Category Archives: Tips

Are Corporate Shut-In’s as Vulnerable to Vitamin D Deficiency as Nursing Home Residents?

I live near a nursing home and regularly see the staff coming in and out during their shift change when I walk past. What I have not seen, despite the warm, sunny weather, are residents sitting outside in the garden, or being pushed in a wheelchair.

This is not surprising. Few nursing homes have the sufficient staff to permit taking residents outside, and so rely on visitors to do so. The residents themselves often prefer to stay inside. An elderly aunt of mine always had an excuse as to why she did not want me to take her out when I visited. I wanted to take her for a stroll in her wheelchair, but she preferred staying in.

One consequence of being a “shut-in” in a nursing home has been noted for years: a significant decrease in vitamin D levels because of the absence of exposure to sunlight.  The predictable osteoporosis, bone breakage from falls, and decreased mobility affects quality of life, making many unable to move independently, and so is linked to increased mortality. Vitamin D supplementation is strongly recommended, and shown in many studies to be effective in reducing this vitamin deficiency effects on bone strength.

But what about the staff? The nursing staff who leave the residence early in the morning, sometimes just as the sun rises, are going home to sleep. They will be back the next evening, but even though their time off is during the day? The need to rest for at least 7 hours of sleep and the necessity of managing their daily obligations leaves little time for outside exposure to sunlight. This, of course, is especially true during the short hours of daylight during the late fall and winter. Depression has a high incidence among shift workers, and their failure to be exposed to sufficient sunlight has been suggested as one possible cause.

Those who work a traditional daytime shift should not be vulnerable to vitamin D deficiency due to the absence of sunlight, but is this really true? The reality is that many are stuck in their offices from sunrise to moonrise and later. Exposure to the sun is limited to weekends and, in some employment situations, such as law associates (recent graduates from law school) priority to work supersedes any weekend plans (including going outside.) These employees could be described as ‘corporate shut-ins.’ They may be tethered to the “clock” that is tracking their billable hours, and like a galley slave chained to his oars, will not be released until their supervisor (task master) permits time off. Whatever leisure time they have is spent carrying out the essential tasks necessary for their daily life such as buying food, doing laundry, paying bills, and maybe cleaning their apartments.

As we have seen, clinicians are worried (and rightly so) about the low vitamin D levels of nursing home residents, at home elderly shut-ins, and anyone else who is unable to obtain regular exposure to sunlight.  But look in vain for concern about corporate shut-ins who don’t see the sun from Sunday to Saturday during the months of year when daylight is scarce.  According to Dr. Barbara Gilchrest, who discussed vitamin D status at a recent American Academy of Dermatology meeting in Orlando, sun and diet should be enough to supply adequate levels of this essential nutrient for most patients. But can her advice be applied to those whose exposure to sun is severely limited, and whose diet lacks vitamin D fortified foods?

In an ideal work setting, shift workers would be advised on how to eat to minimize the health problems associated with their work schedule such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and depression. Taking vitamin D supplements or finding time during the day to go outside and get some sunshine might be suggested. Much of this advice, however, comes not from the workplace or health care providers, but from anecdotal reports posted on Internet sites by those who also do this type of work.

But even less advice is given to daytime employees whose work hours are long and who may go days without any time off. They will not find bottles of vitamin D on their desk, nor will their supervisors encourage them to go outside during lunch to get some sun. Indeed, they are encouraged not to leave the building. And the meals provided in these organizations so they can work late are probably not planned to ensure that they consume vitamin D fortified foods.

We know already the long-term health consequences of nursing home residents who are shut-ins and get no sun exposure. So too, we know the long-term health consequences of shift workers who rarely see the sun.

We do not yet know the long-term health consequences of the corporate shut-in, the Silicon Valley twenty-four hour programmer, the investment banker who works during Asian, European and American time zones, or the surgical resident who arrives at the hospital at 5:30 AM and leaves at midnight. They, like the nursing home resident, have too little exposure to the sun. Do we have to wait until this generation of workers ages into the nursing home before we start to worry about their vitamin D status?

Research Cites Supportive Available Upon Request.

Can Being on a Committee Make You Overeat?

The neighborhood association meeting started out benignly enough, with a non-contentious minutes read and acceptance, followed by people chitchatting as the chairperson droned on about some street maintenance issue. Someone had placed bowls of snack food on the table, along with diet and non-diet sodas, but all were ignored. About 20 minutes into the meeting an agenda item launched agitated discussions with people talking over each other and, when they couldn’t be heard, muttering to themselves. Just as suddenly hands dipped into the bowls of pretzels, chips, nuts, and crackers and cups of soda poured and gulped. Some people were talking through mouthfuls of chips as they attempted to enter the conversation and others, who were shut out, stuffed more food in their mouths.

The committee meeting was a living poster for stress-induced eating.

