The holidays are a time to reconnect with family and eat traditional comfort food around the table. But it’s a time that can also lead to regrets about what and how much you eat.
The Lakeshore spoke to Gail Hall, DCSW, CEDS-S, Executive Director of Eating Disorder Services at Sanford Behavioral Health in Marne, about her ideas on how to manage triggers, unhealthy eating behaviors and how to spot the signs of an eating disorder.
The Lakeshore: Tell us a bit about your background and your work at Sanford Behavioral Health. When did the facility open and who is it for?
Gail Room: I have been an eating disorder therapist for 30 years. I owned a practice of eating disorder therapists and dietitians where we provided intensive outpatient and inpatient services. Eighteen months ago, my firm’s assets were purchased by Sanford Behavioral Health, which is well known in the community for its residential substance abuse programs. We have joined forces to create a full continuum of care for people with eating disorders at our beautiful Marne facility. In addition to intensive outpatient services, we have a partial hospitalization program (PHP) and the first-ever residential facility for people with eating disorders in the state of Michigan. Sanford’s Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders currently accepting women over the age of 18 for residential treatment. As we expand our services, we anticipate being able to serve adult men, people with co-occurring substance use and eating disorders, and people with mood and of trauma. Our outpatient services cater for teenagers, adults and all genders.
TL: Can you explain the psychology of food traditions and celebrations?
GH: We come into the world with an instinct and a need to eat. Babies fuss and cry when hungry, but calm and content when full. A good meal releases dopamine, the feel-good hormone. From our earliest days, we begin to associate the feeling of satiety with pleasure. That’s why we call particularly satiating foods “comfort foods”. Special holiday meals can be cultural or religious celebrations and often involve extended family or friends. These associations and memories add to the intensity of the experience.
Having regrets about eating is a learned and ingrained behavior in a society that sees food as “good” or “bad.” Body height and weight are treated purely as a matter of self-control, so there is shame associated with being perceived – or perceiving oneself – as being too greedy. Holiday meals are meant to be feasts, so let’s not look at our eating habits with guilt.
TL: What’s the best way to prepare for a family reunion with high expectations of filling our plates with traditional items that may lead to regrets later?
GH: The eating behavior is not the problem, it’s the psychological regrets that are the problem. Consuming food is supposed to be enjoyable, so go ahead, fill your plate and enjoy.
At the same time, it’s also perfectly acceptable to pass on items because you don’t like them (including your aunt’s famous creamed spinach), say no to the extra servings Grandma wants you to eat, or save room for dessert.
Only you can decide when you are full.
If a family member is recovering from an eating disorder, a large family gathering for a dinner party can be very challenging. Talk with your loved one to see how you can best support them. A pre-plan for the meal and the conversation can be extremely important.
TL: What coping methods do you recommend when people feel like they’re falling back into old habits at holiday events?
GH: Many are likely to go into holiday meals too hungry because they skip meals earlier in the day. This is doomed to failure because feeling hungry makes it difficult to recognize your body’s signals and respond correctly to its needs.
A better strategy is to have a plan:
- Choose the foods you really like.
- Don’t take a bit of everything just to be polite.
- Eat slowly and take time to have a good conversation.
- Avoid or limit alcohol, which also interferes with hunger and fullness signals.
TL: What are some healthy eating habits we can start adopting now to prepare for the holidays?
GH: It is a mistaken thought to suggest that we should compensate in advance for the holiday season. A healthy habit is to have a lifelong daily approach to food, which should include “all things in moderation”.
Although it seems so simple, it is not easy to practice, which is why it requires more than just a holiday change.
TL: What are the signs that someone might need to seek help for an eating disorder?
GH: There are several types of eating disorders. Anorexia involves refusing to eat, avoiding meals, and being overly concerned with body weight and size. The individual may lose weight and have a visibly altered physical appearance. However, eating disorders are emotional issues rooted in distorted thoughts and obsessive habits, so weight loss may not be noticeable. People of average height and those with larger bodies can also struggle with anorexia. Some people purge food after eating by vomiting, exercising excessively, or taking laxatives or diuretics. This is called bulimia. There may be laxative wrappers in the trash or signs of vomiting in the bathroom or bedroom. Other people will eat little or eat “normal” meals in public, but binge in secret. These people are struggling with binge eating disorder. In this case, the food may disappear without explanation.
Eating disorders are serious mental health issues. In addition to changes in food, weight, and fitness, watch for increasing signs of depression and anxiety: withdrawal, isolation, lethargy, and lack of interest in life. Eating disorders can also have very serious, life-threatening consequences, so if your loved one is weak, cold, fainting, or has low heart rate and low blood pressure, they need care. immediate medical attention, preferably with a doctor who understands eating disorders.
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