I’ve never been a great fan of chewing gum – especially when I glimpse it wandering around an open mouth or, worse, it litters the sidewalk and sticks to my shoe. In the privacy of your own home, the occasional stick of gum isn’t a big deal, and the occasional indulgence may even offer some benefits, although given the choice I’d much rather enjoy the health benefits of dark chocolate.
Natural resins and gums have been chewed for millennia as a form of traditional medicine. Mastic gum, for example, from pistachio-like trees on the Greek island of Chios, has powerful antiseptic actions – even against some antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
This ancient medicinal use is echoed in modern nicotine gums used to help smokers quit. More holistic versions deliver ingredients such as propolis and guarana, but most chewing gums largely consist of synthetic rubber, impregnated with flavourings and artificial sweeteners to provide a taste bud ‘hit’.
Some people chew gum to freshen their breath, to relieve boredom and stress, or simply because they find the experience pleasant. Others chew gum in the belief that it suppresses appetite and can help with weight loss, although the evidence that it works is not that impressive.
Chewing Gum: The Good and The Bad
Can Chewing Gum Help You Lose Weight?
Chewing gum is widely believed to reduce appetite, sugar cravings and to help discourage snacking. The action of chewing is thought to signal the brain that you have eaten, and may also stimulate the secretion of gut hormones that increase satiety, but results are inconclusive.
Some studies show that after a good lunch, chewing gum for 15 minutes, every hour, reduces hunger and the desire to eat a sweet snack three hours later. As a result, in one study, gum chewers ate 36 kcals less during their mid-afternoon snack than those who did not chew gum.[i]
Other studies showed no difference in appetite and food intake when volunteers chewed gum after lunch, or when hungry, compared to when they did not chew gum, however.[ii] Worrying, chewing mint-flavoured gum may even reduce intakes of fruit and reduce diet quality as a result. [iii]
All that gum chewing could, of course, help you shift more calories as your jaw muscles burn glucose and fat for fuel. When 30 volunteers chewed sugar-free gum for an hour (3 sessions of 20 min each) their metabolic rate increased to 1.23 kcal/min compared with 1.17 kcal/min on a day when they did not chew gum. [iv] Not that much difference, really.
To prove once and for all whether chewing gum might aid weight loss, a randomised controlled trial involving 201 overweight and obese adults was carried out. All participants were given diet sheets on good nutrition, and half the group were also asked to chew gum for a minimum of 90 minutes per day.
Surprisingly, there were virtually no changes in weight in EITHER group over the 8 week study period! The researchers were forced to conclude that chewing gum on a regular schedule, for 8 weeks, did not offer any weight loss benefits. [v]
All that chewing hardly seems worth the effort! You would burn a lot more energy and lose more weight by taking a brisk walk every day – although you could multitask and perform both activities together.
I suspect you’d do a lot better taking a green coffee bean extract instead.
Benefits of A Good Chew
Chewing is one of the first stages of digestion. Paired muscles of mastication move your jaw back and forth, up and down, and from side to side, to grind food between the back molars like a pestle and mortar.
This chewing stimulates the flow of saliva and sends signals to your digestive tract that start the release of stomach acid and enzymes. It also helps stimulate bowel movements in readiness to receive food.
If you skimp on chewing and bolt down your food, you are more likely to develop symptoms of bloating and indigestion – especially if you habitually swallow air, too. That’s why we are often advised to chew each mouthful at least 20 – and preferably 30 times, before swallowing. But that’s not the same as chewing gum for 15 minutes or more at a time.
Chewing Gum Can Trigger Jaw Pain
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) between your jawbone and skull contains a disc of cartilage which gives your jaw an amazing ability to glide from side to side and to protrude forwards and backwards during chewing and grinding.
The disc moves with the jawbone to cushion it and can become displaced forwards to cause clicking or popping sensations. This can form part of TMJ syndrome, along with other symptoms such as a headache, tender jaw muscles, aching and sometimes difficulty opening the mouth.
TMJ syndrome is sometimes linked with clenching and grinding your teeth at night, and with chewing gum during the day. Not surprisingly, the prolonged and intensive chewing of gum can increase the risk of developing TMJ syndrome, and the longer the duration of gum chewing, the greater the risk.[vi]
Chewing Gum Can Trigger a Headache
Excessive gum chewing is a newly recognised cause of a chronic headache in children and adolescents. When 30 teenagers with migraine-like headaches were asked to stop chewing gum for a month, 26 reported significant improvement in their headaches and 19 experienced a full ‘cure’. When the habit was reintroduced, however, their headaches recurred within days. [vii]
If you chew gum and experience headaches, stop the gum habit to see if your headaches improve.
