Micro-Biting and Other Habits at the TableMicro-Biting and Other Habits at the Table

For those who have an eating disorder, the process of eating is a stressful experience.  Many worries swim around in the head of these clients.  How will I look after I eat this food? How many calories are in this? How much sugar?  However, eating must be done to stay alive and so it does occur at times, even for those who are very restrictive in their food intake.

Clients deal with the stress of eating in various ways, but one such way is through eating rituals.  These are behaviors which relieve some of the stress and anxiety from eating or are designed to help the person eat less, which in turn reduces anxiety. Some of these rituals are adapted from dieting advice such as drinking water before a meal or between each bite, eating slowly and taking small bites.

So What Exactly is Micro-Biting?

One of the most common eating rituals that I have seen as a milieu counselor at Center for Discovery is taking small bites, also known as “micro-biting.”  This behavior is when a person cuts their food into very small pieces or eats a piece of food, which is already bite size, in multiple bites.  Examples include eating a raspberry in two bites or “nibbling” on a piece of bread.  Another similar behavior is tearing food, which often times results in smaller bites of food at a time.  Many of us tear our food, especially bread. What is important is not that the behavior is occurring, but the intent behind the behavior. Most people who tear their bread or other food would not experience anxiety if they were told that they could not tear it. Tearing food for them is a habit or a preference, and does not alter the amount of food they will eat and is not done with a goal in mind such as consuming less food.

However, for many with eating disorders, tearing food, excessively cutting up food or taking small bites is designed to slow down the eating process with the thought that less food will be consumed. It also serves to reduce anxiety since not as much food (which represents many emotions and outcomes) is taken in at one time.  It is similar to choosing to feel small amounts of pain over a long period of time instead of one large amount of pain all at once.  In the same way, excessive chewing also slows down the eating process with the thought that less food will be consumed during the meal.

Where Do These Ideas Come From?

Some are in our culture and are advertized as polite or good health. Women especially are told to eat in a “lady-like” fashion and to take small bites.  We are told to chew our food a certain number of times to assist in digestion whether or not this is scientific fact.  Therefore, these behaviors become part of the eating culture, and are not necessarily disordered eating.  Eating rituals vary from person to person and what may be ritualistic for one person may not be ritualistic for another, even within the eating disordered population.

It is important to take an honest look at yourself.  Attempt to not tear your food, take small bites, chew a certain number of times, etc.  If you feel anxious, this may be more than a preference or habit.  Instead, it may be a coping strategy to deal with eating, and that is when the behavior becomes disordered.  If you do find that you are using eating rituals, there is good news.  Behavior can be changed as behavior therapies and other therapeutic interventions can be effective in these issues.  Seek out a medical professional to create a treatment plan specific to you.