Mixed messages about food throw teens into a tizzy

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"My little Suzie has a good appetite, kin ahora," you overhear your mother bragging to a friend on the phone. Your breast swells with pride. You are a good daughter. When your mother says, "eat" you eat. You have seconds and thirds and then dessert because you love your mother. You eat because you're happy or sad or because children are starving in Africa. Hunger has nothing to do with it. You just chew.

"But she is getting a little broad across the beam," your mother continues. "It wouldn't hurt her to lose a few pounds."

Now what do you do? Drown your embarrassment in a bag of Oreos or go on a starvation diet?

If that sounds familiar, you're not alone. Food is much more complicated than just its nutritional value. According to marriage and family therapist Alexis Rabourn, eating often has more to do with emotional needs than physical ones. Add to that the importance that our culture places on appearances and you have a society where eating issues are epidemic.

Those women at the extremes — the anorexics or the overeaters — may be easily identified but appearances don't always tell the whole story.

"Many women look normal, beautiful, intelligent and successful but they're obsessed with food," says Rabourn. While this may cross cultural lines, Jews have the added burden of food being the centerpiece of every holiday and every ritual. You can't say Chanukah without thinking latke or Purim without thinking hamantaschen. And Pesach, well that's a feast.

"All of us in our society, as women we obsess and think about what we ate, what we might eat, how many calories, etc.," says Yael Moses, a marriage and family therapist and supervisor of adult services at Jewish Family and Children's Services in San Francisco.

For the past five years, Rabourn has led a group through JFCS in San Francisco called Begin From Within. The group, which meets weekly for 16 weeks helps women understand and get a handle on their eating issues. This summer Rabourn will be launching a similar group for teenage girls.

"Begin From Within is a way of looking at overeating and food deprivation as an attempt to feed emotional hunger," says Rabourn, adding that it's a pattern that starts in infancy. "The first form we receive love in is by being held and fed."

Typically women use food to stuff down their emotions so they don't have to deal with them. If they feel bad, they eat. Then the more they eat, the worse they feel about themselves. The worse they feel, the more they eat. It's a self-destructive and unhealthy cycle and in order to break it, women have to start at ground zero. Get in touch with the feelings that are making them eat. They do this through group discussions and keeping a journal. They have to learn to honor their feelings and figure out new ways of taking care of them. One way is by communicating and reaching out to others for emotional satisfaction.

The formula may sound simple, but putting it into action can be tough. First you have to be able to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger. The symptoms of physical hunger are a growling stomach, weakness, irritability, headache and other symptoms related to low blood sugar.

"Emotional hunger comes with a compulsion to it," explains Rabourn. "You eat without knowing what you're eating. You don't get full. It's hard to know when you've eaten enough. Some women don't know until their stomach hurts."

Some women take the 16-week group two or three times. Rabourn says these habits are hard to break and recommends repeating the group.

Although teenage girls present their own set of issues, Moses says that they have the advantage of early intervention. "With kids it's happening now. You can intervene at an earlier stage and be much more effective."

But teens are also more vulnerable to peer pressure and the emphasis society places on appearance. And parents often unwittingly play a role in all this by suggesting their children lose a few pounds or nagging them about what they eat.

"If we could give straight advice to parents about food, it would be sit down to dinner three nights a week. Don't worry if your kid eats too much or not enough. Provide good food and let them decide how much to eat," Moses says. She also says that controversial subjects, like the C in English shouldn't be discussed at the dinner table. "Make [dinnertimes] good times, not critical."

Rabourn says it's also important for parents to emphasize inner value rather than how a child looks.

"Value how their body functions — that they move well or are strong or graceful," suggests Rabourn. "Don't put your children on diets but buy and serve healthy food."

Rather than preaching, both recommend that parents model good, healthy behavior.

Since teen behavior is so intertwined with their parents and what goes on at home, Moses and Rabourn decided to do workshops for parents of teens. Those will meet once before each teen session; participants need not be parents of teens in the workshops.

All too often teens fall into the trap of believing, "I'm not OK if you don't like me the way I am." Ultimately they have to learn to accept themselves for who they are and understand that good enough is really good enough.