The Loneliness of the Solitary Dieter

Our table in the hotel dining room gave me the view of a quite large woman sitting quietly, watching her female friend eat through several servings from the breakfast buffet.  What made this woman’s behavior somewhat strange was that the seemingly endless offerings of the breakfast buffet caused most people to eat several courses, ranging from mundane cereal, fruit or yogurt to elaborate quiches, salads, smoked fishes, custom-made omelets and pastries. The gorging companion was demolishing several plates of food (she was not exactly thin) while the non-eater nodded, but remained with her mouth forcefully closed as though if once she opened it, maybe she would start eating.

I wondered, “Had she just had bariatric surgery so she could eat only tiny portions?”  My reason for thinking this resulted from a conversation with my nephew, who had bariatric surgery a year-and-a-half earlier. He told me how difficult it was to dine with others because his marshmallow-size stomach severely limited the amount of food he could eat.  He had to pretend to eat and drink normally when he took clients to dinner, but sometimes he felt socially isolated because of the restriction on his food intake.

Losing weight is an obstacle course with the dieter confronting endless situations that may cause the more healthful eating plan to be discarded, or only partially followed. Dieters need willpower, mindfulness, willingness to take on new and almost ritualistic behaviors. Now eating small portions, exercising daily, and not eating when they are not hungry? It’s a new adjustment which can be very hard when dining with others who pay little attention to how much they eat, or whether they are eating out of hunger or simply because food is presented to them…the way the post-op bariatric patient must function.

Recently I was on a daylong tour that included a visit to a multi-cultural community center. As our group entered the building after a long bus ride, we were offered a variety of ethnic foods along with coffee, pastries and fruit.  “Don’t worry about the small amount of food,” our guide told us, “this is only a snack. Lunch will be served later.” The group lined up to sample the foods. “Is anyone hungry?” he asked. I doubted it, but the group ate eagerly (well almost everyone ate while I took pictures because I wasn’t hungry…).  As the day progressed, an enormous buffet lunch was served and gorged upon, and late in the afternoon different ethnic pastries and cold juices were served.

If someone in our group were dieting, or simply refraining from gaining weight, it would have been hard to resist the many opportunities to eat. And not eating when everyone else did may have been a lonely, alienating experience.

Residential weight-loss programs such as Canyon Ranch work in part because the dieters are part of a community.  A participant eats the same low-calorie food, often at a communal table, participates in group exercise, and hears lectures about mindful eating, relaxation, and avoiding food based ‘temptations.’ But when the residential stay ends, the idyllic bubble of group weight loss is broken. Suddenly dieters no longer have the companionship of others who share in their caloric restriction, but must attempt to hold onto these constrained behaviors in the midst of others eating whatever they wish.

The difficulty of doing this may be under-appreciated, except by the dieters themselves. Not only must they be continually sensitive to their food intake as well as the need to exercise frequently; they are often assaulted by the urging of others to ‘break their diet, just this once, because, “It’s a special occasion!”’ Sometimes, perhaps too often, they are berated for making others look bad because their self-discipline contrasts strongly with the heedless eating of those around them. This is perhaps why I noticed the solitary non-eater in the dining room. Her lack of eating contrasted dramatically with the seemingly endless food intake of her companion.

Obesity experts talk about accepting and following a new, healthy life style if the dieter wants to lose weight and maintain that loss. Another way of putting it is that the dieter must ‘convert’ to a new way of eating. Changing drastically one’s eating behavior, i.e. converting to a different eating ideology, is something quite common these days. People become vegetarian, or vegan, gluten-free, Paleolithic, raw food enthusiasts, juicers, or members of a religious group with stringent eating rules.  Once committed (or converted) to the new eating ideology, the convert follows the rules: vegetarians do not go to steak restaurants, and Muslims do not eat during daylight hours for the month of Ramadan. In fact, surveys now show that dating relationships flourish or flounder in regard to a potential partner’s eating ideology, because a vegan and meat eater may be incompatible for long-term relationships.

Conversion to a healthy, weight-maintaining or weight-losing lifestyle should ideally give the dieter access to a community that follows a similar lifestyle. If dieters can find others who understand and support them in adhering to an eating and exercise lifestyle that will maintain a healthy weight, they may succeed in doing so themselves. The problem is that unlike vegans, raw food adherents or gluten-free eaters, individuals who follow a healthy eating and exercise pattern are effectively anonymous excepting people who write blogs on the subject or offer professional help. And even though a vegan or someone who keeps kosher will reject offered foods by invoking an eating belief system, I have never heard a ‘healthy eater’ invoke a healthy eating belief system and say, “Sorry, but this food has too much sugar/fat/calories, and so I cannot eat it.”

A Perfect Storm for Obesity: Depression, Drugs and a Bad Back

“Let’s go for a walk and catch up,” I replied to an email from a former weight-loss client whom I had not seen since she moved several years earlier. She was back in town and wanted to talk.  But the walk was not to be. “I can’t move very well,” she told me. “My back and leg hurt so much I can barely stand. If I want to go anywhere, I use the van for the handicapped. “

When we did meet, sitting down, I understood why walking was daunting. A cocktail of mood stabilizers and antidepressants had so intensified her overeating that she had gained over 200 pounds. The depression diminished her opportunities to find work, so she spent much of her time at home, alone and, as she admitted to me, eating. Earlier in the year she was still able to walk to do errands and see friends, but eventually her weight exacerbated a chronic back problem. Her pain became so intense she had trouble sleeping, and this further increased her depression.

