Friday, October 21, 2011

Obesity: Something to Chew Over

Many health fads have a very 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 called Horace Fletcher. At the age of forty, Fletcher was turned down for a life insurance policy as a bad health risk because of his excessive girth. He was so stunned by this experience that he promptly quit his business and went in search of health. After numerous experiments, he finally hit on a fitness regime which he rather portentously called 'the science of head digestion.'

He freely admitted that he got this idea from William Gladstone, who served four terms as Britain's prime minister. Gladstone was noted for his exceptional vigour, a man who in his early eighties was still felling trees and who, at eight-five, thought nothing of moving 32,000 of his books by wheelbarrow to a community library a quarter of a mile from his home. The Grand Old Man of British politics claimed that he owed his vitality to his habit of thoroughly chewing every morsel of food he ate. This became such an obsession that he went over the top and trained his eight children to give every mouthful of food a minimum of thirty-two chews - a chew for every tooth. His argument was that, since the stomach has no teeth, unless a chunk of meat is broken down in the mouth it can't be properly mixed with the digestive enzymes found in the saliva and gastric juices. This has since been proved by trials which confirm that if a lump of meat is swallowed whole, only its outer layers will be digested after two hours in the stomach. On the other hand, if the bolus is first broken down into tiny slivers, most of its fibres will be processed during the two hour period.

Finding time for 'head digestion' also helps to preserve the teeth, since it stimulates the flow of saliva and so flushes away particles of food lodged around the teeth, which is one of the prime causes of dental decay. In addition, it eliminates the risk of 'café coronaries', the name given to the medical emergencies which occur when people choke on large portions of food. One minute they're happily bolting a chunk of steak, which may prove to be the size of a playing card, the next their struggling for their life, showing symptoms which in the panic are often mistaken for an acute heart attack. But today, the main reason for being a Fletcherist is to fight the flab. Countless studies have shown that overweight folk tend to eat more quickly than normal, giving their bodies no time to realise when 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 their need to satisfy their calorie requirements. So, anyone who wants to maintain an optimum body weight, and still enjoy the full range of gastronomic pleasures, should learn to eat more slowly, savouring each mouthful of food and chewing it until is almost reduced to a liquid consistency. Gobbling ruins our health and reduces our enjoyment. If we want to improve our digestion and preserve our youthful figures, we must learn to be gourmets rather than gluttons.

© Donald Norfolk 2011

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