Chewing & Spitting: The Hidden Eating Disorder Behavior

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Ask anyone to name eating disorders, and you’ll likely get the same responses. Anorexia, bulimia, and even binge eating disorder (BED) is turning into a household phrase now. Orthorexia, or eating so-called “clean and healthy” to an obsessive and dangerous degree, is also getting much-needed attention lately. Not everyone knows what each of these eating disorders (EDs) fully entails, but they have a general idea. For example, many people don’t know that bulimia isn’t just bingeing and purging (or just purging). That’s a well-known and unfortunately common form of bulimia, but bulimia can be just about any method of “reversing” what the person perceives as “too much food.” Exercise-induced bulimia, which involves working out intensely after eating to get rid of those calories, is sadly an increasingly common form of bulimia.

Plus, many people with eating disorders don’t rigidly stick to “just one.” There’s a lot of overlap, sometimes more than others.

But what about chewing and spitting? Psychologists call it CHSP and it’s a behavior that many people with various types of eating disorders adopt. You’ll unfortunately find patients diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia and BED reporting CHSP along with other behaviors. Even though CHSP is not a separate eating disorder, but a behavior, it’s a very dangerous one—and one that’s often ignored.

Why We Don’t Talk About It

More well-known behaviors of eating disorders, such as severe food restriction, exercising excessively, purging and binge eating, are relatively easy to hide (the key word here is relative). Anoretics are pros at making excuses to avoid social situations that involve eating, either not attending an event at all or coming late after the meal is finished. Those who purge excuse themselves to the restroom. It’s considered a good thing to hit the gym, so exercise-induced bulimia and orthorexia isn’t just “safe” to do in public but is even encouraged. Binge eating can be done in private, blamed on drinking, and in some cases encouraged in certain social groups, too. Most of us have been in a group/party environment where overeating is urged and embraced (otherwise, six-foot party subs wouldn’t exist!).

But chewing and spitting? Unless a person solely does this in private, it’s definitely not socially acceptable.

Or is it?

My CHSP Experience

The first time I chewed and spit, I was nine years old. I had watched and listened to my mother tackle diet after diet my entire life. She would starve, go on liquid diets, and pop diet pills. She didn’t flatout tell me she was anoretic in her teens and 20s until I was well into my 30s. Remember: Many studies link eating disorders to genetics in addition to many other factors.

I even remember the food I chewed and spat—some Reese’s Peanut Buttercups. It didn’t really work. Your mouth, your taste buds, and your tongue all want you to swallow food. It’s a very basic, innate and animalistic process. It tastes good! And different parts of your mouth taste and feel food in different ways, which encourages that sustenance to keep going down your throat.

I didn’t start chewing and spitting again until I was deep into my ED in my early 30s. This time, it “worked.”

However, I didn’t know at the time that it was a routine behavior ED specialists see all the time. I didn’t quite think it was a “secret,” but I did think I had stumbled across a cheat not many others had discovered. Yes, I obsessed over how many calories accidentally snuck down my throat with the saliva, and like many with CHSP I began to become an expert on which foods are easiest to chew and spit and which ones were “dangerous.” The better a food stuck together, became gummy, and didn’t melt, the better it was for chewing and spitting.

Then I watched the documentary Thin and discovered I was far from alone. One of the young girls in an inpatient program regularly practiced CHSP with her mom, recalling buying numerous bags of candy while they chewed and spat side by side watching TV.

Is CHSP Trending?

My husband, far from an expert in ED, “encourages” CHSP when he thinks there’s no other choice in lieu of restriction and exercise-induced bulimia. I suppose I can see his side, although he’d love for me to have a normal, healthy relationship with food (and myself). Maybe he thinks the taste of food will get me to swallow, or maybe he just wants me to experience some portion of food joy in life. CHSP is one of the toughest struggles of my own recovery, nearly as nefarious as restriction.

And the thing is? I think it’s becoming socially acceptable.

Chewed Up and Spat Out

It should be embarrassing and shameful to chew and spit in public, right? If you see someone spit out their food, you assume there’s something wrong with it! However, when we were preparing for our wedding, one of the hardest parts for me was the catering. The tastings, to be specific. Once, we brought two friends with us (an engaged couple) to sample one of the vendors. My then-fiancé whispered to me, “Why don’t you do your thing?” He wanted me to be a part of this process, our process, our wedding planning, and actually taste the food.

“What thing?” asked our friends, and I was cornered. I told them, brushing it off. They encouraged me, too, because they wanted the same thing as my fiancé. They wanted me to be a part of one of the biggest events of my life. Of course, I also had the perfect social excuse. What bride doesn’t diet extremely for her wedding? The months leading up to the wedding were filled with socially valid excuses to starve myself and soothe anorexia.

When I chewed and spit what would be featured at our wedding, our friends were in awe. They told me I had such willpower, and that they wished so much they “could do that, too.”

CHSP, disordered eating, and eating disorders are nothing to strive towards. They don’t optimize your health, they destroy it. It’s these tools, these tricks, that we’re encouraged to lean on to fit into a very warped idea of beauty. The notion that they might be trending isn’t just shocking and heartbreaking, but indicative of a culture we’re not just victims of but helping to sustain.

(Photo: Personal. The end result of that fateful chew and spit tasting: Gourmet peanut butter sandwiches at our wedding from PBJs Grilled in Portland, Ore.).

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