I figuratively wrung my hands when I saw her. She needed to lose weight to relieve her back pain. But how? She was taking a mood stabilizer known to cause weight gain, and no physician would consider any type of surgical intervention to help her back pain until she lost weight. Substantial weight loss combined with physical therapy might be sufficient to allow her full mobility. But if she didn’t lose weight, or lose it sufficiently fast enough to prevent further stress on her back, she might need a wheelchair.

The good news and the bad news is that she now had to have her groceries delivered because it was too hard to go food shopping. Theoretically her food order could be limited to the healthy nutrient-dense, low-calorie fruits, vegetables, grains, lean protein and dairy products that will support weight loss. If she doesn’t keep junk food in the house, she can’t eat it. But of course she could order junk foods from the supermarket and supplement that with high-calorie take-out. Some hints about what she has been eating confirmed that she was doing the latter.

I had to keep reminding myself (and her) that she was not paralyzed. She had not suffered a stroke, progressive neurological and muscular damage, or spinal injury from an accident. Exercise was still possible, albeit limited to movements she could make sitting or lying down along with whatever walking she could manage. If she remained inert because of her back pain, and to some extent because she was depressed, then weight loss would be frustratingly slow—and maybe too slow to prevent further damage to her back.

She had been thin once, many years earlier, before her mood disorders and treatments to ameliorate them led to her massive weight gain. The problem now is that adding or subtracting medications cannot remove her unemployment, medical issues, social isolation and pain. And there is no support network to help her or indeed countless others like her who are isolated and unable to stop eating.

Where to begin to reverse and improve her situation? A psychiatrist was overseeing her mood disorder and her physician was aware of the obesity and back problems. But what Jane (not her name) needed was belief that she had the ability to do improve her situation herself. Attaining weight loss significantly great enough to relieve her back pain will probably take months, but every pound lost will help.

How can she be convinced to start?

The answer may be in advice I was given decades ago when I started recreational running. An experienced runner told me, “When you start your run, don’t focus on how far you have to go.  Measure your progress not in miles, but in houses or telephone poles. Every time you pass a telephone pole or a house, you are getting closer to your goal.”

Jane should regard her weight-loss efforts like counting telephone poles. Even if it takes weeks to lose a pound, that pound is lost just as running past the telephone pole means some distance has been covered. Every day that she increases her physical activity, even if it is for five more minutes than the day before, she passes another ’telephone pole.’ Every time she wills herself not to order high-calorie takeout and eats healthy, low-fat, low-sugar foods, she is passing another telephone pole.

She won’t be able to do it alone. When I began to run in road races, usually coming in toward the end, there was always someone shouting, “Looking good, you can do it.” I knew I was not looking good and sometimes I wasn’t sure I could do it. But the encouragement helped me continue to the finish line, even if I was almost the last person crossing it.

Jane probably will be able to cross the finish line of weight loss if she believes that she can lose a pound, and then another, and then another, especially if someone is telling her, ‘You can do it!’

Now she just has to start.

‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ : Convincing Grownups to Eat Their Vegetables

Conversations about eating vegetables are usually infrequent, unless one is at the farmer’s market wondering how to cook a strangely striped squash or white baby radishes. Yesterday, however, I had a long-ish discussion about produce with an elderly Navy veteran seated by me on a van ride to a local hospital.  His passion was growing a large assortment of vegetables in his ½ acre backyard. Despite the vagaries of a New England spring and summer, his planting is so successful he has to give away much of what he grows. One reason that he distributes his harvest to his neighbors is that his wife is, “…Strictly meat and potatoes…She will only eat iceberg lettuce that she buys in the supermarket, even though I grow several varieties of lettuces,” he told me rather sadly.  He was convinced that his superb health, except for some arthritic aches and pains, was due in part to his healthy eating: large salads every day and cooked vegetables as well for dinner. His wife, sort of like Jack Spratt and his spouse, was overweight, hypertensive and diabetic.

“Can’t you convince her to eat what you grow?” I asked, wishing I was a neighbor and could receive some of his harvest. “Nope, she won’t listen to anyone,” he replied.

Later on that morning I sat in on a weight-loss group meeting of mostly obese males, aged about 68 to 80. The dietician leading the meeting suggested I attend in preparation for some research we were planning to do together.

Eating vegetables was the topic du jour.

Brightly colored charts listing vegetables according to their nutrient components were on the screen, and copies of the charts also appeared in front of each participant. The guys were quiet and attentive but, as I listened, I wondered how many would translate the information they were hearing into food on their plates. Some cooked for themselves, as I learned after the meeting; others relied on their spouse or partner. If they increased their consumption of vegetables, it probably would not only improve their nutritional status; it might help them lose weight, the point of the dietician’s talk.

