Posts in Category: Food

Hungry For The Holidays

star katy

One population dreads the time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s: people with eating disorders.  

Consumerism explodes at the holidays, so, too, does literal consumption. People with eating disorders, often students returning home from college, are faced with a double-whammy. They have to navigate the usual regression to family dynamics we all feel but also, have to figure out food.

I’ve spent hours these past 10 years planning someone to get through cracker-and-cheese time without binging. Guiding and wondering and counseling someone who has not eaten dessert in years and faces a buffet piled high with pies and cakes.

For a few years I worked on at a psychiatric unit for the holidays. I loved Christmas there; we kept the spirit of it well in that old wooden-raftered building in the woods. Surrounded by snow and bowed evergreens, the small group of patients and staff were polite and hushed on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Day. Insanity seemed to have taken a small vacation. We were an isolated group out there, needing the containment of the hospital or the distance from our families to stay sane.

The lines between patient and doctor changed as we clustered in the snow for a rushed cigarette or marveled to see our footprints appear in each luminous dusting of the night. Fellow travelers, we were all at this inn for the night.

I’ve frequently thought about renting an inn for the holiday season. We crave community but one that is compatible. What if we could be assured that behavior,) around food at least, will be regular? What if the focus were on talking, thinking and doing rather than consuming?

Hiding food, eating leftovers, doing the dishes, midnight refrigerator raids can turn holidays into a desperate time. Patients return in January like tired anthropologists out in the field for too long. They often want to punish themselves by binging and purging relentlessly; some are worn from trying to appear  cogent when they are starving in plain sight of their families.

From where I sit, holidays haven’t changed much in 20 years.

Few people in America eat because they are hungry. We eat because we are bored, sad, angry or anxious. We browse the bright refrigerator shelves looking for something that will not be found there. Food is everywhere–now in pictures on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and more. Surrounded by this overload to the senses we are supposed to buy ‘zen’ or ‘mindfulness’ as easily as purchasing a yoga mat. It’s not that simple nor that easy.

Breaking bread with people with love is wonderful. Proust knew that a Madeline brought back childhood. Holiday smells and tastes are the same. But hungering for childhood is not the same as eating it. Whatever we want will be there today, tomorrow and next week. Remind yourself as you eat:

Do I want this or is this rather a socially condoned binge?

We confuse feeling full with filling ourselves. Try connection instead. Interview your grandparent. Pretend you are an anthropologist visiting our culture. Observe the family traditions and taboos. Stay in touch with your outside life. Use the nearest Starbucks or the public library in your town as place to regain perspective. Step outside your family into nature and be absorbed in something larger.

Invite a family member to make a new tradition with you. My brother and I started going for a walk after a particular tense Thanksgiving. We stopped at a lovely hotel with a piano bar not far from where the Boston Marathon ends. We went inside and sat down. Two newly-minted adults breaking free.

Holidays are not a cage that holds your family rules and a bowl of food. They must be recreated and reinvented to hold meaning.

The most cherished Christmas holidays I made was in Mexico. All I had in that tiny town was a Walmart and my ATM card. But I had my then-husband and our daughter. The small village was thrilled by the new Walmart and buzzed with activity on Dec. 24. Dazzled by the sequins on the swimsuits, the toothbrushes that lit up, the candy in exotic flavors I went up and down the escalators in a daze. We scattered mango chips and guava candies that night for the reindeer.  Christmas morning we opened stockings on the roof in the morning after our daughter trundled up the spiral staircase.

We ate that day, of course, but it was the newness of Mexico that drew my small family close like a small silk sack. I was reminded of the holidays at the psychiatric hospital. We make our happiness when we can and where we find it. We cannot capture it with things and we cannot consume it. Make it new.

All or Nothing – What’s Perfect?

Do you keep lists?
A lot of lists?
Do you ever get to the end of one?

Science tells us that the very desire to get things done  well can prevent us from getting them done at all. As I suggest to patients, “the perfect is the enemy of the good. Or even the good enough.”

Recently researchers have turned their attention to the important but neglected area of binge-eating disorder. Perfectionism, the ultimate set-up for disappointment, can lead us to binge. Watch how often you, your child or family use the word “perfect.” Then try to substitute another. As we used to say in the hospital, in groups of anorexic girls, “I never met a perfect woman but if I did, I don’t think I would like her. She wouldn’t be real.”

Dr. Simon Sherry, an assistant professor of psychology at Dalhousie University in Halifax Nova Scotia, has published “The Perfectionism Model of Binge Eating,” a paper examining the connection between perfectionism and binge-eating in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The article is co-authored by Peter Hall of the University of Waterloo.

You can read a review of their paper here at Science Daily.

As the author points out, “Perfectionists are often not self-aware and are reluctant to seek help, posing a conundrum. They don’t want to admit they’re imperfect.”

Sherry also adds: “I’m hopeful that students will read about this and realize that there are effective interventions for binge eating, including some help for perfectionism change is possible.”


Photo credit: palo

Do You Juice? The New Anorexia

Many mothers have asked me seriously whether juice is something I would “do”?  They seemed worried that they were serving a child drugs in a little cardboard box with a bendable straws. How sad that there is so much to worry about. And sadder that we focus on such tiny things and become distracted from joy.

Playdates can be complex negotiations about foods that are ‘off-limits.’ Anaphylactic shock, risk of diabetic coma, these are reasons to focus on your child’s intake. Mere calorie-counting is not. The current war on obesity must be waged on the right battlegrounds; these battlegrounds are usually neighborhoods without safe outdoor space and schools without healthy snacks. Many families and communities need real help and education about nutrition.

But we are besieged by a new cult of thinness. Anorexia has arrived again wearing the mask of health. And worse: “good mothering.” Parents and children now protest as they restrict:  “I just want to be healthy. I just want to eat healthier.  The news science of health tells us we will live longer the less we eat.” I have heard children recite caloric intake and name trans-fats. I have heard children tell little friends that their food “isn’t healthy ” for them. A six-year-old girl asked her playmate: “Why does your mother let you eat food that is bad for you?”

Making children focus on their food is not healthy. No young child needs to worry about nutritional values. Recently I spoke to an oral surgeon who told me proudly that none of his children had one cavity. However, he added, they did have eating disorders.

Cavities or anorexia?

The French have a real tradition of afterschool snacks, ‘une gouter.’ Nutella, anyone? Taste—they understand—is part of what makes life rich.

Photo Credit: Justine Chang