We need to talk about chewing and spitting (C and S)
*Content warning: The following article includes references to eating disorders and disordered behaviour in connection to food.
Chewing and spitting (C and S) is a shameful secret sadly suffered by many people with eating disorders. As the name suggests, you chew your food, then spit it out – the aim being to enjoy the taste without the calorie cost, as food is not swallowed. Forbidden foods are the preferential choice, as the behaviour is rooted in restrictive eating behaviour. C and S does not discriminate and can be seen across all eating disorder diagnoses.
It’s a tricky topic to write about and potentially a trigger to read, but it’s a topic that I feel needs a conversation and awareness.
Increasing numbers of clients mention this behaviour and desperate queries slip into my DMs, as people ask for information about stopping and query whether they are alone in their struggles.
Chewing and spitting brings a deep level of shame and isolation to the sufferer.
Initially, when chewing and spitting, it may feel that you’ve found the answer. Surely, it’s a way to eat all the delicious, deprived foods but without fear of weight gain? But, this is far from the truth of the matter. It can wreak destruction on your physical and mental well-being.
The costs of chewing and spitting
A frequent outcome from C and S is the impact on digestion. Your stomach produces acid in anticipation of receiving food that never arrives to be digested. This can lead to painful cramps and bloating. It can lead to ulcers and acid reflux.
The food of choice for C and S tends to be high sugary foods or the palatable foods that you may normally deny yourself. In large and frequent quantities, these foods can wreak havoc on teeth and cause dental cavities and gum disease.
3. Weight gain
You may gain weight from C and S, as some food is still swallowed and absorbed, despite best efforts to the contrary. Research also suggests that C and S tends to lead to overeating later in the days, as your body is confused and hungry.
Chewing tasty food can deliver an opioid hit to the brain, bringing a feeling of reward. This can make C and S an addictive behaviour that feels incredibly hard to stop.
5. Mental well-being
If you’re not convinced by the injurious physical impacts of C and S on the body, then the emotional impact is colossal. People with C and S experience intense embarrassment, shame and loneliness in dealing with the behaviour. It creeps into daily life as a secret obsession, that infiltrates and taints experiences.
Working to stop C and S
You can recover from C and S behaviours, although you may need to seek professional support in doing this.
Here are some thoughts to help:
1. The costs
To improve motivation for change, it is vital to engage emotionally with the costs of this behaviour. Short-term you are getting some reward, as it offers pleasure, soothing, escape and a dopamine hit.
However, begin to connect emotionally with how it is not helping you. This is not to chastise yourself, as you absolutely need compassion but to develop a different relationship with the behaviour.
2. No restriction
If you find yourself engaging in C and S behaviours, you will likely be restricting your eating (by not eating enough) or depriving yourself of the foods that you genuinely enjoy.
You need to work on allowing yourself to eat enough food and to gently introduce your old forbidden foods, in a non-C and S sitting. You might need to get support from a dietitian or therapist in doing this.
C and S can be experienced as a numb frenzy, where food is not tasted or savoured. Sitting down at table, eating slowly and allowing yourself to appreciate and engage with non-C and S eating experiences can be valuable.
Unexpressed feelings will be bubbling under C and S, although you may not realise this. C and S can be used (as with other compulsions) to release pressure and let off emotional steam. Reconnecting with your emotions and practising deeper self-awareness will help with this. Other healthier coping strategies can then be implemented.
Interestingly, my experience to date shows that people struggling with C and S tend to lean towards clinical perfectionism. The pressure to be perfect and achieve is compelling and it leaves a wide chasm between the self shown to the world and the authentic inner-person.
C and S seems to be a relief vent against this relentless perfection and almost an unconscious outcry against the pressures associated with this. Practising self-compassion and reducing perfectionism can significantly help.
If you are struggling with C and S, you are not alone. You may wish to consider getting further support through counselling.
This article was written by Harriet Frew.