My conclusion at the end of the session was that most of these men, probably like the Navy vet’s spouse, would still prefer their meat and potatoes. No one asked how to prepare vegetables like kale, winter squash, beets and turnips. No one asked whether frozen or canned vegetables could be substituted for fresh, whether sweet potatoes were better than white potatoes, or was corn considered a vegetable or just starch. No one asked how to get enough vegetables when eating out in a restaurant, especially a fast-food chain. No one asked if it was all right to cook the vegetables in butter or oil, or to add cheese or bacon bits to the dish. I suspect that no one asked these questions because few of them seriously decided to buy the vegetables that the dietician told them to eat.  No one said, “I don’t like vegetables.” But I wonder how many were thinking that?

The distance between making a sensible nutritional recommendation to eat X and avoid Y, and having the recommendation translated into eating, can be insurmountable. The recipients of nutritional information may be adults, but they maybe just as resistant to trying new vegetables, or eating them at all, as children. Perhaps even more so because like the wife of the Navy veteran, it is what they have been doing all their lives.

A better approach might be to figure out with the recipients of the information, i.e. the guys in the nutrition class, how, when, and where they might increase their vegetable consumption.

Might they be encouraged to drink their vegetables in a juice that includes enough fruit as well as spinach, carrots, and kale so the drink is tasty?

Should they be encouraged to try vegetables from a supermarket salad bar so they can learn what they like and are willing to eat without having to prepare the vegetables at home?

Could they go to a farmer’s market or supermarket, take pictures of vegetables that are unfamiliar and at the next meeting discuss with the dietician how these vegetables can be prepared?

Perhaps the person cooking for them could sneak vegetables into mixed ingredient dishes like stews, meatloaf, tomato sauce, and blended soups. To borrow a well-known phrase, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ This may be the easiest way to increase their consumption. I should have mentioned this to the Navy veteran as he told me he does much of the cooking.

Ethnic cuisines do a good job of turning vegetables into carefully prepared, well-seasoned dishes. Think of Japanese tempera, which, if correctly prepared, is greaseless…what an interesting way to introduce asparagus or string beans or carrots to the recalcitrant vegetable eater. Other Asian cuisines also do magical things with vegetables. They suddenly become as tasty (or tastier) as protein. Middle Eastern cuisines rely on vegetables as vehicles for flavorful fillings, or mixed with unlikely pairings like yogurt and garlic.

I wonder if the dietician had shown a video of how to grill vegetables from a cooking network show, passed around cookbooks featuring pictures of mouth-watering vegetable dishes, or asked the participants to cook some produce during the following week for a potluck vegetable session, so that interest and enthusiasm might have been increased.

Getting non-vegetables eaters to allow some room on their plate for vegetables is not hopeless. But it will take more than colored charts and a monologue about eating kale and carrots to bring this about.

A Stomach Drain: The New Level of Combatting Obesity

The FDA approved, in mid-June, a new obesity device that seems to come from a medieval concept of how to prevent overeating. A tube is inserted into the stomach and the outside end fitted with a valve that can be opened or closed, sort of like a faucet. After eating, the patient opens the valve or faucet so the contents of the stomach can empty into the toilet (or a bucket or some container that can be washed out). The procedure is like throwing up to get rid of the contents of the stomach, but with this device you don’t have to gag. Just open the valve.

When I saw an announcement of this device I thought it was a hoax or something thought up by people who compete in ‘all the hot dogs you can eat’ contests. But no, the device, called AspireAssist, is recommended for those who cannot control their food intake. Instructions for its use are quite specific: At least 20 or 30 minutes have to elapse between the completion of a meal and the emptying of the stomach. This is to make sure that some nutrients and calories are passed into the intestines where they are absorbed into the body. If the stomach was emptied immediately, the result would be similar to starvation.  Moreover, the binge eaters and others with eating disorders such as anorexia are not to be allowed to use the device, as it would only enable such individuals to continue on with their disordered eating. And it is not to be used for a short period of time like a few weeks. It is not the modern day equivalent of the way Roman nobles would eat at one of their banquets when, if they had eaten to their full, they would disgorge the contents of their stomach (there really is no way of saying this euphemistically) so they could feast all over again. This means that you cannot take this device with you if you are going on a cruise, for example, and want to make sure that you are eating enough to justify the cost of the trip.

The FDA is limiting use of the device to patients who are obese with a body mass index of 35 to 55, and who are unable to lose or maintain their weight loss through non-surgical interventions.  In clinical trials of the device, it was very effective in supporting weight loss in this very obese population. After a year, patients using the stomach-emptying device lost 12 percent of their weight compared to control patients who lost 3.6 percent. The amount of weight loss is less than what is typically found among people who have had bariatric surgery such as the gastric sleeve. There are many obese patients who have too many health problems to risk having general anesthesia, yet their obesity is so severe that unless reversed it will shorten their life. An acquaintance who must be at least 250 pounds overweight can barely walk, and now has been diagnosed with a heart problem. She is unable to lose more than 10-15 pounds even when living in a residential weight-loss clinic and would be a candidate for bariatric surgery except for her cardiovascular problems. So perhaps a tube that empties partially digested food from the stomach into a pail might help her.

Safety features are built into the use of the AspireAssist device to make sure it is not abused by, for example, someone who sees it as a way of eating unlimited quantities of everything. It can only be used for a certain number of ‘drains’ and then will stop working. The patient must return to the physician who inserted it to get a replacement part and be evaluated for weigh-loss progress.

