Mastication or Castigation

Chewing and chewing

“Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate.” How’s that for a catchy slogan? It was created by dietician Horace Fletcher, one of those historical crackpots who turned out to be right about a few things. In other words, yesterday’s weirdos sometimes turn up being called visionaries today.

We do not mean to imply that Fletcher was universally scorned as a nutcase in his own era. Good heavens, no. He was in fact an earlier version of so many current media characters who became prominent in the public imagination by performing astonishing personal transformations. At age 40 he was a mess, 50 pounds overweight and feeling like an old man. At 50, he took a 250-mile bicycle ride over rough terrain. At 58, he reportedly outperformed strapping young Yale University athletes in tests of endurance and strength.

He published books and traveled the lecture circuit, became wealthy, and bought a nice house in Europe. The fans inspired by his philosophy were among the great and famous of his time — John D. Rockefeller, Henry James, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Franz Kafka.

And of what did the Fletcher philosophy consist? He fervently believed in chewing each bit of food slowly and thoroughly, at least 32 times. Depending on the type of food, as many as 100 chews might be desirable.

Blogger Wendy Wallace says:

Honestly, that is a lot of chewing. But the point is to taste your food (and maybe help your digestion while you’re at it!). I’m the first to admit if something tastes great, my mouth gets real excited and gobble-gobble-gobble gets going in there, mixed with a little of more-more-more. But Fletcher would say, slow down, notice the favors, savor this nourishment, and enjoy.

Fletcher was even friends with another nutritionist who perhaps should have been a rival. He told people not to eat high-fiber foods, but his colleague Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was a huge proponent of fiber, and invented corn flakes so people would eat more of it.

One of Fletcher’s beliefs was that complete chewing would help the body become stronger while, paradoxically, reducing the total amount of food consumed. He figured that the average person routinely ate about twice as much as he or she actually needed. Another side effect was the reduced incidence of intestinal gas.

His principle was said to benefit not just those who wished to lose fat, but the frail and underweight people who were trying to bulk up. Later followers theorized that complete chewing raised the blood sugar level sooner, so the person would stop feeling hunger. And for the too-thin, the rigorous mastication made it easier for the body to accept and use the calories of nourishment it was getting.

His method was known as “fletcherizing,” and the word even acquired some of the rich layers of meaning for which the English language is so admired. At least one contemporary writer used “fletcherize” as a synonym for mentally reflecting on something very thoroughly, in great detail, and the reading public knew exactly what was meant.

Government Consulting

In a recent Slate article, Mary Roach reports how in 1912 a U.S. Senator tried to get Fletcher’s system officially adopted by a National Department of Health, which would be created to support it. A Yale scientist named Russell Chittenden took up the Fletcher system and calculated that the current government nutrition charts were in error, because by fletcherizing, a person could thrive on two-third the calories and one-half the protein currently recommended. Roach says:

Though the claims were roughly critiqued and largely dismissed by other scientists, they struck a chord with victualers: military officers and others whose jobs entailed feeding hungry hordes on limited budgets. In the United States and Europe, administrators at workhouses, prisons, and schools flirted with Fletcherism. The U.S. Army Medical Department issued formal instructions for a ‘Method of Attaining Economic Assimilation of Nutriment’ — aka the Fletcher system.

Together, he and Chittenden did their best to convince Hoover to make Fletcherism part of U.S. economic policy, thereby justifying a two-thirds reduction in the amount of civilian rations shipped overseas. Hoover sagely resisted.

The basic notion, of a way to help people make the best use of scarce resources, really was well intentioned. But it was not the best time and place to advance the Fletcher theory. The U.S. would just look like it was being chintzy to war refugees and its own brave soldiers. The Fletcher system went out of style, and became one of those bywords for superannuated foolishness, the stuff people used to believe in the old days before we had science.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Word of the Day..or of December: Fletcherize,”, 12/10/10
Source: “How Many Times Should You Chew Your Food?,”, 04/10/13
Image by infowidget.

4 Responses

  1. Stopping to slow down and savor your food… it’s a message that should come back in style! I wonder how today’s jam-packed schedules and rushing here and there (and the fast eating that results from it) impacts obesity. I’ll bet it is one of the “perfect storm” elements.

    1. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that a lot of people’s digestive miseries are self-imposed from eating too fast and not chewing.

  2. While waiting for my car to be fixed, I was sitting in a restaurant and slowly eating my meal, as always because I chew my food thoroughly, I began unintrusively watching people eat and counted the seconds – yes, seconds – between bites. Interestingly, on obese people, they placed food in their mouths every three seconds. There is no way they have any chewing time, they are swallowing their food whole. I am a firm believer in chewing food thoroughly, and I do believe there is a correlation between chewing (or not) and obesity.

    1. Hi Linda,

      Thanks for that observation. When you believe in the importance of thorough chewing, you’re certainly not alone!

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