What was a little surprising was that the gobbling of snacks occurred in public. We tend to assume that those among us who resort often or even infrequently, to emotional overeating, do so in private. The ice cream, cookies, chicken fingers, pork rinds, or doughnuts are usually eaten alone or in the company of people who are sympathetic and supportive of the problem driving the eating.  But the behavior of this group shows that if the provocation is sufficiently strong, the eating response may be immediate, even if embarrassingly visible to others.

This is not to say that people in groups don’t overeat. Watch people at a meal listening to a speaker as they eat. Their interest in their food increases in proportion to their boredom. If a speaker notices that the members of the lunch or dinner audience are attempting to eat the crumbs of the roll from the tablecloth, it’s very clear signal that he or she ought to wrap up the talk immediately.

But people at the committee meeting were not eating out of boredom; they were eating because of stress. Each member of the committee felt that he or she had to influence the outcome of the discussion, and many were afraid that the outcome would not be to their advantage.

Were they aware of how much they were eating? If they had been asked to fill out a food diary a few hours later, would they have reported eating three handfuls of pretzels or nuts, or drinking 10 ounces of soda? Probably not.

Did the eating influence the intensity of the discussion?  The act of putting food in one’s mouth may have been somewhat calming, just as giving a whining child pieces of breakfast cereal to eat has a distracting and calming effect. And obviously chewing somewhat dry food made it hard to shout out comments without spraying a fellow committee person with bits of pretzels or chips.

The mainly carbohydrate snacks would have had a calming effect—if the meeting had gone on long enough for the food to be digested and serotonin to be made. But that would have taken at least another half an hour, and the meeting broke up before then.

Stress associated with group interaction is usually overlooked among the many triggers inducing overeating. And there are unspoken rules about eating behavior in the corporate culture that probably deem any unrestrained eating at a meeting as unprofessional even when food is available? If someone at a lunch meeting begins to munch on several chocolate chip cookies brought in with the sandwiches, others will notice and wonder at his or her lack of control. There is stress most certainly, but if it generates overeating, it is usually done afterward, in private. I once had a client whose presentation to her team was so criticized that she went to a gourmet chocolate shop in the lobby of her office building, bought five pounds of chocolate and ate it all in her office (with the door closed).

The advice I gave her might, however, be useful to those attending future meetings of committees where emotional discomfort is inevitable: Eat proactively to reduce future stress. She was to eat a small, non-fat carbohydrate, such as half a plain bagel, 30-45 minutes before going into her meetings, so that the serotonin made after she consumed the carbohydrate would be a little calming.

If my fellow neighborhood association members had followed the same advice would there have been a quieter, more restrained discussion? If they had “armed” their brain with more serotonin before the meeting, would they have ignored the snacks on the table?

But of course there is another solution to the problem of committee meeting-induced overeating: stay home.

 

How Much Vigorous Exercise Will Prevent You From Dying?

Two very busy professionals I know took some time off last Sunday to go cross-country skiing. The snow was mushy from a recent thaw, and the legs of the skiers a bit wobbly but, according to my friends, it was a vigorous workout and welcome relief from their 80-hours week of work. They had fun, but they also were doing good things for their health. Like most too busy people, fitting physical activity into the workweek is like squeezing a suitcase into an overfilled overhead bin on an airplane. Often it is impossible to do it. A forty-something year old paralegal whose commute to work on a good day takes over an hour, told me that she is lucky because her workday runs only from 8:30 to 6. After she picks her children up at their nearby after school program, drives home, gets dinner ready, does the laundry and other household chores, helps the kids with their homework, and takes a few minutes to talk to her husband…. she is ready for bed, not for a treadmill. The lawyers in the office are lucky if they leave by 9 p.m.

The weekend may be the only time when a few hours can be used for exercise. But until recently, experts have said that exercising over only two days was insufficient to have much impact on cardiovascular health and eventually longevity.  Rather, we have been told to be physically active almost everyday so that our total exercise time adds up to at least 150 minutes. And we should not assume walking to the car or commuter train station, strolling around the block with the dog, or taking out the trash meets the exercise requirement. We have to exercise with vigor: by running, climbing steps rapidly or taking a challenging aerobics class.

But now this assumption is being challenged. A recent article in JAMA Internal Medicine reported the results of an enormous study that collected information about the health and causes of death among 63,591 adults in England and Scotland from l994 to 2012.  The subjects were asked about the amount of time they exercised weekly, when during the week they did exercise, and to rate how vigorous their exercise was. All this information was self-reported rather than observed by a researcher.

The study found that people who managed to squeeze 150 minutes of vigorous weekly exercise into two weekend days, rather than over 5-7 days, seemed to have the same cardiovascular benefits as the daily workout folk. Both these groups (and a third that did less than the guidelines) all showed about a 45 decrease in mortality due to cardiovascular events compared to the group that did not exercise.

The good news from these findings is that it removes the urgency in finding time to exercise during an already overextended weekday schedule. The bad news is that it is necessary to find time to exercise in an already overextended weekend schedule. The data showing such a significant decrease in the risk of dying from a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular cause are too compelling to ignore. On the other hand, filling up the refrigerator, doing the laundry, spending time with the kids, parents, friends, and catching up with bills, phone calls and sleep are too compelling to ignore as well.