Chewing Gum Makes You Belch
Gum chewing increases salivary flow and the reflex swallowing of air. If these gulps of air reach the stomach, they accumulate and are naturally vented upwards as a ‘gastric belch’.
If you are plagued by embarrassing ‘wind’, you might want to give chewing gum a miss.
Does Chewing Gum Protect Against Tooth Decay?
By stimulating the flow of saliva, chewing gum helps to flush away acids produced by plaque bacteria. Xylitol, a sweetener that’s commonly used in gum, also suppresses the growth of mouth bacteria (Streptococcus mutans) and may protect against dental decay.[ix]
Good news, surely? But the benefits against inflamed gums (gingivitis) are only seen in the absence of good dental hygiene. In people who brush their teeth regularly – which no doubt includes everyone reading this – chewing gum does not offer any additional benefits in terms of reducing gum bleeding and plaque scores.[x]
Excess xylitol, like other sugar alcohols (eg sucralose, sorbitol) can also have a laxative effect – not always a bad thing, but some people are unusually sensitive to this effect.
And then there’s the danger that chewing gum might dislodge loose fillings and crowns – definitely avoid the habit if you need to visit the dentist.
Chewing Gum Enhances Concentration – or Does It?
Some studies suggest that chewing gum can boost alertness, quicken reaction times, improve productivity and help you concentrate for longer – at least under laboratory conditions.[xi]
This effect may partly result from the stimulating effects of peppermint flavourings and, in some cases, the addition of a caffeine source such as guarana. But what happens when the flavourings dissipate and you are left chewing a bland piece of synthetic rubber?
There is a concern that the monotonous action of prolonged, automatous chewing might lull you into a false sense of security. A study in which volunteers were wired up for EEG brainwave recordings showed that, when they chewed gum, they had a significantly reduced stress response to loud, unpleasant noises than when they weren’t chewing gum.[xii]
Other researchers have also found that chewing gum can impair short-term memory by reducing the ability to process sequences.[xiii]
Chewing Gum and Surgery
The fact that chewing stimulates the gut has led surgeons to prescribe chewing gum to treat the intestinal paralysis that can occur following surgery to remove part of the large bowel.
The results of 26 trials, involving over 2200 patients suggests that chewing gum shortens the time to ‘first flatus’ (the posh term for farting) by over twelve hours, shortens the time to first bowel movement by 17 hours and reduces the stay in hospital by around one day, compared with standard non-chewing post-operative treatments.[xiv]
Pretty impressive results. But if you chew gum immediately before a general anaesthetic, you could find your op gets postponed. Pre-operative fasting is important to ensure you have an empty stomach before many surgical procedures, partly to avoid the risk of inhaling stomach acid into the lungs if the anaesthetic makes you sick.
Patients who are advised to fast before an operation may not class chewing gum as food or drink, and may indulge in a stick or two to help overcome a dry mouth. Several incidences have occurred in which surgery was postponed or even cancelled as a result.[xv]
Chewing gum has even been found in the mouth of anaesthetised patients, which could – in extreme cases – lead to death from blocking the airway or ventilation equipment. Don’t do it!
Is Swallowing Gum Bad For You?
Apocryphal stories suggest that swallowing gum can block your intestines, but I cannot find any case reports in the medical literature to confirm this has ever happened. In any case, you would have to eat a lot for that to happen – and would probably have to already have constipation issues, too.
Chewing gum is designed to be disposed of in the bin, but swallowing the odd piece is unlikely to cause any harm. It will simply pass through your intestines, unchanged, until it ‘pops’ out the other end.
As children have a narrower intestinal tract, they should be discouraged from swallowing gum – and ideally should avoid it altogether. Otherwise, they could get used to the ‘comfort’ of something in their mouth which might encourage over–eating in the future. Children who chew gum are also more prone to chronic headaches.
What Are The Alternatives?
If you want to chew gum:
- Check labels so you know exactly what you’re ingesting.
- Avoid products that contain sugar – xylitol is the best tooth-friendly sweetener.
- Don’t chew non-stop for hours at a time – once the flavour is gone, dispose of the gum thoughtfully (wrap in paper and place in a bin).
If you choose to avoid chewing gum, what can you use instead to obtain some of the benefits without the downsides?
- Relieve a dry mouth with artificial saliva spray.
- Chew fresh mint or parsley leaves to freshen your breath.
- Try chewing mastic gum which is traditionally used to maintain healthy digestion, and which may have beneficial effects against inflammation, metabolic syndrome, raised cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.