Aside from the mechanical disposal of food that otherwise would contribute unneeded calories, how will the patient benefit from this new obesity device? Ideally, food intake, or perhaps the frequency of eating, might decrease. Stopping for coffee and a pastry or piece of pizza while shopping is tempting, but the mechanics of draining the stomach in a small bathroom stall in a mall could be awkward. Also, there is the time factor. Does one go out to eat with friends and then on the way home, thirty minutes after dinner is over, look for a public restroom? Maybe there is a manual that comes with the device that answers these pesky questions.

But an obvious question remains: Why would a device, really a plumbing tool, that removes food from the stomach affect how the brain controls eating? If eating is an almost automatic response to stress – and who doesn’t have stress – this response is not going to be altered by draining the stomach.  If eating is a response to lack of sleep, or boredom, or too much work, or too little relaxation time, how can a device that removes semi-digested food in the stomach change this?  In a sense, allowing the stomach to feel somewhat empty after the food is removed may promote another bout of eating as it did with the Romans.

There has to be a better way to allow fewer calories into the body. A tapeworm perhaps?

Can Antidepressants Turn You Into a Food Addict?

What is a food addiction? Having heard several people explain their inability to lose weight due to this problem, I searched out the answers on, where else? The Internet. It appears there are addictions, and there are addictions.  Apparently, being addicted to your grandmother’s strudel or your brother-in-law’s barbecue is one type of addiction to be put in the same category as your impulse to drive 40 miles to eat homemade ice cream, or a fresh-from-the-sea lobster roll.  But these are not real addictions because if they were, you would be driving to eat the ice cream daily, even when the temperature was colder than the treat.

Real food addictions, according to many so-called food addict experts, are more grim and relentless. If you are a food addict you are unable to stop eating sweet, sometimes starchy, high-fat carbohydrates. Indeed, simply by consuming these foods, if you are susceptible, you will be thrown into the abyss of food addiction. If you have the misfortune or mindlessness to eat some refined carbohydrates, say some jelly beans or a piece of birthday cake, you will be assaulted by uncontrollable urges to continue to eat. You may find yourself eating the entire birthday cake or leaving the party to search out more carbohydrates.  Eventually, unable to stuff any more food in your stomach, you will stop…but the longing and urge to continue to eat will remain.  Not only will you experience a constant craving for more food, especially sugary snacks, you will, according to some food addiction websites, suffer from  emotional, social and spiritual deterioration. (Curiously, television networks do not seem to realize the profound damage caused by eating sugar as evidenced by programs devoted to making incredibly decorated cakes, or people fighting over who makes the best cupcakes.)

The solution, or sobriety, if this word can be applied to the sugar and refined carbohydrate addict, requires a life-long total abstinence from these addictive foods. Organizations like Food Addicts Anonymous exist to help people recover from their addiction.

Is it possible that for some, eating cookies or a slice of bread causes them to become food addicts? Maybe. But it is also possible that the reasons driving a compulsion to eat are more complex, and have to do as much with psychological and physiological factors as swallowing a piece of bread. Binge eating disorder and bulimia, two eating disorders characterized by compulsive overeating, are associated with complex psychological problems, not a simple food addiction. Someone who weighs 750 pounds or more, and cannot stop compulsive eating needs solutions to lose weight far more complex than eliminating flour and sugar. Self-described chocoholics (people addicted to chocolate) usually manage to eat normal amounts of ordinary non-chocolate foods most of the time.

Are there reasons people may find themselves with a compulsion to eat sugary carbohydrates other than the random digestion of a sugar cube? Below are some situations that cause people to crave carbohydrates:

People treated with antidepressants and related medications report intense cravings for carbohydrates, especially sweet ones. Why the medications cause these cravings is not understood, but the cravings are recognized as a side effect of the medications, not a food addiction. When medications are stopped, the cravings disappear.

Women crave sugary carbohydrates toward the end of their menstrual cycle, right before menstruation begins, and for some it is all they want to eat. Their longing for these foods are so intense that a cartoonist named Boynton pictured a premenstrual woman saying ‘I could kill for chocolate.’

Is this an addiction? Doubtful, since women return to eating normally as soon as menstruation begins.

A decrease in hours of daylight characteristic of late fall and winter is associated with a type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. A milder form is simply called the, ‘Winter Blues.’ Typically, the mood change is accompanied by an almost insatiable need to eat sweet carbohydrates; indeed, this is one of the ways this depression is diagnosed.  But how can it be an addiction if it mysteriously disappears as soon as daylight increases, and is usually gone by late spring?

High-protein diets that forbid or limit carbohydrate consumption may cause a sugar addiction due to a decrease in brain serotonin levels. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for affective mood, appetite, and pain perception, is made only when the consumption of carbohydrates allows the brain to receive the tryptophan it needs to make new serotonin. Craving carbohydrates, like thirst when not enough water has been consumed, may be the signal sent to indicate that the brain needs to make serotonin.