It is possible to extract two-and-a-half hours of time to exercise out of 48 hours of “time-off.” That is less time than it takes to watch the Oscars, Super Bowl, or an average movie including previews. And doing so does not necessarily mean playing 150 minutes of tennis or a 2½-hour bike ride or run. Any physical activity, from shoveling snow to removing rocks from a potential garden, would qualify as exercise. And the exercise does not have to be done continually. A seven-minute workout following the instructions on an App or 2 minutes of jumping rope counts toward the 150 minutes.

However, there is a problem with the exercise recommendations. What is vigorous exercise?

If you are still breathing but unable to talk or sing, if your heart rate is high and you are sweating, then you are engaging in vigorous exercise.  Straining to ride your bike up a steep hill and gasping for breath or running as fast as you can after a puppy that has just seen a squirrel and is heading for the street is vigorous exercise.  Jogging with a friend and having enough breath to talk about a television show you saw last night isn’t.

Lists of what comprises vigorous exercise are meaningless to someone who is relatively unfit. A physically well-trained individual may have to do an hour of boot camp, sprinting around a track, or bike at high speed to break a sweat. However, most of us would find any physical activity that pushes us out of our comfort zone vigorous: climbing several flights of stairs, carrying heavy bags of groceries from the car to the kitchen, walking against a strong wind, or pushing a heavily laden shopping cart across a large parking lot. And for someone who rarely moves, climbing the stairs from the cellar to the second floor a few times each day may cause rapid breathing and heart rate.

Were those 63,000 subjects in the UK all doing vigorous exercise according to the definition of exercise physiologists?  Or were some possibly a little vague about the vigor of what they were doing? Were they like some of us who, when asked about our weight and height, remove a few pounds from the former and add a few inches to the latter?  Because if they were really engaging in moderate or even light exercise, “I can still breathe and talk” exertions, then it means that cardiovascular benefits are possible for those of us who may not break a sweat in the gym.

Can You Give a Man a Box of Chocolate for Valentine’s Day?

In former times, when women were courted (at least in books) with gifts, flowers, poems, and perfume, giving a box of ornately wrapped chocolate for Valentine’s Day was not only appropriate, but expected. Presenting a red velvet box tied with a glossy ribbon that contained fancy chocolates was a socially acceptable way of showing interest in the other, female, sex. Moreover, the price of chocolate varied sufficiently, so that brands and sizes were within most people’s budgets.

But this gifting of chocolate was, and seems still to be, unilateral.  Is it because women are not supposed to give Valentine gifts to men to express their interest in a relationship?  Is it because it is unmanly (whatever that means) to like chocolate, and thus giving a gift of chocolate raises the possibility of a diminished manhood?  Is it because cultural norms dictate that giving a six-pack of beer, tickets to a sporting event, or a chain saw are more acceptable gifts? Obviously, the traditional red ribbon wrapped box of chocolates might look out of place on a workbench, in the garage, or on the seat of a pickup truck. And the dainty flower-shaped, decorated chocolates that come in a sampler box are too small, and too  “precious” to appeal to someone who wants a brick-size chunk of chocolate to bit into. Before a woman can even consider giving chocolate to a man for Valentine’s Day, its size and packing have to look suitable for a man cave (maybe a chocolate chain saw?).

Giving Valentine chocolate to women (other than those in an older generation such as mothers, grandmothers and aunts) poses its own set of problems. Indeed, it can be quite tricky. If the recipient is thin, then the gift might be interpreted as a hint that the giver would like some soft curves over the bones and buff muscles. If the recipient is not thin, a can of metaphorical chocolate worms is opened: “Does he like me fat? “ “Does he assume that I will never lose weight?” “Do I look like someone who sits on a couch and eats bonbons?” “Doesn’t he know I am thinking of going on a diet?” “If he knew me better, he would know that I am addicted to chocolate and avoid it entirely.”

The problems do not end with the presentation of the gift. Is the box opened when it is received and chocolate offered to the giver? Does the recipient have to eat a piece of chocolate upon opening the box? Does the giver check to see how long the chocolate stays in the box? Too long a time and obviously the chocolate was not liked. Too short a time? The recipient must be a glutton.  If the box contains a sampling of chocolate pieces with different fillings, what does the recipient do with the chocolates whose insides are not appealing? Finally, Valentine chocolate is hard to re-gift. That red cloth covered box won’t do for Easter, and saving it for Christmas to give to a fellow worker is tricky. You have to take the chocolates out, and put them in a box with reindeer on the cover and hope they haven’t turned, by next December, a grayish color.

Centuries ago, chocolate was seen as an aphrodisiac… although double blind, placebo-controlled studies to see its effect on love relationships are still waiting confirmation. Chocolate comes from the cocoa bean, which is surrounded by a fibrous husk. The husk is broken and removed from the bean. Then the beans, called cocoa nibs, are ground up into cocoa liquor. (No, it is not the same as chocolate liqueur that forms the basis of several delicious and fattening drinks.) The liquor contains a caffeine-like substance, threobromine, which has similar stimulant effects as caffeine. Dark chocolate has more cocoa liquor than typical chocolate, and thus more of this stimulant-like substance. However, it is hard to see how caffeine or this first cousin has any effect on a relationship except to prevent sleepiness if the other person is boring.

