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College of Human Ecology

K-State instructor offers advice about eating disorders, overindulgence during the holiday

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

MANHATTAN -- At the holidays, dinner tables overflowing with food, snacks and desserts may become a dilemma for people with eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. They also can be a problem for people who tend to overindulge when there is so much food.

Roni Schwartz, instructor of hotel, restaurant, institution management and dietetics and director of the coordinated program in dietetics at Kansas State University, says friends and family may not be aware of a loved one's eating disorder until they gather together during the holidays.

"An eating disorder becomes more apparent the more time is spent with family," Schwartz said.

If you become aware that a friend or family member has an eating disorder, Schwartz said to focus on protecting their health and firmly demanding they get treatment. People with eating disorders are often in denial, she said.

However, Schwartz also said a family member with an eating disorder shouldn't be the main topic of discussion with extended family members.

"The immediate family should protect against the prying of extended family members," she said. "Though they may be well-meaning family members, parents and people with eating disorders should refuse discussion of the disorder on holidays. The holiday dinner table is not the place to discuss psychological disorders."

Schwartz gave a scenario of an extended family member attempting to "help" the person with the eating disorder. She said family members may offer the person with the eating disorder sugar cookies and explain how they remember that the person loved the cookies as a child. This could cause anxiety for the person with the disorder, who may begin to debate whether to hurt that relative's or friend's feelings or eat the cookies and be miserable by eating a food the person fears.

Friends and family also need to protect against personalization, Schwartz said.

"Don't place the blame on anyone; the disorder is just there," she said. "Families would do well to preface all sentences with 'I.' For example, 'I observed you look very thin' versus 'You look very thin.'"

Schwartz recommends that people with an eating disorder plan ahead for the holidays.

"Find out what is going to be on the menu and plan what you will eat," Schwartz said. "Pick three to four items that you will eat. This will either limit the amount of food you eat or ensure that you are eating enough food.

"I've suggested to clients to use a normal dinner plate and fit their food in the center of the plate within the rim," she said. "And, do something with your down time. Because people with eating disorders frequently obsess for hours about what they have just eaten, distraction becomes important. Eating is just not enough. Distract yourself and take a walk or play games with family members."

It also is important to have realistic expectations about the holidays, Schwartz said. Movies and other media portray the holidays as happy, but this is not always the case in reality. For people with eating disorders, the holidays aren't necessarily happy, but there can be fun moments, she said.

The worst thing people with eating disorders can do is to isolate themselves and not see family and friends. This is a temptation because people won't have to deal with the disorder, Schwartz said.

"Just tell family and friends that you have a problem and you are working on it versus hiding it," she said.

Holidays also can be a problem for people who have a tendency to overeat because of all the foods available. Schwartz offers tips on ways to avoid food overindulgences:

* Take sunlight breaks. "One thing that causes people to eat more is limited exposure to sunlight in the winter," she said. "Sunlight allows the brain to produce serotonin. Serotonin affects people's emotional states. When your mood is blue, you eat a lot of carbs and sugars to increase the level of serotonin." If you are at work or school all day, bundle up and go outside for fresh air and sunlight and open the blinds during the day. Artificial and holiday lights and candles also may help a little, she said.

* Keep a small variety of food on hand to limit unhealthy eating habits. "When you limit the variety of food kept in your home, people tend to eat more normally. It's like the law of diminishing returns. Once you eat a lot of one thing, you get tired of it and stop eating. With a variety, however, there's no law of diminishing returns and people will keep snacking on new eye-appealing food items," she said.

* Keep in mind that holiday food is not all sweets and snacks. When people are entertaining they feel the need to have a large variety of food and guests then feel they need to try it all, Schwartz said. "There are special fruits available only during the holidays. Try serving one tray of cookies, one tray of fruit and one tray of vegetables, cheese and crackers or shrimp and cocktail sauce. These foods still make a lovely table and are fun foods."

This article was posted on Tuesday, December 6, 2005, and is filed under College News, Hospitality Management.