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Moods for Overeating: Good, Bad and Bored

“I am in the mood for  . . .(fill in the blank.)“

How many times have we said this to ourselves or others as we plan lunch or dinner? (Very few people are in the mood for anything except more sleep in the morning.) Sometimes the “mood” for a particular type of ethnic cooking or a prime piece of beef is heightened because the meal is celebratory, or a respite between bouts of unrelenting work or home meal preparation.  But this type of mood-influenced eating rarely lasts beyond a meal or two, and rarely leads to sustained overeating and weight gain. Too many calories may be consumed at a dinner celebrating the completion of a difficult project or an anniversary, but this type of eating rarely results in continued excessive calorie intake.

Not so the type of eating generated by moods we would rather not have. Boredom, and its frequent companion loneliness, may lead to an overly important focus on what to eat as a distraction from a long weekend or evenings alone with little to do. Rainy vacation days with few places to go inside to escape the dreary weather often brings tourists into restaurants for meals for which they may not even be hungry. It is something to do.  Long distance flights generate an appetite for foods that if served on the ground would be rejected immediately. Yet flyers that are not hungry will eat them because, again, it is something to do.

Bad moods are different. Anxiety, depression, premenstrual syndrome, and posttraumatic stress disorder are among negative or dysphoric moods that can provoke overeating, sometimes for days every month (PMS) or years (like PTSD when undiagnosed or untreated). Anxiety seems to trigger the excessive eating of binge eating disorder.  (“Emotional eating, alexithymia and binge-eating disorder in obese women,” Pinaquy, S., Chabrol, H., Louvet, J., Barbe, P., Obes, Re., 2003 11:195-201.)  But anxiety may also cause chronic overeating without the dramatic bouts of excessive food intake seen in binge disorder. In that case, the overeating may be enough to hinder successful weight loss and /or cause small but continuous weight gain. (“The association between obesity and anxiety disorders in the population: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” Gariepy, G., Nitka, D., and Schmitz, N., International J of Obesity 21;2010 34: 407-419).

Sometimes the obesity, which results from “bad mood” overeating, does not appear until years after the mood disorder appears. Researchers who examine the results of longitudinal health surveys have identified participants who have mood disorders at a young age and then become obese many years later. Data from the Nurses’ Health Study that began in l989 was used to see whether women who were diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder during the early years of the survey were more likely to be obese in later years than women without this disorder.  They found that having PTSD was a risk factor for obesity; women with this disorder gained more weight than women who experienced trauma but not PTSD and much more than women with neither.  (“The weight of traumatic stress: a prospective study of posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms and weight status in women,” Kubzansky, L., Bordelois, P., Jun, H., Roberrts, A., et al, AMA Psychiatry 2014; 71: 44-51.)

Depression is also a predictor of obesity and, like PTSD, the obesity may not appear for years after the depressive episodes.  Several research groups have used health surveys following male and female participants over many years to look at the weight status of people who were clinically depressed when they entered the study as older adolescents or young adults.  A significant number of them became obese a few or several years after they no longer were depressed. (“Trajectories of Change in Obesity and Symptoms of Depression: The CARDIA study,” Needham, B., Epel, E., Adler, N., Kiefe, C., Am J Public Health 2010; 100: 1040-106. “Overweight, Obesity, and Depression,” Luppino, F., deWit, L., Bouvy, P., et al, Arch Gen Psychiatry 2010; 67: 220-229.) Because the obesity appeared much later than the depression, the weight gain is probably not due to treatment with antidepressants although the studies did not look at this specifically.

 

We know that obesity and emotional overeating are strongly linked; certainly eating in response to anxiety and stress is evidence of this. Sometimes an immediate response to a stress is to grab something to eat. A friend who was renovating an old house told me that the first thing she did after she found that the closets were too narrow to accept a normal-size hanger (after the renovation) was to go to a convenience store and buy candy.  But what explains the development of obesity years after women develop PTSD or among depressed individuals years after the depression is gone?

The problem with looking at survey data as opposed to being able to talk to the people who provided the data is that these questions can’t be answered.  Were levels of physical activity low because of stress-associated fatigue? Did the people who were depressed and then years later became obese suffer in the years in between from chronic “blue mood”? Might they too have been too tired to exercise?  Was food a solution for their moods?  Did they eat to feel better, heedless of the calories they were consuming? Did they eat what they wanted because they had had enough deprivation in their lives and did not want to add the deprivation of a diet to everything else?

More research is needed to know the answers. But what we do know is that when people overeat, the reasons are as likely to be due to their mood as to what is tempting them.

 

Would Walkable Sidewalks Keep Us Thinner?

A few weeks ago on a trip to a picture perfect Vermont town, we asked the proprietor of our B&B if we could walk to the concert that night.

“You can, sure… it is less than a mile, but it will be dangerous walking home in the dark. There are no sidewalks and no street lights,” she told us.  So we drove, despite feeling silly at using the car for such a short distance, but happy we had done so when we left the concert. Ground fog was adding to the darkness in concealing the road, and we were sure we would not have felt safe walking back up the hilly, winding route.

The next day, we chatted about the lack of sidewalks and street lights with our hostess. She told us that daytime walking on the roads was manageable in the non-snow months, but not in the winter; the snow banks reduced the width of the roads and eliminated any possibility of stepping off the pavement.  “See, there’s is no side of the road to stand on when a pick-up truck comes speeding down the mountain….no one walks; it’s just too easy to be hit.”

