Restaurant for Anorexics Offers Food for Thought


Dec. 21, 2004 — -- In the heart of Berlin's trendy Tiergarten district, where cozy cafés and sprawling "biergartens" nestle alongside elegant eateries, there's a place for people who dread the very thought of eating. But it's a space that offers the very thing anorexics avoid -- food.

Called Sehnsucht -- German for "longing" -- the brand-new restaurant is aimed at people suffering from eating disorders, and it's proudly billed "the world's first restaurant for anorexics."

But if a dining hall for anorexics sounds like a bit of an oxymoron -- or a chapter from a Victorian advice book on how to force-feed starving, overwrought ladies -- the staff at Sehnsucht will have you know you're wrong.

For one, many members of the staff have at some time suffered from an eating disorder and they understand how serious and debilitating it can be. For another, they say the place is designed to make dining a pleasurable -- and not stressful -- exercise.

"Our owner, Katja Eichbaum, was anorexic for a long time," explained Sehnsucht worker René Kilian in a phone interview with from Berlin. "She thought for a long time about it, she had the idea for a while, and she wanted to help other people with the same problem."

The head chef and several waitresses have also suffered from eating disorders, and they bring the lessons of their illnesses with them to the table.

By all accounts, anorexia is spreading around the world and has been afflicting people -- mostly young women -- in areas where eating disorders had been all but unknown.

In the United States, between .5 percent and 1 percent of American women struggle with anorexia, and between 5 percent and 20 percent of those struggling with anorexia nervosa will die, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

In Germany, health experts estimate there are about 100,000 anorexics and 600,000 bulimics, an alarming figure experts attribute to the growing incidence of childhood obesity across the country.

Once called the "golden girl syndrome" since it affected primarily affluent, Western women, anorexia today is surfacing among the urban elite in developing countries such as India and China.

The geographic spread of the disease has also been accompanied by advances in treatments. Unlike the 1960s and '70s for instance, when "treatment" of severely anorexic patients in several hospitals entailed increasing their food intake to 5,000 calories a day within a fortnight, experts these days reject coercion as a means to treat anorexia.

But some victims of anorexia and other eating disorders note that some doctors and nurses can still get angry when confronted with particularly stubborn, self-destructive patients. Given that anorexia kills more people than any other psychiatric condition, the impatience of medical staff may be understandable, even if it's not particularly effective.

Faced with what experts such as "Hungry Hell" author Kate Chisholm have called a "crippling, antisocial disease," could a restaurant offering food to people who have a problem with it work?

Certainly Sehnsucht is trying to fit the requisite bill. The menu, for instance, steers clear of describing dishes, preferring instead to stick with generic, nongastronomic names. So the lobster bisque is called "Hallo," the cappuccino creme dessert is "Seele" ("Soul"), and rack of lamb is quite simply "Ravenous."

Portions, says Kilian, are neither gigantic nor minuscule, merely "normal." And while the restaurant serves wine, staffers -- drawing on their own experiences -- expect herbal teas to be far more popular. And there's absolutely no mention of calories anywhere on the menu.

Lynn Grefe, chief executive officer of the National Eating Disorders Association, is not familiar with Sehnsucht, but she's not sure a restaurant for anorexics and bulimics is the answer. "What would be really helpful is if they print a help center, where their customers can get help, on their menu," she said.

Grefe worries about what she calls the "glamorization of the illness."

"Anorexia is a life-threatening illness and there's nothing glamorous about feeding tubes and organ failure," she said. "There is a tendency to view it as a condition that afflicts celebrities and wealthy people, but it is in fact an illness, which, recent research indicates, has a biological basis."

Indeed, theme restaurants are particularly popular in Berlin. The city already boasts two "blind restaurants" where patrons eat in pitch-darkness, served by blind waiters, as well as a café for the deaf.

But Sehnsucht is not meant solely for people suffering from eating disorders. "We cater to people who have a problem with food like anorexia and bulimia and also for people who don't," said Kilian.

And he's optimistic about the restaurant's potential for success. "We've had many food critics here and people are starting to come here," he said. "I hope that we become more popular."

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