It is more common than you think
There is no such thing as chewing and spitting disorder. It’s just a behaviour that is not uncommon in people with eating problems. I had a young guest at home once, whose waste paper basket was full of half chewed candies and chocolates all hidden in tissue paper. She never knew I knew. People who have eating issues find it hard to be in an environment where there is tasty food all around. They want it, they want the feel of it and the ownership of it. 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. It feels like a mouth hunger and just a taste will help them to cope with the cravings, but they don’t want the rest of it. So they spit it out. No calories. Simple.
Chewing and spitting has an effect on the brain that you don’t realise is happening. Some foods like chocolate and ice cream which melt in the mouth are high in volatiles, these are substances that are released in the warmth of our mouth and they float around in the air. When the back of your nose gets the volatiles in food, the brain gets a hit of opioids like dopamine which make you feel good and a little more relaxed. Basically, chewing and spitting is not unlike snorting cocaine. The downside is that you can become addicted to it and what seems like a bad habit becomes a compulsion.
Why do People do it?
Someone once told me that the reasons for chewing and spitting are simple – it is just a way to avoid gaining weight? That is not the full story, the psychology of chewing and spitting is more complex.
People who are vulnerable to developing any compulsion are likely to be sensitive and anxious. They need something handy to calm them down when life feels tough. They may believe that chewing food and spitting it out will not cause harm, but there is a risk that they take in more calories than they think. They often swallow without realising it, and they may get a hefty dose of sugar and fat that clings to the tongue and unwittingly passes into the digestive system. Chewing and spitting out a box of chocolates could absorb about a third of the calories in the box. It would be 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 common among people who eat compulsively and also do not allow themselves to eat their favourite foods in small amounts. They feel ashamed of what they are doing and often don’t confess to doing it even if they keep a food diary for their therapist. Many spitters think that they are the only people to do it.
The Psychology of Spitting
I have written in my 2022 blog about Dr Adam Kay, some of the reasons why people might chew and spit out food. It is not just as simple as preventing weight gain. It might begin as a simple solution to needing to have your cake but not have to pay the cost of it. It can (as in Dr Kay’s case) be a useful alternative to bulimia. You might like to return to my blog to see some of the thoughts I have about why some people cant stop chewing and spitting and why they might not want to stop.
How to Stop Chewing and Spitting
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.
How to get help
Help is available from people who understand. Having a secret stops you from living your life to the full. Call 0845 838 2040 and we will talk to you in confidence.