There is no lack of activities in Vermont to provide opportunities to exercise, even if taking long walks in the winter is not one of them (Unless it is on a packed snow trail.) But unlike the quick convenience of going out the door to take a walk when sidewalks (plowed, of course) do exist, the lack of sidewalks in suburban or rural areas makes this simple activity difficult to carry out.

For the exercise committed, there are, of course, numerous opportunities to engage in physical exercise regardless of weather or environment. Not so for those who prefer being sedentary and are unlikely to seek out opportunities to move. In an episode of a television program focused on finding a house to buy, the client announced that she was too old (she was in her fifties) to buy a house with stairs. “Too much walking, “she told her realtor. Not surprisingly, the community in which she was house hunting had no sidewalks. If this woman had been advised to walk for her health and weight, she would have had a ready excuse. “Where? There is no place to walk where I live!”

No one has to be told about the rising incidence of obesity. Simply looking around confirms its prevalence, although the effects such as diabetes, back & leg pain, as well as the increased risk of certain types of cancer are silent.  One obvious culprit is that we eat too much, in part because portion sizes of just about everything have increased. Another fault lay in that we no longer live a lifestyle readily allowing us to burn off those excess calories. When physical activity was unavoidable in order to earn a living and maintain a household, a large caloric intake provided the fuel for the constant physical activity.  Now caloric intake has remained the same, or most likely increased, while physical activity has become optional for the most of us most of the time.

Because they eliminate a source of calorie use, might the absence of walkable sidewalks be a contributing factor to the continuous rise in obesity? The Journal of the American Medical Association (“JAMA”) published a study in 2016 showing that residents living in walkable urban neighborhoods had a slower increase in obesity and diabetes than those living in less walkable ones.  For this specific research, almost 9,000 urban neighborhoods in southern Ontario were studied over more than 11 years.  This study’s “Walkability Index” was based on safety of the sidewalks, the residential and commercial density, cross walks at intersections, schools, coffee shops, banks, and other retail establishments which might be walkable destinations.  People living in the walkable neighborhoods, and New York City is another example; they use sidewalks not only to get to their routine destinations like work, stores and restaurants but as places for urban hikes. These city dwellers may spend an entire day outside, hiking and exploring different parts of their city. The seemingly limitless places to walk allow them to do so.

However, it’s important to note the benefits of walking by city dwellers are not available to residents of towns such as the one we visited in rural Vermont. The population density is too low to justify the expense of sidewalks, and indeed many of roads are not even paved. Of course there are numerous places to hike, but this activity is not only seasonally limited, but also limited to people whose stamina and age enable them to climb mountain trails.

Perhaps the answer is to emulate many European cities which have set aside parkland filled with paved paths for walking. From my limited experience of these parks which I have seen in Holland, France and Germany, they are usually filled with walkers early in the day and then especially in the summer, after dinner. Benches are numerous for those who need to rest or just admire a view.  Strolling through one of these walking parks has the additional advantage of allowing members of a community to see and talk with each other. People often walk in small groups, or stop and greet others coming in the opposite direction. When so many members of a neighborhood are out walking?  It is easy to see this activity as a routine and healthful aspect of the day.

Eating less to prevent weight gain and/or lose weight is difficult because potential temptation lurks in the next meal. Walking may not compensate entirely for excess calories, but it can have a positive effect on preventing weight gain… unless of course, one walks to the doughnut shop.

Cite: Association of Neighborhood Walkability With Change in Overweight, Obesity, and Diabetes. Creatore M, Glazier R, Moineddin R.  JAMA  2016, 315; 2211-2220

The Covert Bullying of Obese Adults

When I congratulated a friend on her promotion to the head of a non-profit organization, she smiled and then told me it almost did not happen. “I learned that someone on the board did not want me to get the position and campaigned actively against me,” she told me.

“Why?” I asked. “You were obviously the front-runner.”

“Because I am fat,” she replied. “He told everyone on the board that he would not hire anyone who was fat. At least he is not criticizing my competence, only my size.”

But she was wrong.

The board member was likely not rejecting her solely because he believed her size or shape might affect her stamina in wearing the hats of an administrator, fundraiser, and creative director of a mid-size organization. He may have believed that her obesity reflected a deficit in her overall ability. A review of many studies of employer attitudes toward obese workers presented evidence that obese people are thought to have less leadership potential than normal-weight individuals. The obese are viewed as lazy, undisciplined, slow, unmotivated, and incapable of advancing to positions of responsibility. Thus my friend, whose resume indicated an unusually strong record of leadership and creativity in a previous position, could have been judged as inferior on these traits simply because she was fat.

Had she been male and obese, her size may not have been considered a detriment unless the job required physical skills that were difficult to perform because of weight. But an obese woman whose job requires some visibility—while fundraising, representing the organization at meetings, or giving presentations—might be passed over because of her appearance.

Had she failed to win the position, a claim that she was being discriminated against would have had no legal impact in the state in which she worked. The state of Michigan and some cities, including San Francisco and the District of Columbia, have outlawed employment discrimination against the obese.

Proving that a job is not offered or advancement not received because of size discrimination is very difficult. The board member did not publicly announce the reason for his opposition to anyone, but secretly told other members of the search committee. Happily, there were leaks, and eventually everyone in the organization knew and so did she. But even though he wished to deprive her of the position because of her weight, there was little she could do about it. What real proof did she have?