The cocoa nibs also contain about 54% cocoa butter which may be similar in texture to peanut butter when ground. Trace amounts of mineral zinc or copper are found in the cocoa bean, along with phenethylamine or PEA. This substance can be made from an amino acid with the similar sounding name of phenylalanine, and results from microbial fermentation in the bean. Phenylalanine and PEA may have amphetamine-like functions, thus possibly stimulating the chocolate eater to say yes to another date. But the amount that actually reaches the brain is as vanishingly small as the amount of chocolate left in the box by a chocoholic.

The magic in chocolate comes in processing these ingredients with sugar, lecithin, an emulsifier made from soy, and vanilla or other flavorings into the final product.  Chocolate is considered a unique food, and to many there is no other food that can meet its immensely pleasing taste and texture. Indeed, so satisfying is chocolate that some might be tempted to exchange a mate for an eternity’s supply of this heavenly food. Years ago in a visit to Zurich’s finest chocolate store, my husband and I each consumed a just made chocolate truffle of such exquisite texture and taste that I thought I saw the pearly gates.

So perhaps the answer to whether men should get chocolate for Valentine’s day is this: Yes!
(as long as women get some too…)

Asking Why You Can’t Lose Weight After Your Medication?

The media is glutted with advertisements for weight loss: after all, this is January. And it is assumed that by denying calories and increasing physical activity, some weight will be lost by March at the very least. This assumption is based on the belief that the weight was gained because excess calories were consumed, and physical activity minimized.

But what if you were thin, fit, ate healthful foods, loved to exercise, and never been on a diet? Then sometime in 2016 you started on antidepressants for a variety of reasons: depression, anxiety, grief, fibromyalgia, or menopausal hot flushes. The medication helped, but there was a problem. Six weeks or so after starting treatment your clothes started to become tight. You no longer were satisfied with normal portions, but started eating larger amounts at meals. And, horrors of horrors, you could not stop snacking. Your physical activity decreased because the medication made you tired.  You ended up 23 pounds heavier at the end of 2016 than you were the beginning of last year.

So now you are off your medications, and you try one of the various weight-loss programs advertised. But weeks go by and you have lost practically nothing, even though you follow the plan exactly and exercise. Your distress is like someone who became bald during chemotherapy, and months later is still hairless.  You assume that like everyone else who is trying to lose weight in January, you should be successful. In fact more so, because unlike other dieters, you never had an overeating problem until you started taking antidepressants!

Help will not come from the people who develop the diet plans because the regimens are for the ordinary obese individual who gained weight the traditional way. Help won’t come from weight-loss support groups for the same reason. And so far no department of psychiatry has a weight-loss program for its patients who have gained weight on their medications, even though such programs are sorely needed.

So you alone are going to have to figure out how to lose the weight the medications caused you to gain.

Here’s what you need to know: Some medications stay stored in the body for some time after they have been discontinued. You can determine whether the medications are still affecting your appetite and physical activity even though you have stopped taking them; simply ask yourself if you are eating larger portions than you did before you started on the medication.

If you were craving and eating sugary, high-fat snacks when you were on the meds (cookies, cake, ice cream) do you still have these cravings?

Do you find it hard to feel satisfied even when you are eating enough food to make your stomach feel full?

Is your body still fatigued from the meds, or even from a residual depression? Does this make it hard to exercise with the same intensity and duration you had before you went on the medication?

Do you think you have lost muscle mass?

If you detect a lingering effect of your medication on your appetite and physical activity, then consider this one possible reason why it is so hard to lose weight.

Forget what the advertisements for weight-loss programs promise. They are not directed toward people whose appetite control and ability to exercise have been hijacked by their medications.

Instead, give yourself more time to lose your weight. If carbohydrate cravings persist, satisfy them with fat-free, healthy carbohydrates like steamed rice, oatmeal, whole grain pasta, polenta (an Italian version of grits, but without the cheese and butter), popcorn, pretzels, and whole grain bread. You need to eat only 30 grams of such carbohydrate on an empty stomach two or three times a day to take away your cravings, and increase your sense of being full.

And you may have to increase gradually your workout time and intensity since your body may not be able to jump into the type of exercise you did so easily before you took the antidepressants.

Be patient. Eventually the residual medication should leave your body, your control of appetite and ability to exercise will return, and you will lose weight.

But, if none of the above applies to you, seek medical advice. Before meeting with your health provider, accumulate data to show that your inability to lose weight is, a) not your imagination, b) not due to overeating and not admitting it, and c) not related to a sedentary lifestyle.

