In 50s Now, Still Unable to End Chewing and Spitting Addiction

By December 10, 2012

I began the behavior of chewing and spitting food when I was 13. I just created the behavior one day after making a batch of brownies. It’s not something I ever heard of or discussed with anyone. It was just my secret that I didn’t think anyone else did (until the last five – ten years). I was a very pained girl at the time having just experienced a dramatic move as well as being abused since a little girl. I was never overweight but always had a focus and distorted image of my body. I went through my teens addicted to diet pills and constantly watching what I ate but always having the behavior of chewing and spitting to fall back on. I have been on every diet, done practically all types of therapy and still have not been able to end this addiction. I am fully aware and conscious of the reasons that lead to this disordered eating yet in my early fifties I’m concerned that this addiction will be with me for life. I don’t want to believe that but it’s become such a strong habit and coping mechanism. I also know there is no one size fits all type of cure for eating disorders, but I would like to know of treatments that have been successful for this specific type of eating disorder. – anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

I really appreciate your openness and desire to make changes. I too am in my 50’s and believe strongly that we can continue to make healthy changes spiritually, physically and psychologically throughout the course of our life.

It sounds like therapy has helped you understand the origin of this problem. Although this can be important, it is even more important to understand the eating disorder’s function. An eating disorder can help fulfill genuine needs, such as providing emotional comfort, a sense of control, or having a voice in our family. Without something to take its place, it is very hard to give it up.

When you were a teen your need was to cope with the abuse, the move and the multitude of other problems you faced. Over the years the source of your emotional pain and distress would have changed many times, but the chewing and spitting has been there all along.

What likely happened is this; when you were a teen you learned that chewing and spitting could help you deal with your emotional wounds. If it could help with the emotion and pain of those problems, it makes sense it could help with other problems. So it became a coping mechanism that worked for you. Throughout your life it has been there to help you deal with things.

The function of the eating disorder is connected to stress in your life at any given time period. Although I don’t know the specifics of your life, perhaps there was stress from marital issues, or a child with problems, or work problems. Regardless of what it was, the chewing and spitting helped you deal with it, just as it did during your teen years. Again, unless we have something better to take the place of a coping mechanism that works, we tend to hold on to it.

I highly recommend that you seek therapy that is not focused on past issues, but the stressors in your life right now, and the role the eating disorder behavior might play in those issues. One of the primary goals would be to find out the function that the eating disorder plays in your current life. See “Finding Treatment.”

One way to understand its function is to keep a written summary of every time you chew and spit. In this summary answer these questions:

  • How were you feeling physically (pain, hunger, tired) and emotionally in the hours before?
  •  Did anything happen that upset you?
  •  Who was involved?
  •  What happened?
  •  How did you interpret what happened?
  •  What did you tell yourself right before you decided to use the chewing and spitting?
  • What were you thinking and feelings while you where chewing and spitting?
  •  What did you do, feel and think afterwards?
  •  What could you have done differently at step of the way?

Doing an exercise like this will help you find patterns that may identify the triggers and function of this eating disorder practice.

In addition to having a function, the eating disorder can be a learned habit. By this I mean that it is so ingrained in your life, that not practicing it becomes distressing all by itself.

The best way to deal with this aspect of the issue is to find a therapist who is very familiar with psychological interventions referred to as “stimulus control.” Stimulus control is a very powerful tool in breaking the habit aspects of a problem.

As we hit our 50s so much has changed. We look for constants in our lives. Even though you may want to get rid of it, the eating disorder behavior has been there throughout the years; it is a constant. Again, it must be replaced by other constants (e.g., God, friends, etc.). Even though it is for the best that it is gone, you may even need to talk in therapy about this loss.

You said that you have been on “every diet.” This has likely made things worse rather than better. Following a diet makes people focus too much on food and eating. A professional dietitian will teach nutritional principles, not diets. Here are some tips:

  • Listen to your body. Eat when you’re hungry.
  • Choose foods from a variety of sources.
  • Moderation: Portion size is key.
  • Aim for 3 meals and 1 to 3 snacks a day. By eating every 2 to 4 hours, you prevent your body from getting overly hungry…the body uses the fuel from food very efficiently when you’re eating smaller amounts more frequently throughout the day.

Your goal to change is wonderful. You can do it! God bless you and help you as you have the courage to change.


A. David Wall, PhD