Obese employees face the same type of discrimination that smokers do, although 29 states prohibit the non-hiring of smokers. However, one justification of the employment discrimination against smokers is based on health risks to the smoker and thus increased medical costs to the employer. Other reasons include leaving the work site to smoke in a designated area, although this is a weaker argument since breaks for everyone are often built into the workday.

Many assume that the smoker, or indeed the obese individual, could quit or lose weight if he or she wanted to. Thus discrimination against these groups is sometimes justified by the belief that it’s their fault.

An article in the New England Journal of Medicine refutes the argument that smokers irresponsibly raise healthcare costs because they don’t want to stop smoking. What is rarely understood, except by ex-smokers, is how hard it is to break the addiction to nicotine. Surveys have shown that 69 percent of smokers want to quit but are unable to do so.

Losing weight and maintaining weight loss is similarly difficult, and the same uninformed attitudes persist. “Just stop eating so much and start exercising!“ (As if they hadn’t tried to do so.) The reasons for gaining weight are so varied and often so psychologically complex that simplistic solutions make about as much sense as trying to prevent the oceans from rising by stacking sandbags on a beach. I have a neighbor who gained a substantial amount of weight while she was on large doses of prednisone to reduce inflammation, and a distant relative who gained 125 pounds on a combination of antidepressants and mood stabilizers. Would they be unemployable?

The laws protecting the obese from workplace discrimination are insufficient or nonexistent. Children bullied on the playground may have more protection, because sometimes there is a teacher who can intervene. No one is watching or reprimanding the adult bully who refuses to hire or promote someone who is overweight.

Meals in a Box: The Answer to Eating Your Vegetables?

More than a dozen companies will, for a price, send you the ingredients for a complete, relatively interesting dinner, or smoothie snacks even, if you choose that option. All you have to do is open the many large and small packages, read the instructions and in 30 minutes or so, eat your own freshly prepared entrée. The concept is practical for the many who do not have the time or energy after work to figure out what to prepare for dinner and then to make sure the ingredients are in the kitchen. Meal-in-the-box choices tend to be more imaginative than grilled chicken breast and frozen veggies because professional chefs devise the menus and make available the entire ingredient list from the main course protein to a tiniest pinch of some herb or spice that the customer probably never heard of and/or doesn’t have. No looking up recipes in a cookbook or on the Internet is needed, nor guess work about the cooking methods.  Detailed instructions are given, perishable foods are kept cold with icepacks, and preparation time is thirty minutes. The end product may not get you, the customer, a spot on the Food Network program “Chopped” in which professional chefs are given ingredients in a box and compete to make an original perfectly cooked entrée and sides in thirty minutes…But unlike the competitors who turn their food over to the judges? The customers of meals in a box get to eat their finished product.

However, making the meals from the ingredients in the box will cost about twice as much as making it from ingredients assembled yourself. According to Consumer Reports, one company’s blackened tilapia dish costs almost $12.00 per person, compared to a little more than $5.00 when put together oneself. A tofu and Chinese broccoli dish from another company costs over $11.00. These ingredients are very inexpensive and will cost approximately $3.50 if you buy the ingredients from the supermarket, and even less from a Chinese grocery store.  The prices for some of these dishes are less than in a restaurant (although perhaps not for the Chinese entrée) but add up quickly as the cost is per person. Moreover, unless the customers are small eaters, no leftovers for the next day’s lunch will remain. But it is also unlikely that there will be much wasted, thrown away, uneaten food. Nor will the refrigerator fill up with plastic containers full of tidbits from previous meals.

It is no surprise, given our current fixation of dietary restrictions that gluten-free, carbohydrate-free dairy-free, vegetarian, vegan, organic (of course) calorie-restricted meals are available depending on which company is providing the foods.

But are they healthy? Will eating a meal from a box provide you with some of the vegetable, fruit, grain, protein, and dairy servings you ought to be getting? It depends. Certainly compared to many takeout and restaurant meals that tend to be free of food groups containing nutrients your body needs, the boxed to-be-prepared meals often contain substantial amounts of vegetables, and sometimes whole grains. If you tend to ignore the vegetables in your refrigerator bin until they turn into a slimy green mass, then ordering meals with a substantial amount of vegetables will ensure that you are eating this essential food group.

Yet there is a possible nutritional caveat to some of the meals. The salt content may be higher than recommended, especially if some of the seasonings contain sodium, like garlic or onion powder, or if salt if added several times during preparation. Consumer Reports analyzed sodium content and found many dishes containing 30% more than recommended, and some dishes containing as much as 1 gram of salt per serving.

Are boxed meal ingredients a trend, or the beginning of a permanent shift in the way people prepare meals? Probably the latter because they appeal not only to those who don’t (and won’t) prepare meals from scratch, but also to a generation who have been preparing meals from scratch for decades. For those who have been afraid to boil water, learning how to cook from the boxes might eventually give them confidence to cook on their own. It is sort of comparable to shifting from paint-by-numbers to covering a blank canvas with one’s own creation. For those who are tired of figuring out what to cook for dinner and despair at the high prices and noise levels of most restaurants, boxed meals are an easy way of eating interesting food less expensively (and in a setting that doesn’t require either waiting or tipping.)

