Chewing the Fat

July 28, 2009

In today’s NY Times, Selling Gum With Health Claims discusses how over the past few years gum companies, like Trident and Wrigley, have been promoting the health benefits of sugarless chewing gum.  Some of the benefits, such as tooth whitening, better breath, and a reduction of cavities, are great.  However, when these companies start pitching gum as a way to help control cravings and avoid eating high-calorie snacks “to limit unwanted calories and help control your appetite” (see Wrigley’s website), I start to get upset.  It’s bad enough that Wrigley promotes their gum on The Biggest Loser as a weight-loss tool, but they also have a “Weight Management” pdf on their site that is full of ways to use gum to avoid eating.  Why does this bother me so much?

As a dietitian, I work with people who are struggling with food in many ways, especially those who need to lose weight and those who need to gain weight.  Many of these clients deal with emotional and disordered eating, and part of my job, very often with the assistance of therapists, is to help them learn to eat and enjoy food in a healthy way.  Advising a weight loss client to chew gum to avoid snacking is not the way to do it.  First of all, chewing gum produces saliva, which can actually lead to increased hunger.  When saliva is produced, it travels to the stomach to digest food that the body thinks you have eaten.  When there is no food in the stomach, the body is fooled into this unnecessary physiological reaction.  Often this reaction leads to pangs of hunger, as well as excess acid in the stomach, which can lead to ulcers.   Instead of chewing gum, people looking to lose weight need to learn behavioral skills to stop eating when they are full or to do something else when they are bored, like taking a walk or going to the gym.

As for my clients who need to gain weight, most of whom have diagnosed eating disorders, part of the problem is that they chew too much gum.  So when they read news about how gum chewing can aid in controlling cravings, they are less likely to want to stop.  Gum chewing has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety, something many eating disorder patients struggle with, so it is no surprise that they use gum for that purpose.  They also use gum to keep their mouths occupied so as to avoid eating.  What often happens though, is that they take in a lot of air when chewing gum, which leads to stomach bloating, which is hard for them to tolerate.  And they often get stomach upset and gas from the abundance of artificial sweetners, like xylitol and sorbitol, that they are taking in from chewing packs of gum a day.

Bottom line: One stick or chiclet won’t hurt you, but I definitely don’t advocate for gum chewing as a “diet aid.”

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