Pulling Together Some Disparate Strands, Part 3

One bite and all your dreams will come true.

By now it is almost universally acknowledged that there is such a thing as “eating your stress,” and that a lot of people do it. They tend to choose foods that maximize the amount of work their jaws need to do. Popcorn, potato chips, toffee, breakfast cereal, steak — an endless number of foods are delicious to humans, not just because of their inherent flavor, but because of the pleasure of chewing.

There comes a time when the chewing stops being an adjunct to digestion, and becomes an end in itself. It has moved over into the realm of the body-focused repetitive behavior, or BFRB. Now, chewing is a coping mechanism to rid the body of excess nervous energy. Stress, anxiety, and anger are relieved — at least for the moment.

Food manufacturers are well aware of this. About 15 years ago, some kind of revolutionary exponential leap took place, in the amount of chewiness on the market. In an article complete with stock market quotations for every product mentioned, The Wall Street Journal related how cereals and candy had become much more briskly textured:

To develop the quintessential crunch, food researchers gather data about the biting and chewing process. General Mills studies things like ‘first-bite hardness,’ or the amount of resistance food presents before teeth penetrate, and ‘fracturability,’ or the force needed to shatter, say, a piece of peanut brittle. All this arises from consumer surveys showing a preference for crunching.

One side effect of increased crunchiness provides a stroke of good fortune for the makers of processed pseudo-foods. When a snack is re-engineered to include more air, people will eat even more of it than they did of the previous version. Crispness provides the illusion of not really eating very much, so people compensate by cramming more units of the snack into their mouths at once. The potential for jaw exercise has crept into the most unlikely food items. Some genius even invented crunchy yogurt, for heaven’s sake.

Reporter Michael J. McCarthy went to the source, the president of a “food flavor and texture company,” for this quotation on the psychological appeal of chewable snacks:

Crunchy foods may provide stress-relief, like hitting a racquetball after a hectic day at the office. There are theories that people who tend to be aggressive enjoy foods that require more aggression to destroy.

Now let’s mention another disparate strand, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which appears to affect some five million American children and teens. A parents’ forum talks a lot about chewing. Kids with this disorder will handle their stress by chewing on things — pencils, rubber bracelets, their hair, their nails, even their own tongues. They will chew holes in their clothes. Some teachers keep gum on hand especially for ADHD kids and give it to them in class so they can settle down.

As children get older and their access to food increases, a large amount of the chewing involves food. Can there be any doubt that their chewing is a body-focused repetitive behavior, with stress relief as its purpose?

As if that weren’t enough, a condition called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is said to afflict children in such a way that their brains go directly into a panic response, or “fight-or-flight” mode. They are so out of touch with reality that neither reward nor punishment will motivate effectively. The best an adult can hope for is some degree of damage control. Here is one piece of advice on “sensory accommodations”:

Offer your child with SPD socially acceptable ways to get her needs met. If she has high oral sensory seeking needs, give her acceptable items to chew on and bite.

Here is another disparate strand to throw into the mix. Long-distance drivers are frequently advised to chew gum, because it purportedly increases circulation of blood to the brain and helps the driver stay awake. In this case, a body-focused repetitive behavior is done consciously, for a specific purpose. This is not true of the BFRBs associated with overeating, where the individual is often unaware of engaging in mechanistic behavior.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Chew on This: Crunch Comes To Foods from Soup to Pickles,” The Wall Street Journal, 04/02/97
Source: “ADHD, Chewing, am I missing something?,” CircleofMoms.com
Source: “Family & Friends,” SensorySmartParent.com
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