Many companies are selling meals for people on all sorts of diets and presumably are competing with portion-controlled, factory-prepared meals sold by some national weight-loss companies.  Since the meals in a box are portion and ingredient controlled, the dieter does not have to be concerned about going over a calorie limit. There is no guessing about whether the weight of the entrée or the teaspoons of olive oil will fit the calorie requirements for a particular meal. On the other hand, by requiring the dieter to get involved in food preparation, she may lose her fear of not being able to prepare a meal on her own that allows her to continue to lose weight and/or keep it off.

This trend is still relatively new, but its rapid growth indicates that it meets the lifestyles demands of large numbers of people. However, since spending a little time in meal preparation is still necessary, we should not be surprised if, a few years from now, some of the boxes will contain a robot that will do the cooking.

According to a 2016 Consumer Reports analyses, home delivery of meal ingredients is about a $400 million dollars a year industry. Although the major portion of the sales are focused along the coasts and in major urban areas, sales are projected to increase throughout the country. They may not be replacing all home delivered pizza and Chinese food, but certainly offer healthier and more varied options.

How Do You Know Whether Supplement Claims are Hype or True?

At a recent university-sponsored conference on innovations in nutritional and fitness products, there was a discussion about the increasing number of fraudulent claims associated with such products in the market. When one speaker, a principal in a firm investing in start-ups specializing in fitness and nutrition, was asked how to detect ineffective or fraudulent products, he was unable to give a useful answer.

“It’s very difficult because often the claims are made up or supported by faulty research published in company-owned or for-profit journals. If it works, it is probably not a fraud,” he concluded. Someone from the audience responded with, “Yes, but placebos work also.”

The Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) can barely keep up with the proliferation of fraudulent health products. Some make claims that cannot possibly be produced by the ingredients; others contain substances which are not allowed to be sold due to serious side effects, or must be prescribed only by a physician. Oftentimes states, as well as the FDA, step in to expose the deceptive nature of claims made by supplement manufacturers. In a well-publicized case a few years ago the New York State Attorney General’s office tested the contents of several popular herbal supplements and found either none of the advertised active ingredients in the product or levels too low to be effective. This past winter, the New York State Attorney General and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) charged a company that claimed its product was shown in clinical trials to improve memory and cognition with making, “false and unsubstantiated claims” because the study cited by the company actually showed the product not working any better than a placebo. Yet the advertisements, seen frequently on television, were so compelling that the sales topped $165 million.

The most common claims seen on the labels of such dubious products are for weight loss, sexual performance (erectile dysfunction), memory loss, and mood.  Some claims are almost magical in the sweep of their promises: A New York firm claimed its dietary supplement treated senile dementia, brain atrophy, atherosclerosis, kidney dysfunction, gangrene, depression and osteoarthritis along with lung, cervical and prostate cancer. Alas, for anyone now wanting to buy a product that will cure all that is wrong with you, it is no longer available. U.S Marshalls seized it after a request by the FDA in 2012.

Personal testimonials are often so compelling that they sell a product. Who hasn’t looked at the before and after pictures of someone who used a weight-loss product and marveled at the change? Statements like, “I am no longer hungry, depressed, diabetic, or bald!“ beckon to us from the Internet, tabloid magazines, newspaper advertisements and television spots. These people must be real, one thinks…and if he grows hair, maybe I will also.

Health products claiming a quick fix such as, “Cover your bald spot by next Tuesday!” or, “Lose your double chin by this afternoon!” are also hard to resist, but should be regarded with as much suspicion as someone trying to sell you a bridge. Glue is a quick fix; health products rarely are. The FDA tells us to beware of health products attempting to gain a marketing edge by claiming that they are all natural. By the way, snake venom is also natural.

One easy way to detect whether a claim is legitimate or not is whether the term, “Miracle” is used on the label. Look at it this way, if the words “miracle cure” are attached to the ad, consider it a miracle that anyone is foolish enough to buy the product.

But of course there are many over-the-counter (non-prescription) supplements that work, are safe, contain the dose of active ingredients printed on the label, and don’t hide drugs deemed illegal by the FDA. If a combination of vitamin D and calcium promises bone health in the amounts recommended by physicians, such a supplement will help to restore bone cell growth and decrease bone fragility.  Supplemental vitamins, minerals and protein will help restore depleted levels of these nutrients due to prolonged illness, chemotherapy, or gastrointestinal impairment. Again, it is imperative to check with a healthcare giver about quantities; more is not always better.

But what if you are not sure whether the claims are to be believed. What should you do?

Ask your health care provider. Take a picture of the ingredient label on a product you are thinking of buying, and ask whether any of the ingredients actually do what they are supposed to. Use the Internet to look up the ingredients to see what studies support the claims of the product. Write to the FDA.

Example:  A product relieving anxiety and stress claims that the ingredients, “…promote serotonin synthesis.” But the main ingredients are chamomile and valerian, herbal products that may cause drowsiness; these do not promote serotonin. A physician will know that the product is incapable of increasing serotonin synthesis.

Here’s another: A product containing saffron extract as its main ingredient claims, ”…Reduces cravings, boosts metabolism, blocks appetite, lowers blood pressure and increases energy.”  Investigating whether there are any studies linking saffron extract to all these wondrous health effects may seem like a nuisance, but will save money and possibly, ill side effects.

