Why Chewing Helps Boost Your Cognitive Function, According to a Movement Expert

Are your chewing muscles doing the equivalent of sitting in a chair all day?

chewing muscles

When choosing what to eat, most people consider the compounds within their food: the calories, fiber, vitamins and minerals, for instance. But there is something else you might want to consider when filling your plate: how much you'll chew. It's not only your arms, legs and abs that need exercise—you have essential body parts in your head and neck that need regular movement too.

And, as it turns out, there's some pretty compelling research pointing to the impressive benefits that come with exercising your head and neck muscles via chewing, from helping you feel fuller for longer to improving your cognitive function and potentially protecting you from neurodegenerative diseases that cause cognitive impairment, like Alzheimer's disease.

Most of us chew daily, be it noshing on a granola bar between meetings or chomping down on chicken come dinnertime—which should be enough to keep those muscles strong ... right? Read on to learn more about why considering the consistency of your food is more important than you think, the connection between chewing and cognitive benefits, plus the tweaks you can make to your diet to work these muscles even more.

Why the Consistency of Your Food Matters

Throughout history, humans have used their entire bodies to gather, grow and prepare food. But the amount of labor most people put into their food has been steadily decreasing over time, and this goes for the movements used to chew our food as well. While the mortar, pestle and mill have been around for a long time, the number of items that mechanically break down food, so you don't have to, have significantly grown. From blenders, grinders, knives, food processors and graters to even the heat from your stove, all break down food for you. Consequently, your jaw muscles have so little to do.

Modern diets have become softer, and even diets made up of "whole" foods have become more processed—not chemically, but mechanically.

Whole carrots, shredded carrots and cooked carrots are all "whole," but they are not actually the same. While they might be equal in dietary nutrients, each requires different work from your jaw: the whole carrot requires big bites and tearing motions, the shredded carrots have been broken down by the grater and take less chewing movement, and the cooked carrots need just a little mashing with your tongue to make them easy to swallow.

When you chew your food, you use many body parts, including your tongue, teeth, jaw bones, skull bones and muscles. And did you know that two of your body's strongest muscles are the ones that move the jaw, called the masseters? Although these muscles are relatively small, they can exert the most pressure of all the skeletal muscles.

Chewing and Brain Health: What's the Link?

The forces created when you chew play a role in how your body works: chewing, ripping, tearing and swallowing stimulate your face and throat muscles and help develop optimal anatomy and function of your jaws, vocal cords … and even your brain. How does chewing support brain function? Likely multiple ways.

According to a 2017 paper published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, chewing helps preserve the part of your brain (the hippocampus) that deals with memory and other cognitive functions by increasing blood flow through your brain. Also, while the exact reasons are unclear, chewing has been long-researched as a stress-reducing behavior. Additionally, the force created when you bite helps increase your brain's neuronal activity, per a 2019 review article in the International Dental Journal.

Maybe you're going out of your way to eat brain-healthy foods, like omega-3-rich ones, but how often and how hard does your jaw work daily? Your chewing muscles might be doing the equivalent of sitting in a chair all day! Make sure you're not missing other opportunities to feed your brain while eating.

How to Feel Your Chewing Anatomy Working

  1. Place your hands on the sides of your jaw and bite down lightly a few times and then a few times again with greater force.
  2. Now move your fingers up to your temples and repeat the process.
  3. Placing your hands just below your ears, slide your jaw to the right and left.
  4. You can feel how the movements that go into chewing work different areas of your face.
  5. Next, place your hands in all these places while you eat a soft food you often have—yogurt, soup or smoothie.

How much muscle use can you feel? Try again, now, with something chewy—jerky, cheese or dried apricots—and again with something crunchy that you have to grind. Can you feel the difference?

How to Exercise Your Jaw Muscles with Food

You can buy jaw exercisers—rubber squares to bite down on repeatedly to help deal with atrophying tissues of the face. But as a food lover, you can also shape your anatomy by what you put on the plate.

Of course, there are times when soft food is warranted—eating with braces, fresh dental work or oral injury. Outside of these times, though, you can approach meal preparation not only to receive the recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals but for your recommended amount of daily movement.

Begin by considering the food movement found in your average day. How many of your calories do you drink versus chew? How soft is your food?

Let your daily meals cross-train your mouth. Certainly, smoothies are handy and full of dietary nutrients, but what about mechanical nutrients?

  • Swap out a liquid meal for its unprocessed counterpart. Rather than pureed tomato soup, try our recipe for Hearty Tomato Soup with Beans & Greens, which has all the flavor of tomato soup, plus—you guessed it—beans and greens.
  • Keep some of the ingredients out of the blender so you can grind them up with your teeth instead. Swap your smoothie for a smoothie bowl and top it with crunchy sliced almonds and coconut flakes, as we do in this Berry-Almond Smoothie Bowl recipe.
  • Eat nuts and not only nut butters. Or turn your favorite nut butter into energy balls by adding some delicious crispy stuff like in our Peanut Butter Energy Balls, which have oats, mini chocolate chips and shredded coconut.
  • Add more texture to your diet simply for the exercise of it—like raw produce, nuts, jerky and dehydrated fruit.
  • Fit your jaw stretches into your day by opening your mouth wide to snack from a whole apple—or any other food that hasn't been pre-cut in a way that keeps you from taking your mouth through its full range of motion.
  • Approach a bowl of greens or shredded cabbage salad as a workout for your face! This Eat-the-Rainbow Chopped Salad with Basil & Mozzarella is a delicious example of such a recipe.

The Bottom Line

You sure want to get the most out of your food—the most flavor, the most nutrition, the best value. Chewing, grinding, tearing and all the other movements that come with eating foods that haven't been mechanically processed for you are yet another way to think about not only eating but eating well. Start working out your chewing muscles today!

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