Keep a food log and exercise log. If possible, use apps that will do it for you and allow you to print out the results. The results will look more impressive than some pieces of paper covered with food stains or sweat. Allow at least three or four weeks of record keeping before presenting them to your physician. That is a long enough period of time to lose one or two pounds and if you have lost none, you can make a convincing case for something being wrong. At the very least, the health care provider should investigate possible reasons for the weight refusing to be lost.

Enough people have experienced difficulty in losing weight after they discontinued their antidepressants to make this a not rare occurrence. So far there has been mainly silence from both the psychiatric and obesity communities in response in part because of the belief that it should be possible to lose weight after the drugs are stopped. Presenting evidence that pounds gained during treatment are not lost with dieting after treatment is stopped, may indeed generate research to find a solution to this unwelcome side effect of antidepressants.

How To Stay Full In 2017 When You Are On A Diet

January can be depressing. The predictable cold, snow, ice, wind, and bills are accompanied by, for many, the need to go on a diet. It is hard to ignore the pounds you’ve accumulated since Thanksgiving, and even if you do try to disregard them, advertisements for weight-loss programs won’t allow you to.

Diets tend to be dismal, adding to January gloom, and they are often boring. If someone suggests that we have been all wrong in eating X and avoiding Y, then there is at least the possibility of talking about a novel approach to dieting. But, alas, a quick survey of the diet books appearing now indicates that most of them are still promoting low-or carbohydrate-free diets (ho-hum).

Promoting a low-carbohydrate weight-loss regimen while one is enduring the long hours of winter darkness seems somewhat counterproductive. Such diets exacerbate the toll the lack of sunlight takes on serotonin levels and the grumpy moods, excessive sleepiness, uncontrollable food cravings, and lack of motivation to exercise that may consequently follow. And most relevant for the dieter is the absence of a sense of satiety, or fullness, also conveyed by serotonin.

Eating carbohydrate is the only way the brain makes more serotonin, and a diet that denies or limits starchy carbs like potatoes, pasta, bread, cereals, rice, beans, lentils and corn meal will leave the brain serotonin deprived.  It is a better plan to wait until May or June to stop eating carbohydrates in order to lose weight. The days at this time of year are so long that serotonin levels are not affected by carbohydrate depletion.

But, New Year resolutions being what they are (here today, gone tomorrow), many people feel that they’d better grab onto their will power and start dieting immediately.

So if you can’t eat carbohydrates because the diet books tell you not to, then you might consider an extract from a magical fruit called Garcinia Cambogia. (The name sounds a new dance step.) If you missed hearing about this fruit whose extract not only melts away extra pounds but, based on pictures on the Internet, leaves dieters looking as if they have had head-to- foot plastic surgery, then here is the information.

The fruit is tropical, apparently shaped like a pumpkin but grows on a tree, not on the ground, and is also known as the Malabar tamarind. Its popularity as a promoter of weight loss has shifted on and off for the last 20 or more years and had a resurgence this past year. Its virtues were extolled by the television medical personality Dr. Oz a few months ago, and like dandelions after the rain, companies sprang up to sell a particular ingredient in the fruit. Carcinia Cambogia contains hydroxycitric acid, aka HCA. Rodent studies done many years ago suggested that HCA might cause weight loss by blocking chemical reactions in the body that transform glucose into fat.

Fat or triglycerides are composed of two parts: glycerol, which makes up the backbone of the molecule and three fatty acids. So if your body produces fewer fatty acids, then fewer fat molecules are produced. This is what HCA seems to accomplish. It decreases the conversion of glucose  (all carbohydrates are digested to glucose) to acetyl-CoA. Acetyl-CoA is the building block of fatty acids.Rat studies found that when a high carbohydrate diet was eaten, HCA prevented some of the glucose from being changed into fatty acids. Moreover, as a value added sort of feature, people claim that HCA gives them a feeling of fullness or satiety, so they eat less. Serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for satiety, is thought to be increased by HCA, but there is as of yet no evidence for this.

A couple of pesky problems are associated with using Garcinia to lose weight: cost and sketchy purity. It is not cheap. One company is selling the extract HCA at a cost of $50.00 for 60 caplets and since it is recommended that a dose be taken before each meal, the cost can add up. The quality of the preparation is inconsistent among brands. ConsumerLab.com analyzed the content of hydroxycitric acid in several supplements and found the actual amount far less than claimed on the package label. Moreover, the HCA seems effective only when a very high carbohydrate diet is eaten.

There is a much cheaper way to prevent the transformation of carbohydrates into fat, while increasing satiety. It’s simple….eat only moderate amounts of carbs so what is eaten is used for energy, not to build up the fat cells. And consume some of those carbs, such as a half a cup of oatmeal or a toasted English muffin, about a half an hour before meals. Serotonin will be made naturally, the appetite will be decreased naturally, and you will lose weight naturally. Stay on this plan and the weight will even stay off long after the snow has melted, and the rest of the New Year’s resolutions have been forgotten.

Is Mindless Eating Like a Dog Worrying a Bone?