Signing up for the FDA Consumer Updates page is essential for anyone routinely buying supplements because of their weekly descriptions of products containing hidden drugs, fillers, or bits and pieces of insects or twigs. Recently, the agency has warned consumers about more than 100 products containing illegal drugs; most of these products are sold for sexual enhancement, weight loss and bodybuilding.

Avoiding supplements that may not work, may not contain the ingredients listed, or contain ingredients that are harmful cannot be ensured. But a little homework and help from the FDA make the odds better that what you buy is safe and effective.

Social Loneliness May Make the Depressed Even More So

Loneliness is a state that may affect everyone at some point in his or her life. It is not necessary to go on a trek across the continent, or row alone across the Atlantic to feel lonely. Sitting by oneself in a crowded movie theater or restaurant, or walking on your own on a lovely spring afternoon in a park filled with couples, families and friends can feel just as isolating.

Sometimes social isolation is a matter of choice or temporary circumstance. A relative of mine, who had to rewrite a 500-page thesis in order to turn it into a book, willingly isolated herself for months in order to accomplish this task. A parent unable to leave the house because of weather and sick children may not speak to anyone over the age of six for a few days, but knows that eventually this will change. A computer coder may shun company for days in order to finish a time dependent task; so too may anyone involved in a creative act.

Others are alone too much, but not by choice or a temporary situation. It is a fact of their lives. The groups one thinks about first are the elderly, and those we call “shut-ins.” They weren’t always so alone but sickness, frailty, lack of easy transportation, death of spouses, friends, and even adult children…potentially their declining eye sight and hearing, limited financial resources, and fear of crime may result in an extremely limited interaction with the social world.

“My friends are all dead,” my husband’s uncle used to tell us as he reached the late nineties. “All the guys I would play cards with and have a meal with, they are all gone.”

Residence in an assisted-living facility may surround an elderly individual with people, but social interactions and friendships do not necessarily follow. A sad scene familiar to those of us who have visited relatives in facilities is a row of residents, lined up in wheelchairs, who are not talking to each other, and indeed seem to be totally isolated despite the other people around.

But one does not have to live into old age to feel this social loneliness. People of all ages who are suffering from mental illness can experience it at any age. In a recent report put out by an Australian mental health support organization, about 66% of people with mental illness report feeling socially isolated compared with about 10% of the general population. The reasons for this vary from lack of money and/or transportation, misunderstanding among others as to the nature of the illness, and even fear of others prevent forming a close relationship. Those with mental illness often claim that they are stigmatized, or at the very least, treated differently.

“Maybe people believe we are going to behave in unpredictable, embarrassing, or violent ways,” said a friend who has suffered from bipolar disease for years. “There is reluctance for a casual interaction to go much further.”nability to become involved in activities that may decrease loneliness is sometimes generated by mental illness itself. Social phobia, fears about public spaces (although these days, this may just be commonsense), inability to leave the house, hold a job or even communicate without difficulty; all reduce the possibility of interacting with others. A weight-loss client of mine was very specific about the days she could come to my office, as they were dependent on her cycles of mania and depression. Another client who was depressed would stay up very late at night and sleep most of the day, thereby avoiding the necessity to interact with anyone.

Regardless of the causes of social isolation and the groups who are affected by it, being alone is not good for one’s mental and physical health. Being alone most of the time is associated with increased weight, poorer diet, decreased exercise, alcohol abuse, greater risk of sickness, and even a shorter life span. Cognitive functions decline, possibly as a result of few verbal interactions. Added to this is the emotional pain of being lonely. People whose circumstances prevent them from interacting with others for short periods of time report feeling depressed and out of touch with what is going on around them. Imagine the effect if social isolation is a way of life.

Fortunately, there are social spaces where people with mental illness can go and feel comfortable and accepted, as well as receive advice, support, and/or information about relevant services, are available in many communities. Volunteers in organizations like the National Alliance usually run these drop-in centers or peer support groups on mental illness. They provide a critical service, especially for those patients and their families who are seeking to interact with others experiencing the same problems.

Going to meetings is one way of decreasing time spent alone, and it is possible that a network of acquaintances with whom to spend time can develop from this. Several years ago, I led a weight-loss group made up of mentally ill individuals who had gained weight on their psychotropic medications. After a few meetings, the participants organized Sunday walks or, if the weather was bad, a meal and a movie.

Unfortunately, making available accessible and socially safe places for people with mental illness to meet is dependent on volunteer resources, and these may be limited to family and friends of the mentally ill. The sad fact is that many potential volunteers would probably prefer giving their time (and maybe money) to an animal adoption center than spend time socializing with mentally ill individuals.  An acquaintance in a mid-size southern city found that despite city resources to fund a drop-in center associated with a neighborhood health clinic, there were no volunteers available to staff the facility.

According to the previously mentioned SANE report, almost all people with mental illness consider social relationships important in helping them manage their symptoms and improve the quality of their life. They said that simply having someone to talk to about how they feel is critical to their feeling better. It doesn’t take many people to diminish the loneliness of an individual.

Just one will do.

We all should try to be that one.

How Can You Get Enough Nutrients If You Don’t Eat Very Much?

Some of the more popular reality shows on television display various mental health pathologies such as super rich housewives always fighting with each other (when they are not having their hair done and drinking wine), or a show about hoarding to the point of suffocation, or even a view into living inside a 600-pound body that is so heavy, any movement is difficult and painful. The latter program is particularly sad, in that it shows how obsessive eating is almost always the result of early trauma, and how difficult it is for the overeater to deal with the pain of such trauma when the emotionally deadening effect of food is removed.

