Elephants do not replace deciduous teeth once with permanent teeth as most mammals, but replace a single cheek tooth per jaw-side five times in their lives in a process called molar progression. While this gradual process has been well-documented for the purpose of age determination, a less-considered possible side effect of this progression is that functional chewing surface fluctuates, being larger when two cheek teeth are both partially in use and smaller when only one cheek tooth is used fully. We found that body mass of both breeding and non-breeding female zoo elephants (Elephas maximus, Loxodonta africana) shows a cyclic undulation with peaks separated by many years, which is therefore unrelated to reproduction or annual seasonality. We propose variation in functional chewing surface, resulting chewing efficiency, and resulting increased food intake and/or digestive efficiency as the underlying cause. As elephants reproduce all year-round and thus are not synchronized in their molar progression pattern, climate-related fluctuations in resource availability are likely to mask this pattern in free-ranging animals. In contrast, it emerges under the comparatively constant zoo conditions, and illustrates the relevance of the dental apparatus for herbivorous mammals. The combination of variable chewing efficiency and resource availability in free-ranging elephants may render these species particularly prone to reported inter-individual fitness differences.