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Eating Issues (12/27/06)

Dear Zelda

I really need your help! I’m told I have an eating disorder and every year during the holidays I really get worried. I do have problems with eating, though I don’t think they are extreme, and my family is always bugging me. I don’t eat like I should, and I find myself making lists of all of the calories and fat grams in my food. I just can’t stop doing this. It is so much worse during the holidays as my grandparents, aunt, and uncle are coming over for holiday dinner. They always watch me eat or say things like “you really look good” which just makes me feel like I’ve gained weight. I just want to be thin enough so that they will love me. What can I do? I wish they would not look at me or make comments at all but I don’t want to hurt their feelings. Any ideas???

Weight Watcher

Dear Weight Watcher,

It sounds to me like you do have a significant eating problem, but the good news is it also sounds like you’re at least partly, if reluctantly, aware of it. You’re clearly a smart, talented, and self-aware person, and this is obviously an issue you’ve been dealing with for quite some time now. If you’ve worked out a system where you’re genuinely eating enough to stay healthy, that’s good, even if it means counting calories and grams of fat. The most important thing is that you do stay healthy, and that you get some help and support to deal with the underlying issues here.

So what you need during the holidays is a little help, and not extra helpings of gravy and mashed potatoes, right? Yet every year the stress of having “a little more dessert, honey” is forcefully spooned onto your plate. Holiday feasts and pressures are especially hard to handle when you have an eating problem, because many people find they’re able to cope with their eating disorders only by consuming a highly regimented meal course every day that they control and know.  When bowls of mashed potatoes and slices of pie keep getting piled on your plate, that kind of control gets lost. Heck, even I have to start turning down the offers of more turkey as the holiday meals progress... Grandma just can't stop stuffing me with her stuffing.

So what’s a girl (or guy) to do? You can start by having a good game plan before the meal. The number one rule is: DON’T stop eating regularly beforehand. Starving yourself in anticipation of the holiday dinner will only make you miserable and hurt your health, as well as further disrupt your habits. Listen to me on this one: one meal isn't going to make ANY difference in your size or shape, no matter how much or little you eat, so if possible, you should try to let yourself enjoy the holiday meal. Think more about having fun, and try to enjoy the festivities more than the fasting.

It's also a good idea to talk with someone you trust who will be at your holiday dinner and who knows about your eating problems in advance of the event, someone who is supportive of you. Ask them to help you “run interference” with Grandma or whomever else is pushing you to eat more than you’re comfortable with, and tell them it would be helpful if they’d stick up for you. Together with this person, you should set some personal meal goals for yourself before the holiday dinner. Figure out what foods you enjoy the most, and plan ahead to make sure you do eat a full, healthy and nutritious meal (and one that THEY agree provides you with enough food) without feeling like you’re being force-fed. All of this should help you regain some sense that you’re able to control at least part of what you eat at your holiday gatherings.

More important than any one meal, however, is making sure you’re dealing with the underlying issues of your eating disorder. You’re smart enough to know that wanting to be “thin enough so that they will love me” is not healthy. People don’t love you because you’re thin or fat, or short or tall, or purple or blue, old or young. They may respond differently depending on how you look, but ultimately you have to realize that being thin is not going to solve your problems, and in this case, it could be a real danger to you. You definitely should look for some professional guidance about this stuff, and a couple good places to start, as I discuss in greater detail in the next answer, are the National Eating Disorder Association and Something Fishy (www.something-fishy.org), which both have lots of great resources for finding more help.

Best of luck this holiday season and beyond, and please take care of yourself, for all our sakes. Licks and wags, with a couple extra scoops of ice cream on the side.

Zelda

Dear Zelda,

A few months ago my best friend and I went to a big party where we ate a lot. On the way home my friend suggested that we “get rid” of the food we'd eaten. At the time it sounded fun and kind of part of the party, but since then whenever we go out to eat she insists we barf our food. I've heard horror stories about bulimia and am afraid to continue. I think my friend does this all the time, even when we're not together. She is looking really skinny and I'm worried about her. How do I get us to stop without losing my best friend?

Eating Out of Order

Dear Eating Out of Order,

Barfing your food isn't a good idea no matter how appealing it may seem to subtract the calories or how much food you've chewed. I'd never give up ANY of the food I get, especially after I go to the trouble of eating it! Regurgitated food stinks, as does the idea of recycling it through your system and bringing up all that gross stomach acid to burn your throat and rot your teeth, not to mention that it increases the risk of certain kinds of throat cancer.