 

What has not been depicted so far is a reality program on the struggles of people at the other end of the eating spectrum. These are the people who believe that, like the Duchess of Windsor, one can never be too rich or too thin. These are the people whose body weight is so low that they run the risk of death. These are the people whose obsession with being extremely thin is as unshakable as the 600-pound individual who seems to be addicted to food.  

 

Perhaps the stories of the too thin are not told because the viewer may not be interested in watching an anorectic chase an almost invisible morsel of food around the plate, before grudgingly eating it and then exercising for three hours to work off the 3 calories the food may have contained. Or perhaps it is because the fashion industry has convinced us that thinness is something to be coveted, even if the price of a too thin body may be malnutrition or, if it becomes anorexia, even death.

 

A few weeks ago I walked past a facility holding a fundraising event. What caught my attention was a group of extremely tall women wearing gowns that would have looked appropriate on someone’s red carpet. They must have been models; they had perfect features, either from genes or a plastic surgeon. I confess I stared at them, not just because they looked so exotic in my neighborhood but also because they were so THIN. They were not skeletal but just on the other side of being all bones and no flesh. Another woman stopped and looked with me. She said, “They don’t look quite real, do they? But it must be nice to be so thin.”

 

Somehow we don’t think of being model thin as associated with health issues. The warnings about the risks of eating too much or the wrong kinds of food are well known, they are hard to escape: Don’t eat too much, don’t eat too much sugar, exercise frequently, and get rid of belly fat.  But how many of us know what medical woes are awaiting the very thin? One has to go searching for them. And some can be as deadly as those associated with morbid obesity.

 

When very little food is eaten, as must be the case if someone is to maintain a weight 20 or so pounds less than normal, an inadequate consumption of nutrients can result. Calcium and vitamin D deficiencies are common, and can result in osteoporosis. This disease, which is mainly silent until the first of many bone fractures occurs, is characterized by the loss of bone mass. This disease usually shows itself around menopause, but the bone loss due to nutrient deficiencies may start decades earlier. Other symptoms of nutrient inadequacy such as thinning hair, fatigue, dry skin and bruising of the skin also may not show up for several years, but can be traced back to a very low nutrient sparse diet. A study of the nutritional adequacy of the Mediterranean Diet in Spain among thin women indicated that they were deficient in vitamins A, D, E, B2, B6 and folic acid, as well as several minerals such as iron. (Ortega, R, Lopez Sobaler, A, et al  Arch Latinoam Nutr. 2004 Jun54; 87-91.)

 

Even athletes, whom one assumes eat healthfully, may be nutrient deficient if they are dieting. Female volleyball players who play the game in the scantiest of uniforms were found to be deficient in a variety of vitamins and minerals, due to their dieting in order to reach a figure perfect weight. (Beals, K,  J Am Diet Assoc. 2002;102:1293–1296). And dancers who must maintain low weight and low body fat are particularly vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies ( Sousa, M, Carvalho, P et al ,Med Probl Perform Art 2013 28: 119-123).

 

Models, dancers and some athletes accept the necessity of maintaining an abnormally low weight as one of the demands of their profession. They may be able to compensate for their restricted calorie, and thus nutrient, intake with the use of supplements. However, supplements rarely provide all the nutrients they would get from food, if only they were allowed to eat more. 

 

Thinness is also prized among women whose weight is irrelevant to their profession but not to their social standing. And its potential nutritional toll and subsequent health problems may be ignored as thoroughly as by an obese individual who cannot stop overeating. A quasi-sociological analyses of the lifestyle of women who live in the rarified neighborhood of New York’s Upper East Side points this out. In her book, The Primates of the Upper East Side, Dr. Wednesday Martin describes the non-eating that takes place at social events. Women diet continually and subject their bodies to workouts that would make a Marine recruit weep in order to have a perfect body. So many foods are eliminated from their diet in order to achieve the desired thin state? It is a wonder that the residents of this neighborhood don’t suffer from scurvy, anemia and other nutrient deficiencies. They are not addicted to food, but rather they are addicted to their almost pathologically thin bodies.

 

And yet this bizarre eating behavior is not the subject of reality television, or urgent messages from health organizations warning about its long-term consequences of nutrient deficiency. We see the consequences of the massive overeating of the 600-pound individual and tsk tsk at what that person has done to his or her body. Maybe it is time to tsk tsk over the damage the too thin are also doing to their health.   

Are Reality Cooking Shows Really Fantasy Cooking Shows?

A group of us were chatting about a local restaurant whose chef was eliminated from the Food Network show, “Chopped.” The restaurant was popular; the show was not.

“The problem,” said someone, “is that the contestants are supposed to combine weird ingredients like Marshmallow Fluff and mushrooms into something edible and do it in 30 minutes or less.  How can of you make an entrée with side dishes in thirty minutes?  And using ingredients that are familiar, not Halloween candy and duck breast?”  We laughed but the question resonated and the group’s response was, “No way.”

As one person commented, it would be possible if we employed a full time assistant who would do all the basic prep work like chopping onions, peeling garlic, dicing carrots, and washing greens. And also making sure that water for pasta was always boiling, sauté pans were at the correct temperature and, we all chimed in, “Cleans up as the cooking goes along.”