Stress and carbohydrate consumption go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Studies in which people were given, covertly, carbohydrate or protein-containing beverages decreased their feelings of depression only after consuming the carbohydrates. This is probably due to an increase in serotonin production. People tend to self-medicate with carbohydrates to decrease the emotional discomfort of stress. If the stress doesn’t go away, neither does the carbohydrate consumption. Therefore a so-called food addiction may last as long as the stress. The best way to stop the overconsumption of carbohydrates, if indeed that is occurring, is to stop the stress.

Is that plausible, really?

Our bodies and minds can certainly exist without the consumption of sugary carbohydrates. But let’s wait until there is evidence from a placebo-controlled, double-blind studies (neither the subject nor researcher know what is being consumed) that eating a graham cracker, a pancake with a drizzle of maple syrup or their equivalent in sugar grams is generating a food addiction. The situations that cause a craving for sweet carbohydrates such as depression or PMS are difficult enough without the additional burden of worrying that a few gumdrops are going to turn these eaters into addicts.

It’s Time to Give Your Exercise Some Fresh Air

Move your body out of the gym and go outside, into the fresh air. Soon, in a month or so, it may be too hot and humid to exercise outside, or in certain parts of the country, too wet and/or buggy. But now, despite the sometimes yo-yo effects of late Spring weather that bounces around the temperature scale, the weather is usually sufficiently benign to make walking, biking, running or playing tennis possible and enjoyable.

Switching to outside physical activity from the cardiovascular, weight-lifting machines, dance and yoga classes, may seem like an excuse to decrease the intensity and even duration of exercise. Obviously a stroll through a nearby park to look at the ducklings will not increase your heart rate or make you break a sweat, and it is doubtful you will enlarge your arm muscles plucking dandelions from the grass. And unlike a gym cardiovascular machine that measures your caloric output, your wearable activity-monitoring device may be unable to calculate accurately the calories you are using when sweeping out the garage, pushing your bike up a hill too steep to ride, or turning over the soil for spring planting. But the benefits of transferring at least some of your workout time to outside activities goes far beyond knowing exactly how many calories you are expending.

The most obvious benefit from exercising outside is fresh air (unless you are allergic to pollens, or the only air available is polluted from car and factory exhausts).  Replacing the recirculated air of a gym that probably contains the sweat of many members with the freshness of an early morning breeze on your face has to make you feel good.  Changing the exercise environment from the four walls of a health club to the openness of your neighborhood, park, nearby river bank, or lake, decreases boredom and makes physical activity feel more natural. Running or walking on the treadmill is excellent exercise, but after months of doing so, you begin to wonder whether you should be arriving at some destination after all the miles you have covered. When you do the same activity outside, you actually arrive at a destination and enjoy changes in scenery along the way, rather than only seeing old Kardashian reruns on the machine’s monitor.

And then there is always the shock to find that your well-trained body, capable of doing miles on an indoor bike or elliptical machine or treadmill, is struggling against wind gusts, uneven pavements, long hills, and not always winning.  A fellow gym member was amazed at how hard it was for her to bike during a weekend on Cape Cod. “First the wind was blowing in my face on my way out, but somehow it changed direction when I did… so it blew in my face on my way back! And then the hills…Endless. I thought I was in good shape, but by the time I reached the top of the last one, I was panting so hard I had to stop riding to catch my breath.And I can bike miles at a high resistance indoors.“

Another great aspect of an outdoor workout is that you are forced to exercise in a non-climate controlled environment, which sometimes makes physical activity more difficult, but of course, more realistic.You may have to adjust your exercise to unseasonably cold or hot temperatures, or plan what you are going to wear so you can shed clothes when you become hot, and put them back on when you stop and cool down.This adds another dimension to your exercise and in a sense, makes it feel considerably more natural than exercising inside.

Physical activity is not limited to an outdoor version of activities in the gym; obviously there are many activities that, with rare exceptions, cannot be done in a health club such as kayaking, mountain hiking, and softball.  Many of the chores that pop up like dandelions during the late spring require physical labor: washing windows, painting…with all the scraping and sanding that precedes it, yard and garden work (this can be endless), hauling stuff to the dump, cleaning and repairing boats, bikes, and prepping the backyard grill.  Several hours of washing windows may challenge even the best gym exercised arms and back. Digging and pulling out weeds and then raking winter debris from the lawn can feel like more of a workout than soul cycle.

Having a well-exercised body from a winter of exercising inside will make it easier to adapt to any type of outdoor activities. But if you are one of those people who thought about going to the gym but that’s about as far as you got, consider this: If you start now, doing some exercise outside – long walks, bike rides, gardening, a day hike through a nearby conservation area, painting the metal lawn furniture – and keep it up… by the time the weather gets cold, you might like it enough to continue, even inside a gym.


Relieving Pain Without Gaining Weight

Eating to deal with chronic pain is often overlooked as a cause of weight gain, overlooked by everyone, that is, but the over eater. Individuals who experience pain for days, or even years, also often suffer from the collateral damage of obesity or being overweight. The overeating occurs either as a response to pain itself, depression, and/or sleeplessness due to pain. Too much weight may exacerbate pain in bones, joints and muscles,* and make even gentle exercise difficult because it is so much harder to move.

