Understanding the Chew and Spit Eating Disorder

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In addition to anorexia and bulimia, a lesser-known eating disorder is called chewing and spitting. This behavior consists of chewing a highly palatable and energy-dense food and spitting it out instead of swallowing it.

The intent of chewing and spitting is to enjoy food’s flavor without ingesting calories. Chewing and spitting is similar to bingeing because it involves large quantities of high-calorie foods. It also shares elements of restrictive eating because the food is not actually consumed.

Chewing and Spitting in the DSM-5

Initially, spitting was thought of as an alternative to purging. Therefore, the behavior was primarily studied in individuals with bulimia nervosa. In the prior version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), chewing and spitting was listed as a potential symptom of eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS).

The diagnosis of EDNOS was replaced with the category of other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED) in the DSM-5. However, the DSM-5 does not list chewing and spitting under any single disorder because this behavior may occur across other eating disorder diagnoses.

Chewing and spitting can be seen in patients diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or other specified eating disorders.

Potential Causes

Eating disorders can impact people from all different walks of life. Research shows that those with a family history of eating disorders are more likely to develop them, but genetics don't always play a role.

A preoccupation with body image and a desire for control are commonly associated with eating disorders, like chewing and spitting. Other mental disorders like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, or drug abuse may also accompany disordered eating habits, along with more severe symptoms—including suicidal ideation.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Medical Consequences

While it might seem like a relatively benign habit when compared to other disordered behaviors like vomiting, the physical consequences of chewing and spitting can be serious. Some of the health effects of chewing and spitting include:

  • Dental problems: Cavities and gum disease result when teeth are exposed to frequent contact with sugary foods.
  • Stomach issues: The production of stomach acid is triggered by chewing but then no food is made available for digestion. This could potentially lead to ulcers or acid reflux.
  • Weight gain: This is a surprising side-effect of chewing and spitting behavior which researchers suspect relates to overeating later in the day.

Patients should see a medical doctor and a dentist to discuss potential treatment options for gastrointestinal, hormonal, and dental issues. Proper mental health support can help reduce further physical and emotional damage.

Diagnosis and Treatment

The shame and stigma associated with chewing and swallowing can be a barrier to seeking treatment. As with other eating disorders, psychotherapy and nutritional counseling can help. Diagnosing an eating disorder requires a health professional to assess the following factors:

  • Body image questions, including thoughts and perceptions about food and other possible eating disorder symptoms (like bingeing or misuse of laxatives)
  • Current eating habits, the quantity and variety of foods eaten, meal patterns
  • Medical history, including any substance abuse, mental health issues, current medications, and weight changes
  • Other lifestyle factors, exercise habits menstrual cycle, and stress levels

Several approaches to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be used to address eating disorders. These include goals like learning to accept and commit to therapy, addressing distorted body image issues, developing skills to handle triggers, and understanding the root cause of the behavior.

The CBT strategies that are used to address chewing and spitting behaviors are similar to those used with other eating disorders. The strategies are focused on challenging a person's irrational thoughts involving fear of food, fear of weight gain, and body image concerns.

Advice for Family Members

If a loved one is displays signs of an eating disorder, it's helpful to understand which behaviors they are engaging in. You may notice certain symptoms such as:

  • Discolored or stained teeth
  • Excessive and rigid exercise behaviors
  • Fear of eating in public or with others
  • Preoccupation with weight and dieting
  • Unusual disappearance of food from the pantry
  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide appearance
  • Weight changes

Chewing and spitting may be a symptom of a larger eating disorder. Speak to your loved one about your concerns and encourage them to accept help from a qualified professional. Avoid providing criticism or judgment, and instead, focus on showing them how much you care about their well-being.

A Word From Verywell

Chewing and spitting may not seem like a big deal, but it's a sign of having a dysfunctional relationship with food. If you or someone you care about is chewing and spitting it's best to seek treatment before the behavior continues to progress. There are ways to find peace with food and body image. Sometimes, we just need a little extra help and support to start moving in the right direction.

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Article Sources
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