“Watching the cooking shows, and then expecting to make the same dishes in 30 minutes or less, is like watching an international tennis match and then expecting to serve the same way,” said one of the women. “Even assuming I have all the ingredients on the counter before I start to cook—and that is a big assumption—it takes me twice as long, if not longer, to prepare the same meal.  And the shows are so deceptive. The cook will say something like, “…wilt the onions or beat the egg whites… and 3 seconds later it is done. Tell that to my onions! “

The women were of a certain age; that is, they had raised children, prepared thousands of meals, entertained, and had done this while working most, if not all, of these years. They may or may not have been good cooks, but they were experienced. And the consensus among us  was that cooking shows, whether competitive ones or in demonstrations by individual chefs, were deceptive. It looked too easy, too fast. Indeed, one woman said that she wondered if a younger generation, inexperienced in meal preparation, would end up serving undercooked food if they tried to imitate what they saw on television.

Wouldn’t it be useful to have one cooking program that was closer to reality? Onions would be burnt because the cook forgot to turn down the heat while answering the phone call from a telemarketer. The chicken would still be half frozen and dripping reddish chicken juice, the cat would leap onto the counter and poke around at the fish, the brownies would be overcooked around the edges and too moist in the center, and the food processor, used to puree the squash soup, would thrust its contents all over the floor like an erupting volcano.  But of course who needs to watch this on television when one can see it in one’s own kitchen?

Unrealistic menus or meal preparations are nothing new. During the 19th century and early 20th centuries, women studied and practiced a discipline called Home Economics, whose goals were to teach housewives basic nutritional requirements for their families and healthy cooking techniques on how to prepare food for the household. The goals were worthy, but some of the so-called nutritional meals were anything but. Cream sauces were poured over just about everything.  Salads consisting of Jell-O cubes, canned pineapple chunks and maraschino cherries were considered elegant enough for a luncheon. And, often disdain was shown toward ethnic dishes prepared by new immigrants, despite the fact that they were nourishing and familiar.  Women’s magazines often promoted recipes, not for their nutritional content, but because they used ingredients of their advertisers. The famous string bean dish in which the vegetable is drenched in canned cream of mushroom soup and sprinkled with canned fried onions rings certainly promoted the sales of these products.

But of course, in those far-off times in the last century, people were still cooking. Today one cannot assume that younger generations will or even want to cook at all.  Thus, if a non-cooking younger generation is to be weaned from supermarket or fast food take-out, prepackaged meals, or a diet of smoothies and shakes, they have to be shown, realistically, how to prepare a meal with more than two ingredients (salt and pepper).  Fortunately, the Internet is replacing the food channels in meeting this need. A little bit of searching will produce videos on how to prepare anything from baked potatoes to a soufflé.  And since they can be viewed as often as necessary, a refresher view is possible if it has been several months since the dish, say meatloaf or roast chicken, has been made.

Ingredients in a box that cook into a meal for two or more, delivered to your door, are becoming popular. Certainly the advertisements looks compelling, especially to cooks like this one who always seem to be lacking one or more ingredients essential to the recipe.  These could be considered starter meals. As they are more expensive than meals assembled from one’s own kitchen, they are unlikely to be a permanent substitute for reading a recipe, finding the ingredients, and cooking. Or maybe not.

Programs on the food channels are entertaining, which is their intent. If a recipe looks worth trying, it is always available on the website of the television personality who prepared it. But just don’t try making it in 30 minutes or less.

Should Santa Claus (and his wife) Stop Eating So Many Cookies?

Poor Santa, he certainly has not kept up with modern times. No internet, no computer, no 3-D printer assisted toy maker, and certainly no electric sleigh (or self driving one for that matter). And somehow Santa and his wife have not heard health professionals lament our excessive intake of sugar.

Consider this:

He used to be thin. Orginally, a long time ago, he started out life as a monk (and monks did not eat cookies) and eventually became a Bishop in a town in what is now Turkey. This was around 270, a time way before people thought much about the North Pole and its toy making factory. In his spare time, he gave away money he had inherited by throwing coins and gifts through the windows of homes in which children lived. But no one reciprocated by feeding him sweets.

Eventually, as St. Nicholas (this was long after his death) he became the patron saint of children. Still thin.

Then something happened several centuries later. St. Nicholas was transformed into a chubby (well more than chubby) jovial, cookie eating distributor of gifts because of a poem, meter and rhyme.

In l822, Clemet Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister wrote the poem, The Night before Christmas, * and Santa lost his buff figure forever.  Others helped enlarge his figure; a cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Santa with a large belly in l890, and Washington Irving described him as a fat Dutch elf. And finally, Coca-Cola gave us the image we associate with him today by picturing St. Nick in a red suit with a white beard, of course.

Given the ubiquity of sugary snacks available to this now robust figure, it is really amazing that he does not grower fatter with every passing century or require a supply of insulin in his sleigh because surely he must have developed diabetes by now! Will he still eat cookies containing gluten, or might this affect his intestinal tract and mood?  Does he know about Grain Brain? We don’t want the presence of gluten to change his “HO HO HO!” into, “Oh, oh, oh….”

Why is he eating carbohydrates at all? That surely must be the reason he is still fat. If he followed the Paleo diet he might be thinner, and also be able to use wooly mammoths to drive his sleigh, rather than reindeer.