Pain often seems less bearable at night; perhaps because there are fewer distractions. Often pain drives us from bed and we wander around the house hoping the pain will recede so we can go to sleep. Munching on snacks to relieve pain and the anxiety and frustration at not being able to go to sleep is common.  And the overeating carries over to the next day in an attempt to feed wakefulness into a drowsy body and mind.

Lack of sleep and chronic pain, not unexpectedly, are often accompanied by depression. Who wouldn’t be depressed if neither a good night’s sleep nor a life free of pain was attainable?  Anti-depressants are often prescribed, but they may cause intense cravings and overeating.

And, of course, pain itself may provoke excessive food intake.

I still remember the frantic way a co-worker raced into our office asking if anyone had any chocolate. Someone handed her a chocolate bar, and she tore off the paper and gobbled it down in seconds. She normally was extremely controlled and deliberate; the most impulsive thing she might do is kill a mosquito, so we were amazed at her behavior.

“I am getting a migraine,” she explained, after the chocolate had been eaten. “I usually carry something sugary with me to eat when I feel one coming on, but I didn’t have anything with me.  If I manage to eat some sugar, sometimes I can stop the pain from worsening. ”

Overeating as a result of chronic pain is probably even more common than eating during an acute painful episode. A young woman who came to me for weight-loss counseling after a painful recovery from a sinus operation told me, “I just wanted to eat sweets! I don’t know why, but they made it easier to bear the pain, and gaining weight was not as important as having some pain-free moments.”

Is it possible to eat to endure a painful condition and not gain weight?

Yes. If eating is not indiscriminate, but rather focused on foods which will reduce pain and are eaten in the correct portion size.  There is a specific class of foods that will decrease pain: these are sweet and starchy carbohydrates.  Protein has no effect mitigating pain, nor does fat. Eating a bacon cheeseburger or barbecued spare ribs may act as a distraction from pain because of the pleasure of eating these foods, but will not diminish your brain’s perception of painful signals from your nervous system.

Carbohydrates however, (except fruit sugar, fructose) will decrease discomfort by bringing about an increase in brain serotonin. Carbohydrates do this by potentiating the entry into the brain of tryptophan, the amino acid from which the brain makes serotonin.  (Even though tryptophan is found in protein, eating protein prevents serotonin from being made.)

Serotonin, a multi-tasking neurotransmitter involved in mood and eating regulation, is known to  diminish pain. In fact, this is why anti-depressants that increase serotonin activity are sometimes prescribed for the chronic pain of fibromyalgia, and even back pain. However, these drugs do not increase the amount of serotonin in the brain; only eating carbohydrates can do this.

Twenty-five or thirty grams of a fat-free or very low-fat carbohydrate food like pretzels, Cheerios or oatmeal are sufficient to raise brain serotonin levels. Eating two or three 25-gram snacks a day to reduce pain contributes no more than 300-400 calories to the day’s calorie total. This is less than the calorie content of a modern day bagel. It is important that the carbohydrate be consumed on an empty stomach, however, to speed up digestion so pain is decreased more quickly. It is also important to avoid carbohydrates that are processed with fat such as cookies, ice cream, piecrust, fries, chips, and chocolate, because fat slows down digestion and adds unwanted calories. Of course it is more pleasurable to snack on these foods than steamed rice or rice cakes. However, the long-lasting comfort carbohydrates provide comes not from their effect on taste buds, but from their effect on increasing serotonin.

Anyone who has suffered acute or chronic pain yearns for its end. Eating carbohydrates won’t bring this about. But doing so might make the pain bearable at least for a few hours and that small relief is welcome.

After Stress Stops, Overeating May Continue

Many of us are familiar with a tendency to eat in response to a non-catastrophic stress event. (Impending plane crashes, avalanches, or lighting strikes rarely call for snacks.) An income tax audit, burst water pipes, a fender bender, or a long delay in an airline departure may make us first gnash our teeth, and then put something in our mouths. Sooner or later, ways to cope with the stressful situation are generated (i.e., the plane departs), and we no longer feel the need to use food as an emotional pain reliever.

There are some stressful situations so prolonged that even the memory of them can provoke overeating for many weeks, even months, after the stress is over.  I recently visited with S, a friend whom I do not see often because we don’t live in the same city, and we hadn’t seen each other in over a year. I was shocked by how much weight she gained. Never thin during the time I knew her, she was now morbidly obese, and my plans for us to walk a few blocks to a restaurant were dropped because she couldn’t walk more than a few feet. Catching up with each other’s news, I waited to hear about some stressful situation that might explain her weight gain, but there was none. She had recently retired, but was actively developing a non-profit enterprise she had long dreamed of. Friends, financial situation, and family were all fine, according to her account of the past year.

So why the weight gain? She had told me many times that she ate out of stress, but there was no obvious recent stress to explain her adding at least 40 pounds to her frame over the past 12 or so months.

Later on, as we reminisced about her past job, the reason for her overeating became clear. She had taken on a project no one else in her company wanted to try, due to high risk of failure. She succeeded by tirelessly working, getting no more than 3 hours of sleep a night for months on end. Indeed, she had time for nothing else except work, and once told me that she caught herself dozing while standing up and another time, leaving for work, she’d forgotten to put a skirt on over her slip.

