One of our readers has asked me if there is such a thing as chewing and spitting disorder. There is no such thing. It’s just a behaviour that is common in people with eating problems. I had an au pair once whose waste paper basket was full of half chewed candies and chocolates all hidden in tissue paper. She never knew I knew.
It makes sense. People want tasty food but they are scared to eat it in case it will make them fat. In some cases there is a small craving and in other cases a big craving. They just want the taste of the food to help them feel nice but they don’t want the rest of it. So they spit it out. No calories. Simple.
You can have your cake and eat it too it seems. But it’s not so simple. It seems that the brain needs something called volatiles in food, substances that the back of the nose can smell. When we get a whiff of tasty food that is high in volatile compounds like chocolate and ice cream, the brain gets a hit of opioids like dopamine which make us feel good. Basically, chewing and spitting is like snorting cocaine. The downside is that you can become addicted to it and what seems like a bad habit becomes a compulsion.
For another thing, we do take in lots of calories when we chew food and spit it out. We can get a hefty dose of sugar and fat that clings to the tongue and unwittingly passes into our digestive system. If you chew and spit a box of chocolates you will absorb about a third of it. Better to eat three whole chocolates and put away the rest. But when you have an eating problem, once you start it feels impossible to stop. You are possessed.
Chewing and spitting is particularly common in people with anorexia who struggle with cravings and it is an almost bulimic sort of thing to do. I have found high levels of anxiety and shame in people who do this. They often wonder what people would think of them for spitting out food, they often think they are the only one who does it.
How do we help people to stop? There is a list of things that might help.
- Good nutrition helps reduce cravings and make it less likely that a person will buy and start chomping on food they are afraid to eat.
- Building forbidden food into a normal meal plan, like having some chocolate as part of a meal makes it less forbidden and less desired.
- Teaching someone to eat mindfully, being very present and eating slowly will help stop the habit.
- Helping someone to manage their emotions better will reduce the anxiety that leads to chewing food and spitting it out.
- When someone is spitting something out I often wonder what it is that they are spitting out really. Quite often it is something that they want to say to someone but they are afraid of the consequences. Or they feel they may feel that they do not deserve to have an opinion. Find out what the spitting out might really mean? What are they really rejecting.
- Finally make sure that the person knows that they aren’t the only person spitting food out. And before you rush to try and stop the behaviour, find out what it is doing for the person. Chewing and spitting is sometimes the only way someone knows to get rid of tension and anxiety. Help them to find other ways to do this and the behaviour will eventually stop.