And really, what kind of example is he to our children? All year we try to get them to eat healthily, limit their snacks to baby carrots and plain yogurt, and make sure they eat nothing, or almost nothing, with sugar. We try to make sure they get enough exercise, and that they not depend on us to drive them everywhere. And then on Dec 24 along comes this guy who won’t even walk from house to house, no matter how close they are, but insists on riding to each one on a sleigh. He goes down a chimney (how much exercise is there in that? It is all downhill!) and his sleigh is waiting for him at the door. And there are those cookies. Does he even bring them home to his wife? Probably, because she is not exactly svelte herself.

Perhaps his focus on sweet carbohydrates means that like so many who live in northern part of the world, he is suffering from Winter Depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (“SAD”). SAD suffers have an urgent need to consume sweets, especially in the late afternoon and evening. Maybe if he lived at the South Pole he would be not be so chunky and addicted to chunky chocolate chip cookies; seeing there it is summer in December, and the sun barely sets.

Of course none of us knows whether he and his spouse go on diets on January 2 like most of the world.  They may go the Weight Watchers equivalent at the North Pole, or endure a weeks-long cleanse or eat only meat (reindeer?).  But like most of the world, by next fall they will probably have gained back all the weight they lost, and Santa will be pudgy again. Should someone put out a diet book next to the cookies? Or at least some baby carrots?

But then again, if he loses masses of weight, his clothes will be too loose and worse yet, he will not be the Santa of Moore’s poem whose “little round belly laughed like a bowl full of jelly.”  So keep those cookies by the chimney. With care.

Will Preventing Male Baldness Cause Depression?

The symptoms sounded like a case of a male PMS: swelling in the hands or feet, swelling or tenderness in the breasts, dizziness, weakness, fatigue, cravings for carbohydrates, weight gain, depression, confusion, cold sweats, and sexual dysfunction. These are some of the side effects of a medication used to treat male pattern baldness. Finasteride, the generic name of the drug, was originally used to treat benign prostatic enlargement. During early clinical trials, however, researchers noticed that the volunteers were growing hair. It seemed too good to be true: finally, a solution to reverse age-related male baldness. The drug, known by the trade names Propecia and Proscar, seemed to be an effective treatment for the restoration of hair among men suffering from male baldness.

Finasteride’s effect on decreasing hair loss is related to its effect on a testosterone-like compound, dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT is an active form of testosterone and is responsible for prostate enlargement and the destruction of hair follicles on the top (but not the sides) of the scalp. Finasteride belongs to a group of compounds that inhibits, or slows this conversion of testosterone to DHT, thus making it an effective drug to slow prostate growth and, happily for many men, slow hair loss.

But unfortunately, getting a full head of hair comes with potential physiological and emotional costs. Soon after it was introduced to prevent male-patterned baldness, especially among young men (it works better among a younger population), anecdotal reports of depression and even suicidal thinking began to circulate. Even more disturbing, these critical changes in mood seem persistent even after the drug was discontinued. A small study to investigate the validity of these side effects was carried out by Dr. Michael Irwig of the George Washington University in Washington D.C.  He measured the moods of young men, average age 31, who had been treating their baldness with Propecia for an average of slightly more than two years. These men had developed persistent sexual dysfunction that continued for at least three months after they stopped taking the drug. He found 75 percent of those who had used the drug had symptoms of depression compared with 10 percent of controls who never took the drug. Over 30 percent reported having suicidal thoughts compared to only one from a control group. Were these young men depressed because they were experiencing sexual dysfunction or the converse? The study did not answer that question.

An increase in appetite, especially for sugary carbohydrates, and weight gain were two additional side effects that lasted well beyond discontinuing the drug. This was also unexpected, but reported as a side effect often enough to make the FDA add them to the list of side effects. And according to stories by men who used Finasteride, the weight does not come off after they stop using the drug. As one disgruntled user said,”I would rather be thin and bald than the way I am now, fat and hairy.”

What seems to be the link between Finasteride and depression? By altering the synthesis of the testosterone-like substance, it might be affecting two possible neurotransmitters in the brain involved with depression and anxiety. One is gamma-aminobutyric acid, commonly known as GABA, and the other is serotonin. Interestingly, serotonin activity also decreases when estrogen levels decline at the end of the menstrual cycle, and the resulting depression, anxiety, fatigue and overeating characterize PMS.

Evidence that the Finasteride-associated depression may be related to a change in serotonin activity comes mainly from animal studies looking at the effect of testosterone on certain serotonin receptors. But a hint that serotonin may be involved can also be found in reports of intense carbohydrate craving from men who have used the drug. PMS and Seasonal Affective Disorder (severe winter depression) are each characterized by carbohydrate cravings, depression, and decreased serotonin activity. And the consumption of carbohydrate by these groups seems to relieve their depression, anxiety and fatigue because of the resulting increase in brain serotonin synthesis.

Might men suffering from Finasteride-related mood changes also benefit from eating carbohydrates? Were they to consume 25-30 grams of a starchy, very low-protein carbohydrate snack two or three times a day, on an empty stomach, they will be increasing serotonin synthesis. The resulting improvement in mood may not dispel their depression entirely (after all, a cup of oatmeal is not an antidepressant), but at least will make it easier to cope with their negative moods and the possibility that they will now lose their hair.