This was no recent event, the project was completed successfully at least five years earlier, but the emotion with which she described her work was as intense, as if she had finished it a few days before our lunch. She told me over and over again how hard she worked, how many more hours she clocked than her staff did, how her meals were eaten at the company cafeteria, and at night these meals were supplemented by snacks from the vending machines.

“I had time for nothing else but work. Nothing…” she recounted.

Now it seemed as though leaving work, this company that demanded so much from her, was causing a delayed stress response. Perhaps the overeating and subsequent weight gain was her way of coping with the stress from that time. Certainly she must have experienced not only intense fatigue, but also the fear that her coworkers were right and the project could nor would not succeed.

S is so obese that some type of bariatric surgery may be suggested to her as a way of bringing her weight to a manageable level. Certainly her inability to walk because of shortness of breath was very worrisome. Yet should she opt for such a procedure, or any other weight-loss intervention, it was doubtful that she or her medical/nutrition team would recognize the reason for her substantial weight gain. Nor is it likely that S would reveal the reason for her ballooning into morbid obesity, as she probably is unaware of it. And yet will she be able to keep her weight off unless she recognizes the reasons it was gained?

Overeating in response to a delayed stress reaction may be common, but it’s often unrecognized. Many times a physician will ask about previous stress in trying to understand why a new medical problem has arisen. The stressful event may have occurred months ago, but the aftermath may show itself in rashes or insomnia or mysterious aches and pains. The physician is probably less likely to look at someone who has gained a great deal of weight recently to ask about past stressful events. And to be fair, the patient may not be able to make the connection, either.

Stress may be close to the top of a long list of reasons why people gain/lose/regain weight, or can’t lose it at all. If it is ignored or underestimated in developing an effective weight loss intervention, then the probability of long-term weight loss success is diminished. The dieter might be better served by focusing on the emotions behind the overeating before being treated for the overeating, or at least at the same time. It may take longer to deal with the psychological aspects of weight gain, and required weight loss, as other than the physical, but doing so will guarantee a better long-term outcome.

Stopping After-Diet Weight Gain: Is It Possible?

A sobering report in the New York Times about the weight gained by contestants on “The Biggest Loser” confirms what every failed dieter knows: it is harder to keep weight off than to lose it. Research on post-dieting metabolism and eating behavior among these contestants might convince some wannabe dieters to indefinitely put off even starting a diet. The post-diet contestants were found to have such slow metabolisms that their bodies were using up far fewer calories than predicted, based on their height and weight. People of the same size who had not been on a prolonged diet were found to be using up less than 800 calories. It was no surprise that the contestants were gaining weight.

If that were not bad enough, the contestants experienced an almost constant need to overeat. The urges were strong enough to cause them to binge on foods that never should have been eaten, even in small quantities, if they were to remain thin.

These changes in metabolism and absence of self-control over eating are hardly unknown. Decades ago, scientists measured changes in calorie use before and following substantial weight loss. They put people in a room called a “respiration chamber” for 24-48 hours, and measured how many calories were used when the volunteer was in a relatively inactive state. The results were consistent with those reported for the Biggest Losers: After substantial weight loss the body uses markedly fewer calories than those of people of the same size that have not lost weight. Why this occurs is still not understood years after the first observations. Changes in the activity of certain thyroid hormones might cause a slowdown of metabolism, but other factors may also be involved which have not yet been identified. This is a significant problem since it means that at present there is no way of preventing others who endure a rapid weight loss caused, essentially, by low rations and excess exercise from suffering the same fate.

Other possible explanations for the post-diet side effect of weight gain are related to the reasons weight was added initially. Some of the contestants had been gaining weight since childhood and were unable to stop the weight gain. Why were they unable to halve their weight gain before it transformed them into morbidly obese individuals? Were they gaining weight because their bodies did not have the same control mechanisms to regulate their food intake? Were they always less active than their thinner peers? Did they drink soda instead of water, eat fried fatty food rather than lean protein and vegetables, and consume many large meals each day? Was food used to dampen emotional pain, or as entertainment?

Each of us have our own reasons for overeating, whether it is only a few extra calories, or several thousand. Not knowing why, or just as likely unable to change the “Why?” will make maintaining weight loss very difficult.

Undoing the side effect, weight gain, after successful weight loss requires:

• Decreasing post-diet hunger and lack of satiety;
• Developing strategies to halt overeating in response to emotional and situational triggers;
• Adherence to a food regimen compatible with anticipated post-diet metabolic slowing;
• Investigating whether changes in gut bacteria allow too many calories to enter the body;
• Decreasing sleep disturbances that trigger fatigue associated overeating; as well as
• Preventing overeating triggered by seasonal decrease in sunlight.

The immediate problem that requires intervention is making it possible for the ex-dieter to adhere to a reduced-calorie food plan. Unless the calories consumed correspond to those required by the now sluggish metabolism, weight will be gained again. And yet, the dieter is being asked to stay on a post-diet diet. How frustrating and difficult! After months of being caloric deprived, the dieter is being told to continue the deprivation.

Perhaps it is time to help the dieter by offering temporary treatment with an appetite-suppressing drug.

The FDA has approved several new appetite-suppressant drugs over the past three years. They all have side effects, some of which, such as elevated blood pressure or increased heart rate, might be dangerous for an obese individual who already suffers from cardiovascular problems. But if healthy, normal weight post-dieters used these drugs? Their side effects may be less potentially harmful.

