I love stories about quacks who become prophets. Horace Fletcher was known as "The Great Masticator" who said, "Nature will castigate those who don't masticate." More than 100 years ago, in 1913, his book Fletcherism tried to convince people to chew their food to a liquid pulp. He claimed that this would help to control weight and prevent diabetes. He preached:
• Eat only when you have a good appetite
• Chew the food into a pulp and drink that pulp
• Do not swallow solid food
• Drink all liquids sip by sip; do not drink in gulps.
Naturally, doctors laughed at him and treated him like he was a nut. Noted Harvard psychologist William James wrote, "I tried Fletcherism for three months. It nearly killed me." However, several leading magazines including the Ladies Home Journal published his articles claiming that chewing food to a liquid promotes health. He convinced some of the most prominent and intelligent people of that time to adopt "Fletcherism," including Thomas Edison, Henry James, Franz Kafka, Upton Sinclair, John D. Rockefeller, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, J.C. Penny, and physical fitness pioneer Bernarr McFadden. Even John Harvey Kellogg agreed with Fletcher and used extensive chewing as a treatment for patients at his famous Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Wealthy But Not Healthy
Horace Fletcher had earned a lot of money as a San Francisco art dealer. He claimed that in his younger days in Shanghai, China, he was better at running, jumping, wrestling and lifting weights than his classmates, but said that, "At age 40, my hair was white, I weighed 217 pounds (he was only 5'6"), and I was afflicted with that tired feeling." His waist was 15 inches larger than it should have been, and he was 40 percent overweight. He applied for life insurance and was turned down.
He read an article by the British politician, Herbert Gladstone, that humans have 32 teeth and therefore should chew their food at least 32 times. He tried chewing each mouthful 32 times but found that it turned the food into a liquid that tasted so bad that he lost his desire to eat and would stop eating. He lost more than 65 pounds on this regimen, and at the same time followed a weight-lifting program that made him very strong. The Ladies Home Journal article described him at age 60 lifting 300 pounds 350 times with his right leg.
How He Became Famous
Fletcher set up booths in carnivals, challenging all comers to drive a metal ball higher than he could by hitting a plate with a heavy hammer. He was so strong that nobody could beat him at his game. He told everyone who would listen to him that he used to be a sick weakling, and that his great strength came from chewing food to a pulp and never swallowing solid food. He was asked to lecture at the great institutions of his time: Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth. Fletcher societies sprang up all over North America where people got together to Fletcherize, chewing food until their mouths were sore.
In 1907, students at West Point were encouraged to eat vegetarian food and chew it into liquid form. Russell Chittenden, a physiology professor at Yale, wrote a paper on how a group of Fletcherizing vegetarians from Battle Creek, Michigan could hold their arms out longer than Yale student athletes who ate meat. He wrote that chewing meat to a pulp takes so long to turn into a liquid that people are better off avoiding meat and eating just food from plants.
Unfortunately, Fletcher carried his ideas to such extremes that he starved himself to death. First he ate only potatoes, cornbread, and beans and on rare occasions, eggs, milk, and fish balls made mostly from potatoes. He decided that breakfast was unnatural, so he ate only one meal a day. He then decided that humans have to fast several days a week. He felt that hunger was caused by previously overeating. He then decided to spit out all the food that was left after extensive chewing has taken out all the flavor from his food. He then took in only liquid soups and developed extensive tooth decay and massive constipation. At age 69, he was swallowing almost no fiber, so he had no bowel movements and was so constipated that his belly pushed up against his chest to compress his lungs and make him so short of breath that he couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs. He was now in a starvation mode in which he was deficient in essential nutrients that impaired his ability to kill germs and he died of pneumonia in 1919.
He Was Ahead of His Time
The first scientific medical article I found about chewing food and weight loss appeared in 1928, 10 years after Fletcher's death, when Dr. Harold G. O. Hoick of the University of Chicago wrote that chewing food helps people eat less food and lose weight. However, Time Magazine criticized the article as not being scientific enough (Time, September 17, 1928). As late as 1997, medical articles failed to find any advantage to extensive chewing of food (J Hist Dent, Nov, 1997;45(3):95-100).
Then in 2011, 92 years after Fletcher's death, researchers used electromyography to monitor chewing behavior and showed that higher chewing counts reduced food intake despite increasing chewing speed and prolonging meal time (Appetite, Aug, 2011;57(1): 295-298). In that same year, another study showed that the faster you eat, the more you eat and the slower you eat, the less you eat. After you start to eat, there is a significantly delayed response to feeling satiated. People who drink calorie-rich liquids and eat food rapidly without chewing markedly increase calorie intake (Proc Nutr Soc, 2011,70:162–70). In 2015, a review of 17 research papers showed that prolonged chewing significantly reduced hunger and significantly reduced food intake by increasing gut hormones that made people feel full (Physiology & Behavior, November 2015;151(1):88-96)
Today, North Americans are getting fatter and fatter, and suffering an ever-increasing incidence of diabetes. Many doctors and nutritionists try to treat overweight with calorie restriction, which has never been shown to cause permanent weight control. Overweight people who lose weight on commercial weight-loss programs usually regain their lost weight (Annals of Internal Medicine, April, 2015;162(7):501-512), and morbidly obese people who lost spectacular amounts of weight through near-starvation and grueling exercising (The Biggest Loser television program) had regained most of their lost weight three years later (Obesity, May 2, 2016).
A new study from the National Institutes of Health shows that eating processed foods, compared to unprocessed foods, makes you eat more calories per day and gain more weight (Cell Metabolism, May 16, 2019). It takes far more time to chew up unprocessed foods before you swallow them, and eating more slowly usually means you eat less. Subjects in this study ate the processed foods at an average rate of 37 grams and nearly 50 calories per minute, while they ate unprocessed foods at an average rate of 30 grams and 32 calories per minute.
Lessons from Horace Fletcher's Life and Death
Fletcher was an intelligent man who had many creative ideas that were healthful, but he had no understanding of the word moderation. Taking in too many calories can cause obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, certain cancers, and premature death. Scientists now agree with Fletcher that eating slowly helps people to eat less and control weight because it takes a long time for your brain to make you feel satiated so that you stop eating. However, if you do not meet your needs for essential nutrients, you can expect eventually to die because lack of nutrients will impair your immunity, damage tissue to turn on disease-causing inflammation, and prevent your cells from healing.