If He’s right, how come no one else is on to this?

Well, some people are. Kathleen Melanson from the University of Rhode Island, for example, conducted a study in which she gave two groups of female volunteers the same meal of pasta with vegetable sauce and Parmesan cheese. One group was asked to eat at a leisurely level and the other to eat as quickly as possible. She found that not only did the first group feel much better after the meal, but they also consumed around 100 fewer calories than the fast-eating group.

But Dr Stossier says the message is hard to get across. “The reason people don’t believe that diseases are caused by problems in our gut is that they live perfectly happily for 20 years doing the same thing and then suddenly they are taken ill with, say, diabetes. They assume this is something new, but it’s not. It’s a slow process that has been building up for years and years and which culminates in the disease. If you look at a tree, for example, its health and strength does not come from its leaves, they are only a reflection of its health and strength. This comes from its roots, and you can’t see if the roots are sick. It will only show in the leaves much later on. Our intestines are our roots; they are not visible, but crucial to our health and strength. If they are weakened, so is the rest of the organism.”

The point is that the road from health to disease is long and full of small imbalances that do not always constitute real illness. And if you are continually digesting your food badly, Dr Stossier would argue, you are putting yourself at terrible risk

There is a logic to what he says. When you eat a certain food – fish, meat, vegetable or potato – it doesn’t go directly to the cells of your body as nutrition. Our cells wouldn’t know what to do with it. Our digestive system has to turn the food we eat into a nutrient. And how effectively it does that depends on how effectively you digest. Rather than saying “you are what you eat”, Dr Stossier and followers of Mayr would say “you are what you digest”.

Digestion is where you come in. Although most of the digestive process goes on without us being in control of it, there are lots of things you can do to help things along. The most important thing you need to do is to chew your food – really, really well. Once you have swallowed it, you have lost control, and if you swallow it almost whole like most of us do, you are putting a huge amount of strain on your system. As Dr Stossier puts it, “It is ridiculous to ask your stomach to chew for you, that’s why you have teeth.”

He suggests we chew each mouthful around 40 times, until it is liquid. It takes time to train yourself to chew properly. Start with some bread and really focus on chewing it until it disintegrates. The first few times it will do so very quickly, but you will get better at it. I have tried it. My main concern was that I would go out for dinner with friends and still be chewing while they had gone home to bed, but I was fine. I just focused more on what I was doing with my food than usual. In fact, watching other people wolfing down their food inspired me. I sat there smugly chewing, knowing how much healthier I was going to be at the end of the meal than them. Another advantage chewing more is that it the sends message to your brain that you have had enough food, so you automatically eat less.

The other crucial thing is that your digestive system is at its strongest in the morning, hence the recommendation to breakfast like a king. Only eat raw foods, which are more difficult to digest, before 3.00pm. If you eat raw food at the end of the day it ferments because your system cannot digest it effectively. Stossier says that this fermentation will eventually build up and cause more serious health problems. Eat your smallest meal in the evening, again because your digestive system is at its weakest then. And although you should drink plenty of water between meals, avoid it while eating. You need all your saliva to start the process of digesting your food and water dilutes it.

In terms of what you actually eat, Stossier recommends you go organic whenever you can, but again stresses the importance of effective digestion.

“If you wolf down an organic salad at midnight when you’re stressed, you’ll get less nutrition out of it than you would the lettuce in a Big Mac eaten in the morning and chewed properly in a calm environment,” he says.

The central message is that while food in itself is important, we need to abandon the notion that food itself defines the quality of nutrition. It is not the food that defines it, it is you.

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