One of our dinner guests, a thin older man who prided himself on his eating and exercise discipline, sat down next to a bowl of nuts and almost inhaled them. We were having cocktails before dinner, and as hostess I was paying more attention to whether there was a coaster under every glass and napkins next to the finger foods, more than to what our guest was eating. But his rapid almond-to-mouth movements caught my attention.

“Did you see how much Jake (not his real name) was eating?” my husband asked after everyone departed. “He is usually so deliberate and slow in his eating, but this evening he cleaned his plate almost before everyone had picked up his or her fork. “

We mused over his uncharacteristic behavior, and then one of us remembered a story he told later on in the evening about a possibly nasty legal situation he was facing with a neighbor.

“I don’t think he even knew what and how much he was eating,” I commented. “I suspect that if he had been asked what he had eaten for dinner, he would have no idea.“

Not paying attention to what, especially how much, we are eating is one of the unsolved causes of weight gain. Who has not munched on a sandwich or crunched baby carrots while staring at a cell phone? Peering at the screen while eating is so common that eventually restaurants will probably provide cell phone stands so the phone can be propped up while eating, thus relieving the necessity of eating with only one hand. However, the perils of attending to the cell phone screen rather than to your food on the plate is that everything on the plate is consumed (possibly even the toothpick holding the sandwich together) without the eater being aware of doing so. Have you ever eaten a large bag of popcorn in a movie theatre and found that your munching was faster or slower depending on what was on the screen in front of you? Your fingers were able to direct the popcorn to your mouth without much awareness of your part.

Psychologists and nutritionists tell us TO PAY ATTENTION to what we are eating. We are to look first at the food before biting into it and notice its texture, smell, and color, perhaps the same way we might look at a glass of wine. Then we are to chew slowly, savoring the release of flavors and how they change in the mouth. Finally we are allowed to swallow. I was at a workshop watching the facilitator demonstrate this with a strawberry. We all had several on our plates so we could practice along with her. One of the participants was so mesmerized by the slow motion consumption of the strawberry by the leader that she mindlessly munched on all the strawberries on her plate.

Of course, paying attention to what we are eating, and especially noticing when we are full so we don’t continue eating beyond fullness, is helpful in controlling our universal tendency to overeat.  But perhaps more important is noticing why we put our mouths on automatic pilot and eat and eat the way a dog gnaws and gnaws at a bone. The dog is probably not thinking much of anything except where the next bone might be coming from, but the automatic eater is, for sure, thinking of something other than the food.

Mindless eating should really be called “mind elsewhere” eating. Like the dog worrying a bone, or our dinner guest, the “mind elsewhere” eater is gnawing away at an unresolved, troublesome situation.  It is unlikely that the eating and the somewhat obsessive thinking will produce a solution at that moment, but is more likely to result in the consumption of excessive calories. (And, to my mild annoyance, probably no recollection of what the food tasted like.)

A dog owner will take away the bone when it is apparent that the dog should move on to something else.  As owners of our “elsewhere minds” we must take away our own bones. We must put away or move away from the food, set our forks down, determine how much we have already eaten, and halt the repetitive movement of either a utensil or a hand carrying food to the mouth.

Dogs usually sigh and then go to sleep when the bone is gone. We should learn from them. A few minutes of calmness, of allowing ourselves not to be consumed by the problem at hand, will bring our mind and our eating into harmony.  It will also bring the benefit of enjoying the food we are eating.

Are Kids Born, or Made Into, Emotional Overeaters?

Anyone who has eaten when frustrated, angry, bored, worried, exhausted, lonely, or depressed—but not hungry—has engaged in emotional eating
(So that makes most of us.)  And for most, the food eaten is less likely to be steamed broccoli, poached chicken breast, or fat-free yogurt and far more likely to be a member of the so-called carbohydrate junk food family.

We know this from studies carried out at the MIT clinical research center about 25 years ago. Emotional overeaters were offered a choice between protein snacks like miniature meatballs or luncheon meat and carbohydrate snacks like cookies and crackers. The choice was always the carbohydrate foods. The predictable choice of carbohydrates led to research confirming that the carbohydrates were chosen not from taste (the meatballs were delicious but ignored) but because eating crackers or cookies led to an increase in the mood-soothing activity of serotonin. Our conclusion, reinforced by many subsequent psychological studies, was that people used carbohydrates as a form of self-medication.

But how did we learn to do this? And indeed, did we learn to do this, or is medicating with food something we are born with?

Infants don’t eat to make their bad moods go away. They eat to make their hunger go away.   And infants don’t eat when they are not hungry.  Theoretically infants, especially those who are breastfed, do not overeat since it is almost impossible to get infants to swallow more milk when they are done feeding. The mouth closes, the head is turned away, and often sleep takes over.

So how does an infant who self-regulates her food intake turn into an emotional overeater? Some pediatric obesity researchers such as Savage, Birch, Marini, et. al.1 suggest that it is the mother’s fault. Mothers who interpret every sign of their infant’s distress as hunger will feed their infants too often. The baby may not eat but eventually, so the researchers surmise, the baby associates feeling bored, lonely, wet, annoyed or whatever emotions babies feel with being offered food.

