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People with an Eating Disorder Need Extra Support During the Holidays

While the bountiful presence of food and beverages during the holidays do not usually cause anxiety for the majority of us, the season can bring extra challenges for those with eating disorders.

The office parties, friendly festivities and family gatherings between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day bring an overabundance of food as well as anxiety and can be definite triggers for many suffering from eating disorders (ED) such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, according to Janice Poplack, LCSW, director of Social Work and primary clinician for the Eating Disorders program at The Menninger Clinic in Houston.

“The anxiety the holidays can bring for someone being treated for or recovering from any type of eating disorder can be overwhelming,” says Poplack. “It’s important that family members and friends be more empathetic and supportive during this time.”

According to Kimberly Stephens, RD, a dietitian for The Menninger Clinic, the support ED sufferers may need can vary.

“The first question that needs to be asked is how they would like to be supported during each meal. Questions like, ‘Do you need me to go with you to look at all the food first and then help you pick out what correlates to your food groups?” says Stephens.

However, she cautions family members to avoid becoming ‘food police.’

“Let their dietitian play that role. Your part might be to make sure they don’t eat alone or setting exact times for meals or having them participate in planning the meal,” she says. “If they don’t currently see a dietitian, now might be a good time to enlist the services of one to help your loved one get through this time period.”

While most suffering from an ED try to avoid social interactions, family members should encourage participation.

“Try to engage them in events, even if they are small ones like going out for lunch with a few friends,” says Poplack. “And focus your positive comments not on their exterior appearance, but rather on their traits or actions.”

More information on Eating Disorders may be found on The Menninger Clinic Web site at under the newsroom, Eating Disorders.

Recognizing that your college student has an eating disorder
The Thanksgiving holidays may mark the first time parents have an opportunity to wrap their arms around their college-aged child since the summer break ended. Some parents may be shocked that there is a whole lot less to hug.

“Many eating disorders manifest when a child is away from their family for the first time. While there is usually a rush for independence, there is also the sudden realization that they no longer have the daily support from Mom and Dad. Restricting their eating may be the way a child copes with the stress of being separated from their loved ones,” says Poplack.

Poplack and Stephens encourage concerned parents to use the extended vacation time to take a closer look at their child.

Signs of eating disorders include:
*Weight loss or change of weight – Watch for a sudden loss or gain. Persons with eating disorders commonly try to hide their weight loss by wearing baggy clothes. A person is considered anorexic if his or her body mass index (BMI) is 17.4 or less.

*Picky eating or excuses around meal time – Be wary if your child used to eat a variety of foods, but now will only eat some foods and not others, or refuses to eat any foods that aren’t fat free. They may also use excuses like, “I’m not hungry” or “I’ve already eaten” to avoid meal time.

*Sudden diet or decision to be a vegetarian – Diets and becoming a vegetarian provide a socially acceptable way for a person with an eating disorder to restrict his or her diet and to reduce calories. Ask your child about the reasons he or she is going on a diet or becoming a vegetarian.

*Obsession with exercising – Spending hours at the gym or allowing exercise to dominate their schedule may be signs of an eating disorder.

*Frequent trips to the bathroom or showers immediately after eating – Young adults with bulimia often attempt to control the amount of calories they consume by purging after a big meal. They may make frequent trips to the bathroom to purge and turn the shower on to muffle their vomiting.

*Large amounts of food missing or hiding food – Young adults who binge eat may eat normally when in the presence of others. However, when alone, they eat large quantities of food at one sitting—such as whole bags of cookies, tubs of ice cream and bags of chips. Missing food may be a parent’s only clue.

*Drastic change in personality – Eating disorders usually cause a drastic change in personality. A normally outgoing individual may seem withdrawn or avoid social interactions.

*Obsession over looks – Constantly asking “How do I look” or having a need for reassuring comments about looks and weight is another warning of an eating disorder.

About The Menninger Clinic
The Menninger Clinic is a nonprofit, international specialty psychiatric center, providing treatment, research and education. Founded in 1925 in Kansas, Menninger relocated to Houston in 2003 and is affiliated with Baylor College of Medicine. Since 1991, Menninger has been named among the top ten leading psychiatric hospitals in U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of America’s Best Hospitals. Menninger is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

Sue-Ella Mueller | Newswise Science News
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