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Holidays raise abundant food issues

Linda Ciampa

By Linda Ciampa
CNN Medical Correspondent

November 25, 1999
Web posted at: 10:04 a.m. EST (1504 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

Eat, drink and be merry

Strike a balance

Talk about it

Enough food stress to go around


ATLANTA (CNN) -- The holidays used to be more stressful than joyful for 55-year-old Suzanne.

A compulsive overeater for as long as she can remember, she found the holidays, with their tremendous emphasis on food, among the most difficult times of the year.

"After a while, I didn't even want the food, but I couldn't stop," the Atlanta resident recalled.

Suzanne is one of an estimated 8 million Americans who suffer from an eating disorder -- in her case, binge eating. Other such disorders include anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, which experts say are all part of the same disease.

But the holiday dinner table is not the time for families to try to solve eating disorders, said Vivian Hanson Meehan of the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

"This one meal can't influence (the eating disorder) one way or another," Hanson Meehan said.

Eat, drink and be merry

Enjoying food around the holidays can be soothing for many people, and those who don't let themselves go a bit can feel deprived.

"It may be asking too much not to indulge at all," said Dr. Anne Becker of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

"Instead, for those triggered by food, it's helpful to challenge an all-or-nothing attitude. Tell yourself it's OK to have a bit," and don't let a momentary slip ruin the whole day, she advised.

Holiday parties can be a dietary pitfall  

The holidays are special occasions and it helps to keep them in perspective, said Elizabeth Carll, a psychologist and eating disorder specialist in Long Island, New York.

"Recognize you have a problem, but don't think all is lost," Carll said. "Recognize the problem may get worse during the holiday, but that's OK. The holidays don't happen all year round."

Strike a balance

The holidays can be especially stressful for emotional eaters because routines get thrown off.

"Families are usually well-intentioned, but it can get tricky," Becker said.

The enormous expectations the holidays bring can also trigger unhealthy eating, said Michael Lowe, a psychologist at MCP Hahnemann University in Philadelphia.

"Usually relationships are idealized in the media this time of year, and that can make people who are lonely feel even worse about themselves," Lowe said.

Lowe suggested finding some other outlet besides food. For example, plan a holiday event instead of staying home by yourself.

"Invite family and friends to your house. Make it an occasion. You'll feel less sorry for yourself," he said.

And strike a balance, Lowe said. "Maintain most rules 90 percent of the days, but sometimes let yourself go."

Talk about it

While overeating is common during the holidays, most people go back to their usual eating habits come January, Carll said.

But for compulsive overeaters, once the indulgence starts, it's much harder to revert back to healthy levels of eating, Carll said. She advised going to therapy and support groups to help with the transition.

Suzanne said the support group Overeaters Anonymous, which attacks eating disorders at emotional, physical and spiritual levels, helped her learn to cope. Her obsession with food has eased, and she's maintained a weight loss of 30 pounds for more than five years.

Hanson Meehan gives these holiday tips for a person with an eating disorder:

  • Tell family members beforehand that you'd rather not discuss food and weight that day.
  • Have a polite "no, thank you" ready when family members insist on seconds.
  • Be prepared to take a walk to relieve stressful feelings.

And, she says, family members should be sensitive, and "try to find other topics besides food, weight and body. Let the person with the eating disorder deal with it."

Enough food stress to go around

It's not just those with eating disorders who feel more stress about food when the holidays arrive.

Some holiday abundance  

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year's -- by the time the holiday season is over, Americans on average will each have gained about 1 pound, according to a recent study by the Weight Management Center at the Medical University of South Carolina.

That's less than the 5-7 or even 11 pounds it conventionally has been thought Americans packed on during the holidays. But that extra pound tends to hang on through the next year, according to the USC researchers.

"This time of year, people abandon low-fat cooking and use the creams, the butters -- it's all part of our favorite recipes," said Chris Rosenbloom of the American Dietetic Association.

To make it worse, winter weather in some parts of the country makes it harder for people to get out and exercise.

Rosenbloom offers these tips for everyone trying to manage their weight during the holidays:

  • Beware of the "little" opportunities for overeating, such as the office cookies.
  • Don't go to parties hungry. When you arrive, put food on a plate rather than eating it piecemeal -- that way, you can see what and how much you're eating.
  • Remember that alcoholic calories add up fast, especially with eggnog.

"Enjoy the non-food parts of the holiday," Rosenbloom added. "Enjoy the people. Make a point of getting exercise."

Simple tips that can mean a lot less anxiety come January 2.

y: Slow down and smell the turkey, by Carolyn O'Neil
November 20, 1998

CNN Interactive: Analysis
  • y: archives -- United States

CNN Interactive: Food
  • Thanksgiving

CNN Interactive: Health

Overeaters Anonymous
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
Medical University of South Carolina
North American Association for the Study of Obesity
National Institutes of Health

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