This association seems to be strengthened when parents offer treats to the now older child to soothe her. Blisssett, Haycraft and Farrow measured cookie and chocolate consumption among preschool children when they were stressed in a research setting. Children whose mothers often gave them snacks to comfort them ate more sweet snacks than children whose mothers did not offer them snacks when they were upset.

Is this how it begins? The child grows up and, when experiencing the predictable stresses of childhood, adolescence and adulthood, turns to food as a means of coping?

But there is much unanswered about this assumption, i.e. that children will turn into emotional overeating adults because they were given treats as children to help them overcome distress, boredom, or anger.

Do children growing up in cultures where food is scarce become emotional eaters? They may worry as adults about not having enough food and hoard food or overeat because they learned as children that food is not always available. But is this emotional overeating?

Do all children in a family become emotional overeaters in response to being given comfort food while growing up? Often some children in a family overeat sweet or starchy junk food and others reject these items. What makes Sally, but not Sam, reach for cookies when experiencing a negative mood state? Why doesn’t Sam also use food to feel better?

Do children, and indeed adults feel comforted if given any food when upset or only specific foods? The answer is obvious, at least in our culture.  Foods offered and eaten in times of stress tend to be tasty, sweet or starchy and often high in fat (cookies, chocolate, ice cream).  If, theoretically, a toddler was always offered a piece of broccoli or spoonful of cottage cheese after bumping his head or feeling confined in a stroller, would he grow up and reach for the same foods when upset? Probably not, but this is testable. If a child grows up in a community where it is common to eat hot chili peppers or munch on dried seaweed or snack on avocado, then would these be comfort foods?

Are children nurtured from early infancy in a daycare center where meal and snack times are regulated and not dependent on a child’s mood less likely to become emotional overeaters?

Might children who are denied so-called tasty junk food because of their adverse effect on weight and health, feel compelled to eat such foods when they are old enough to get the food themselves? And might they overeat such foods to compensate for the years they were denied such treats?

Clearly much research has to be done before we understand whether an emotional overeater is born or made that way.  Answers may come from studies in which self-defined emotional overeaters are given covertly a food that they tend to eat when stressed, and a food that is never eaten  (crackers versus cottage cheese). Measurements of their emotional state before and following eating are measured. If the emotional overeater shows an improvement in mood to one or the other test food, then the change must have come about because of some change in the brain regulation of mood, and not because of taste or the anticipation that the food will help the mood.

And perhaps, eventually, we can find what in the food gives the child or adult an emotional hug, so we can strip away the calories and leave just the good feeling behind.

Strolling: Good for the Mind as Well as the Body

Walking has become the default mode of exercise. If going outside to walk is not convenient, then a walking treadmill is available for year-round use. You will get nowhere, but you will use up calories. We are exhorted to walk to lose weight, to avoid gaining weight, to refresh our minds, to unstiffen our muscles.  As someone whose steps per day are counted by an app on my cell phone, I am pleased when my daily walking miles increase. “Look at all the calories I am using up!“ I think when a congratulatory computer-generated message appears on the phone.

But before walking was reserved for burning calories, it used to be the predominant way of reaching a destination. Those who still depend on walking, rather than a car or public transportation, often find it a more efficient and cost-effective way of getting somewhere.  When the roads are clogged with traffic, it is a delight to realize that walking to a destination is faster than driving.  And in some situations like a mall, museum or zoo, walking is the only option other than a wheelchair. Tour buses get drive a sightseeing group to the ancient castle or botanical garden, but seeing it requires legs not wheels.

However, there is an aspect to walking that seems to have been forgotten or disregarded in an attempt to make more people move more. Walking is good for the mind, for thinking, daydreaming, and becoming aware of the details of our environment.  Indeed, those who meditate sometimes do a walking meditation in which the body, breathing, and mind become one. Usually too impatient to contemplate anything but a robust pace while walking, recently I have been forced to slow down because of my dog. He is almost blind due to a genetic problem associated with his breed. Fortunately, his hound genes allow him to sniff his way through the world as if there are eyes at the end of his nose; but his pace is about 90% slower than when he could see.  As I am at the other end of the leash, I too have slowed down my pace. 

Our walks have now become a stroll, a leisurely perambulation around the neighborhood. But as the number of miles we used to cover diminishes to a few blocks, moving slowly has the positive effect of increasing my awareness of the surroundings: There are fewer ducks in the pond today; the yellow leaves of the birch tree highlighted by the sun look painted; that trash can needs to be emptied; the moon is almost full tonight; the leaves on the sidewalk crunch delightfully when I scuff through them. Casual conversations with other walkers occur frequently, as I stop to allow the dog to smell his way to the next tree. But the best aspect of these leisurely strolls is giving me the time and privacy to think, to indulge in memories, even to daydream.     