These drugs decrease hunger and cravings and increase satiety. They might help the ex-dieter follow a reduced calorie regimen at least for some of the time it takes for their bodies to become metabolically normal. If they are no longer beset with the urge to overeat and the frustration of seeing their weight increase, they might have the mental and emotional energy to grapple with the triggers that caused them to become obese.

We still must figure out how to prevent the metabolic meltdown that makes it so easy to gain weight after a diet. We still must find out how to prevent post-diet weakening of the satiety signals and exacerbation of urges to binge. We still must develop counseling paradigms during and after the diet to address all the factors that caused weight to be gained. Without these answers, the dieter may not be able to escape the side effect of successful weight loss, i.e., weight regained.

Not All Vegetarian Meals Are Created Healthy

The dinner invitation seemed perfect. A restaurant located near a downtown farmer’s market was serving, once a week, a gourmet vegetarian meal. We would sit at long tables and be served, family style, several courses featuring locally grown, very fresh vegetables. A group of us decided to try the new menu. Gourmet food that was good for us. It seemed too good to be true.

Alas, it was too good to be true. To be sure, the farmer’s market was still selling vegetables when we arrived, but was about to close. We did sit at long tables and passed platters from diner to diner, and there were plenty of vegetables. The problem was that the vegetables no longer looked like vegetables. With the exception of a pinto bean, wild rice and lettuce dish, the vegetables were coated with a cornmeal or a flour crust, and fried or, chopped and shaped into pancakes and then fried.  Carefully dissecting the fried cornmeal crust encasing the slice of green tomato I found (no surprise) one slice of green tomato. The main dish was chicken-fried summer squash. A roundish piece of breaded something was placed on a dense pancake of cornmeal and corn kernels. When I detached the crust, I found a chunk of yellow summer squash that tasted like plain boiled yellow nothing; in fact the fried chicken batter was so thick and stiff that it retained the shape of the squash even after it had been removed.  Dessert was ice cream and apple crumble, a strange dessert for a spring farm produce menu, but gobbled by the diners who seemed to feel they deserved something sweet and gooey after eating all their vegetables.

The meal left the diners, at least our friends, discontented. We had expected to be eating a variety of vegetables that were on the A list of nutrient-dense foods and prepared in such a way that their innate vegetableness was featured. Instead, to be certain, we got vegetables ranging from green tomatoes, yellow squash, and corn, all with relatively few nutrients. The addition of high fat, high carb, coatings added calories without any nutritional benefit. The one dish without breading, the beans, wild rice and lettuce, was probably a little more nutritious, especially the beans, which would have delivered some protein if a cup or so had been eaten. But judging by the amount of food left on the platters as they were passed, people ate only cautious amounts of the somewhat hard-to-digest beans.

The take-away message from this meal was hardly likely to impress a dietician:

  • Many people are excited about eating vegetables that are transformed into vegetarian versions of fried chicken or fritters;
  • As long as we eat vegetables, we are, apparently, getting all the nutrients we need, and protein isn’t one of them;
  • All vegetables are nutritionally equal as long as they are fresh from the farm; and
  • If you serve a yummy dessert, people may forget they had only vegetables for their main course.

Of course, this was only one meal, and maybe it was a good way to get a recalcitrant spouse to go out to a restaurant that specialized in something other than meat and potatoes. If this unwilling vegetable eater enjoyed the southern style fried summer squash, perhaps the next time he or she would eat the squash without its case of fried breading.  The meal also highlighted the advantages of buying produce locally grown and sold, supposedly, only hours after being picked (although the wild rice was certainly not harvested in this south Florida town).

But the meal obscured the true delight in eating vegetables and fruits that make it from vegetable patch to table in under a day. It is not necessary to muck around with corn on the cob so fresh the sugar in the kernels has no chance of turning into starch. It is not necessary to fry tomatoes when their skin conveys the warmth of the sun and biting into them spurts their tangy juice over one’s hands. It is not necessary to combine an unusual vegetable like wild rice with odd companions like soggy cooked lettuce or mealy beans. This grass that looks and tastes like a grain deserves to be introduced alone to those who have never eaten it.

Fortunately, for those whose taste buds and curiosity motivate them to eat more main course vegetables, there are countless Internet recipes for every vegetable imaginable and cookbooks that span international cuisines. Yotam Ottolenghi’s new book Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London has recipes that span several continents worth of vegetarian cooking. His last book, Plenty (Chronicle Books, 2011), was called,  “…(the) vegetarian cookbook of the decade…” by the Washington Post and just the pictures alone are mouth watering. No one misses animal protein after making these recipes. Moreover, vegetables that most of us walk past without buying, or are unaware of tend, to be featured in cookbooks specializing in vegetables. Certainly the recipes go far beyond fried green tomatoes and yellow squash. Ottolenghi’s recipes and those featured in other vegetarian cookbooks, are healthy and offer the variety of vegetables that dieticians are telling us we need to eat in order to meet our nutrient needs. The bad news is that one has to make these recipes at home. The good news is that they are so delicious you may find yourself going off to the farmer’s market and returning home for your own gourmet meal.