The Eating Disorder No One Ever Talks About

Content warning: This article discusses eating disorders and suicidal ideation in a way that some readers may find triggering.
This article was originally published in June 2016.
It’s exactly what it sounds like. "Chewing and spitting" — occasionally known as "c/s" to sufferers and "CHSP" to psychologists — is a disordered eating behaviour in which individuals chew up and then spit out their food in an effort to lose weight. But it’s so much more than that. It’s hundreds of dollars spent on snacks to binge-chew. It’s the crippling guilt of wasted food. It’s swollen jaws, rotten teeth and stomach ulcers. It’s as real and as serious as bulimia and anorexia nervosa. But, unlike these more common disordered behaviours, it is rarely talked about.
"A possible reason for this is that the behaviour is not socially acceptable," Dr. Kathryn Kinmond, a senior lecturer from the Health, Rehabilitation and Psychology centre at Manchester Metropolitan University, told Refinery29 over email. CHSP is not referenced anywhere near as often as anorexia or bulimia in films and TV shows, there are no celebrities associated with it, and it often doesn’t result in pictures shocking enough for the tabloids. Most importantly, it’s harder for professionals to study, because, as Dr. Kinmond noted: "It is largely a hidden disorder, in that people are not hospitalised for chewing and spitting."
In 1988, psychiatrists at Minnesota Medical School first examined chewing and spitting as a clinical feature of bulimia. Since then, a variety of studies have found that people living with anorexia, especially those with the most severe cases of the disease, also engage in the behaviour. But even though 24.5% of eating disorder sufferers have been found to chew and spit, it was called a "neglected symptom" in the International Journal of Eating Disorders as recently as 2006.
Up until 2013, chewing and spitting was featured as a symptom of Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. One example of EDNOS behaviour in the DSM-IV was "repeatedly chewing and spitting out, but not swallowing, large amounts of food." However, EDNOS was replaced by "Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder" (OSFED) in the DSM-V, and there is now no mention of CHSP at all. Health professionals continue to consider CHSP a symptom, despite the fact that online comments show that some people only chew and spit, and do not appear to also have anorexia or bulimia.

One day, I just thought, 'What if I just don’t swallow my food?'

In fact, if it weren’t for the internet, getting a sense of the scale of the problem would be nearly impossible, as it has not been covered much in the mainstream media. A quick Google search of "chewing and spitting" shows that many of the results are blogs and forums from the many sufferers desperate to feel less alone. These stories shed light on the reality of a problem that doctors and the media have neglected.
"I was bulimic for five or six years," Hannah*, who had previously posted about her chewing and spitting problem on Reddit, told me. "One day, I just thought, What if I just don’t swallow my food? The guilt after the act was still there, I was being so wasteful, but I couldn’t really stop doing it. In a vain attempt to make myself feel less wasteful, sometimes I’d collect it and put it outside for the birds. Gross, I know."
Hannah is one of three women who agreed to speak to me about their chewing and spitting when I reached out to them after finding their posts on forums. All three women are young (between 18 and 24), suffer from body image issues, and wish to remain anonymous. This desire for anonymity sheds light on one of the most pervasive and crippling aspects of CHSP: the shame.
"When I first had a problem, I was so ashamed that I didn't tell anyone," a 21-year-old intern at a financial institute — who wishes to be identified as L — told me. Like the online commenters mentioned above, L only suffers from CHSP, and does not have any other disordered eating habits.
"It's not something easily recognisable or serious like anorexia or bulimia. To me, it was just a weird and gross habit that I would have to explain to whoever I told," she said.

I can’t recall the last day where I didn’t chew and spit at all. I will constantly walk away from what I’m doing to do this. Some days, it could take up hours of my time.

Despite the accompanying feelings of shame, each woman I've spoken to described the same thing: They find chewing and spitting highly addictive.
"I would absolutely 100% consider it an addiction," said Frances*, a full-time student, who has been chewing and spitting for two years. "I can’t recall the last day where I didn’t chew and spit at all. I will constantly walk away from what I’m doing to do this. Some days, it could take up hours of my time."
As for Dr. Kinmond, she said that there is potential in any behaviour for addiction, and she noted that CHSP could be considered a form of self-harm. But scientifically, there is an additional argument for CHSP being addictive. Writing on her personal blog, molecular neuroscientist and science writer Shelly Fan explained one study that found chewing and spitting causes an increase in ghrelin, a hormone that promotes hunger. "It is conceivable that chew-and-spit may increase hunger levels in AN [anorexia nervosa] patients, leading to feelings of a lack of control over eating," she wrote. "This may counteract the patients’ rigid control over food intake and promote more chewing and spitting (or binge eating), resulting in a downward spiral."
Similarly, CHSP can also become a compulsion for an individual suffering from OCD. Dr. Kimberley Quinlan, a therapist who specialises in co-existing eating and anxiety disorders, explained how to tell the difference.

I get extremely anxious when I go out with other people, because I know I can’t get away with this behaviour.

"The content of the obsessions is the most clinically correct way to differentiate between the two," she told me over email. "If someone is compulsively chewing and spitting to control or reduce a fear related to body weight or body image, it is almost always an eating disorder." She went on to say that, for those with OCD, chewing and spitting is unrelated to body size, but is instead done for a variety of reasons, such as an attempt to neutralise intrusive thoughts or a fear of food making the person unwell. "The behaviours might look very similar, but the fear behind them is very different," she said.
Addiction and compulsion aren’t the only harmful side effects of CHSP. Most of the women I talked to "figured out" chewing and spitting on their own, because they erroneously assumed that it would allow them to taste and enjoy food without any "negative" consequences.
And physical effects aren't uncommon, either. Hannah said that CHSP sessions made her vision "go white" and her body feel weak and lightheaded. Other side effects reported by those I talked to include stomach and mouth ulcers, swelling of the jaw from the repeated chewing motion, and a build-up of gas.
Hannah, Frances, and L noticed negative social and psychological consequences, too. Each said they spend too much time and money on the habit. "I spend up to $10 a day on it," said Frances. "I get extremely anxious when I go out with other people, because I know I can’t get away with this behaviour. I used to be very outgoing and always wanted to go out, and now I am much more withdrawn, and would rather be alone so that I can chew and spit at times." L said that the compulsion to CHSP distracts her both at work and during the middle of assignments, while Hannah said it puts her "in a suicidal state," because of the feelings of guilt tied up with it.
Dr. Kinmond explains, "Arguably, there may be people engaging in this behaviour who either do not see it as a problem, or do see it as a problem but do not know where to go for help."
Ultimately, if people are to be able to seek treatment for CHSP, we need to improve our understanding of it as a disorder — which means we need to start talking about it more.
*Names have been changed as interviewees wished to stay anonymous.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with disordered eating, please contact the Butterfly Foundation at 1800 33 4673. Support and information are available 7 days a week.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact Lifeline (131 114) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636) for help and support. For immediate assistance, please call 000.

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