A constant complaint of our over-committed lives is the absence of time to restore and renew ourselves.  We must always get to the next thing on our list. One of my friends jokingly told me that as she is lowered into her grave, she will toss out her ‘to -do’ list. Strolling gives us permission to forget the list, to stop temporarily multi-tasking and strategizing about how much we can accomplish over the next 24 hours. Ambling gives us the respite from the constant demands upon us. It gives us time to indulge in our private selves without having to worry about how we present ourselves to the world.  Strolling, if we think about it, should even make us aware and grateful that we can walk and see and hear.

Exercise is important; indeed, it is essential to good mental and physical health. But as my dog has taught me, sometimes a gentle walk can truly enhance our well-being.    

Lactose Intolerance: Can It Cause Weight Gain and Weak Bones?

I hadn’t seen my neighbor for several weeks, but we’d just met again while walking our dogs.  When I commented on how well she looked, she patted her mid-section and said, ”I finally got rid of my big stomach.” (that she had a large stomach was not apparent in our previous encounters.)  When I murmured something to that effect, she went into a long discourse on how she managed to vanquish her perceived girth by radically changing her diet.  She told me, “I cut out all dairy and carbohydrates, and I eat only protein and vegetables. But it’s strange. I haven’t lost any weight. I just lost the bloating.”

My nutritional antennae went up when she mentioned her dietary changes.  Further questioning revealed that she really hadn’t stopped eating carbohydrates, and had enjoyed an excellent pasta dish the previous night at a local restaurant.  But no dairy products had been eaten for weeks. “And as soon as I stopped putting milk on my cereal, and cut out yogurt and cottage cheese, my bloating stopped,” she proclaimed, patting her flatter stomach. “So obviously the dairy products were making me fat.”

As our dogs settled down on the grass, we continued talking. “ So maybe you have lactose intolerance,” I suggested. “That would account for the bloating after you eat dairy. “

She was unaware that as people age, the enzyme lactase that breaks down lactose, the sugar naturally found in milk, disappears or becomes much less active. Consuming milk and sometimes other dairy products such as ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese and even butter (it contains milk solids) causes gas, bloating and diarrhea. This is due to bacteria in the intestine interacting with the undigested milk sugar. The intestinal discomfort is accompanied by cosmetic discomfort; skirts or pants strain to fit over a bloated stomach, and the abdomen may not retract to a flatter shape until all the lactose has been expelled.

“You can get lactose-free dairy products,” I told her. “Also, often the bacteria in yogurt have already broken down some of the sugar, so regular yogurt may not cause bloating. And you can take pills that contain the enzyme lactase. You chew them right before eating any dairy products. “

“Well, maybe I do have lactose intolerance… but it doesn’t matter,” she responded. “Why go back to eating dairy? I drink almond milk and eat broccoli. “ She bent down to pick up her dog who was eating grass. “I get all the calcium I need. “

I felt as if I was making a nutritional nuisance out of myself, but asked anyway, “ Didn’t your doctor tell you a few months ago that you may be developing osteoporosis? You were worried that calcium in supplements was not being absorbed as well as calcium in food. Are you sure you are getting enough calcium now?”  Her dog started barking, and she looked as if she was going to bark at me so, letting our dogs pull us in opposite directions, we parted company. But as I walked home, I wondered whether she could get enough calcium from almond milk and broccoli. She needed to get about 1200 mg of calcium daily.

She was right about the almond milk. Eight ounces of calcium-fortified milk contains as much of this mineral as cow’s milk: 300 mg.  But would she drink 4 glasses a day?  Yogurt has 400 mg of calcium, but because eating it supposedly made her fat, it was not on her allowable food list.  What else could or would she eat? Canned salmon or sardines with bones? Probably not, or only rarely. Vegetables? She said she ate broccoli.  Could vegetables provide the calcium she needed?

Broccoli is not a good option, unless she eats a bucket full.  A cup contains at most about 65 mg of calcium. Steamed kale, bok choy, turnip greens, and spinach are good sources (a relative term as they contain only about 100 g per cup of calcium) but there is a problem. These dark leafy vegetables have a pesky substance called oxalic acid that attaches to the calcium, and prevents the mineral from being absorbed from the intestine into the circulation. In fact, oxalic acid can even prevent the calcium in milk or yogurt from getting into the blood stream if these dairy products are eaten along with dark leafy vegetables.

What about orange juice? Calcium-fortified OJ is as good a source of calcium as milk, and has about the same number of calories as whole milk. But will my friend, worried about the size of her tummy, fret about the calories?

Maybe she could swallow 2 tablespoons of blackstrap molasses every day (400 mg). And she could eat chickpeas, black-eyed peas, soybeans, tofu processed with calcium sulfate, figs, and instant oatmeal fortified with calcium.

Bones are an excellent calcium source, but I suspect only her dog chewed on those. (These cook down in the canning process of sardines and salmon to boost calcium.)

So it seems that dairy products are the best natural sources of this essential mineral. But will my friend be willing to try lactose-free dairy products and/or the lactase containing pills so she can consume them? Maybe so, if her stomach remains flat.  Perhaps it will require another   walk with our dogs to convince her.