What worries me most about your inquiry, however, is that while you started binging as "part of the party," it seems to have passed the party stage and developed into a habit. This has already spun out of control, and it could turn into a very dangerous lifestyle for both of you. You asked how you could find a way to stop this purging without losing your best friend... what you need to realize is that if you don't get her to stop, you're even more likely to lose her, but for good. Incidentally, you and your friend aren't alone. In the United States twenty five million people are battling binge-eating problems. You're doing a great thing by asking for information on how to help yourselves, and you need to do this early on, which means now. If you wait, both you and your friend could suffer damaging physical and emotional effects. So where do you go from here?

First, you need to take care of yourself. Find someone you’re comfortable talking to in person about this stuff, whether it’s a school counselor, a parent, or an eating disorder help line. Be honest about your story and your concerns, and look to that person for advice and support about your own eating issues. While I’m very glad you wrote to me, and I’m happy to offer what help I can, an advice column can’t take the place of a real person who will be there for you to talk through these complex issues at length. Your first priority is to make sure that YOU are doing okay, and to make sure that this throwing up habit doesn’t continue. You can also begin by doing some research online. One of the best resources is the National Eating Disorder Association. NEDA offers great information, advice, and reference materials. A second website I'd recommend is called Something Fishy (www.something-fishy.org). This site has nothing to do with fish, and has everything to do with supporting good eating habits. It also has a great chat room and offers online support that is monitored by counselors and eating disorder professionals. Once you’ve begun to address you own the issues related to eating, and have found some good personal resources for help, then you should think about also reaching out to your friend.

Be honest with her and talk openly about your concerns, and don't wait until the situation becomes life-threatening. She may not be ready to hear it, and she may brush you off or get angry, but don’t give up. Also, once you’ve sought out some advice and counseling for yourself with regard to healthy eating, you will also be able to relate to her what has been helpful and not helpful for you, and you’ll be able to honestly tell her what you think might work for her. By telling her about your experience, it may also help her to not feel so judged when you bring up the subject. Be caring but firm about the need for her to stop binging, and at the same time compliment her for her great personality, her accomplishments, and how great she is when she’s just being herself. This will be a struggle, but ultimately she will understand what you’re trying to do for her, even if it complicates your friendship in the short term. That said, don't think it's your sole responsibility to intervene with your friend. If your efforts simply aren’t working, or if you don’t feel comfortable doing it alone, talk to her other friends and family, or to other professionals, and together figure out a more effective way to get her the help she needs.

Life isn't easy, you didn’t ask for any of this, and it’s certainly a lot for anyone to deal with. But at the same time, you’ve got to make the best of the hand you’re dealt, and as I say, “Tough times never last...tough people do.” It's time for you to take control of what's good for both you and your friend.

Zelda

Dear Zelda,

I have two dogs, and they get along fine except when it comes to meal time. Everything used to be okay, but now one of my dogs, Sadie, is getting older. The younger dog, Gus, has begun to push Sadie away from her food and it ends in a fight. Do you have any recommendations for keeping peace in the kitchen?

'Fraid of Food Fights

Dear 'Fraid of Food Fights,

Why is it that the other guy's food always looks better? I swear, every time I see ZeeZee's scoop of dog food it looks like filet mignon, while mine looks like, well, dog food! It's only natural to want what we can't have, and this is an especially hard situation for a younger dog reasserting his place in the pecking order. It's up to you, their owner, to control these daily dog dish disputes before they turn into dining disasters.

Obviously what's going on here is an issue of shifting pecking order. My experience tells me you have a couple of options, but the most important message you need to get across to your younger dog is that YOU set the rules. We've faced this problem ourselves a bit (not that I’m admitting that anyone has ever dared to try and take my food), and we've tried several approaches here in my dog house. The one that has worked best for us is when our owner feeds the older, alpha dog... A.K.A. ME... first, and makes sure to keep those other hungry hounds at bay while I start to eat.  Once my food is in front of me, and once I've staked my claim to it, only then do my two canine "pals" receive their food. By the time they're finished, I'm long-since done and am usually sleeping it off in my bed. Of course it's a good idea, especially in the beginning, for you to remain in the room with your two dogs and supervise the situation. No bullying with the food bowls allowed! Once your dogs have settled into the routine you won't need to be the room monitor and can get back to watching the evening news. Effectively, this strategy reinforces the existing pecking order, without forcing your older dog, Sadie, to do all the work of defending her food herself. It's a simple trick, but it really works!

If the food fights continue, another option is to physically separate the eating areas for your two dogs, or put your younger dog in a crate while Sadie is eating. Believe me, it isn't cruel to confine your younger dog to his own space while he's learning good manners around food. All young dogs need to learn calm, non-competitive eating habits. Managing the eating environment in a multi-dog household is incredibly important, and the effects will spill over into many other aspects of your dogs' home life. When you successfully manage your dogs' behavior around their meals, you reaffirm the established pecking order, and both dogs will be more relaxed and more pleasant to live with.

Bone appetit!

Zelda