Category Archives: Emotional overeating

When Mindless Eating Has a Function

Mindless eating is always trotted out as a significant factor in the increasing incidence of obesity. If we only paid attention to what we are eating, perhaps we would eat more 1) healthily and 2) frugally. We would never eat potato chips, butter-drenched popcorn, French fries, peanuts, M & M’s and nachos or, if we did, we would notice every peanut or M & M going into our mouths and would stop after eating only one or two (in our dreams, perhaps). We never would eat everything on our plates, unless the portion size was so small we noticed its reduced size.  When served the typical overly large serving, we would carefully portion out the amount we should be eating and leave the rest, or eat it at another meal.

But who eats this way?  Probably people during the early stages of a diet, or after bariatric surgery when they are left with a tiny stomach. Restaurant reviewers pay attention to what they are eating, as do judges on televised competitive cooking shows or at state fairs tasting pies.  Of course, pathological food restrictors are extremely mindful of what they put in their mouths (three slices of apple, two leaves of lettuce), as are toddlers who chase cereal bits around the trays on their strollers.  Picky eaters notice what they are eating in order not to risk putting anything in their mouths that is distasteful or has unacceptable mouth feel. But once they remove the offending food from their plates, they eat as mindlessly as the rest of us.

Stress is a significant trigger for mindless eating and is often cited as an obstacle to weight loss or its maintenance. Often the eating is so unnoticed that only the empty ice cream container or bag of chips signals that eating has actually occurred.

Some studies suggest that chewing and not the swallowing of food is what decreases stress. Supposedly the repetitive motion of chewing produces a decrease in physiological markers of stress such as blood cortisol levels. (“Mastication as a Stress-Coping Behavior,” Kubo K, Iinuma M, and Chen H Biomed Res Int. 2015; 2015:876)  Laboratory rats given wooden sticks to bite or chew will show lower levels of cortisol when stressed, than rats not allowed to chew. Humans may chew gum or gnaw on other objects (pencils, pipe stems, coffee stirrers, fingernails) when they are stressed and as with the rats, this chewing decreases levels of cortisol and other physiological indicators of stress. If chewing does easing worry and anxiety, then the chewed object should have few or no calories (for instance, gum or crushed ice).

Unfortunately, we usually swallow what we are consuming when stress-associated mindlessly eating. This, of course, may significantly affect our weight if the stress and the mindless eating are prolonged. But is mindless eating at a time of emotional distress all bad?

Recently, while dining with friends we had not seen for several weeks, we learned that the husband was scheduled for a medical test that would reveal whether his medical problem could be helped by a simple, safe procedure, or major surgery with considerable risks. We had ordered a variety of small dishes meant to be shared among us, including two types of pasta which were served in large bowls. One bowl of pasta happened to be set in front of the wife of the individual whose medical condition we were discussing. “I can’t believe I ate the entire bowl of pasta,” she exclaimed several minutes later when someone asked her to pass the now empty bowl.  I didn’t mean to eat so much,” she said. “I didn’t even realize I was eating it!”

Mindless eating? Yes. Might it have been related to her worry and anxiety that her spouse might not survive the more drastic medical procedure? Probably. Did it help ease her emotional distress? Perhaps.   Certainly the carbohydrate, the pasta, would have increased serotonin synthesis in her brain, and that, in turn, may have lessened her anxiety, helplessness at not being able to do anything but wait and worry, and maybe even increased her ability to cope with the unknown.

It wasn’t necessary for her to eat the entire bowl of pasta to ease her anxiety. Indeed, had she eaten a few skinny bread sticks, or a slice of crusty bread from the basket placed on the table as we sat down, she might have started to feel better before the pasta arrived. Once digested, the carbohydrate in the bread sticks would have initiated the physiological process leading to an elevation of her brain serotonin levels. The subsequent increase in serotonin activity and possible reduction in her anxiety and worry might have prevented her from consuming all the pasta without noticing what she was doing.

However, the mindless eating our friend experienced is not without some benefit in addition to an easing of her distress. It can be regarded as an early warning of her vulnerability to eating uncontrollably in order to feel better. Our friend should be asking herself: “ Why did I eat all that food without noticing?  Am I using food  to block out my emotional pain? Is it working?”

Positive answers do not mean that mindless eating should be continued. Rather, it should be replaced by mindful eating.  It is not necessary to eat large quantities of carbohydrates  to experience relief from stress. The stressed eater need consume only about 30 grams of a fat-free carbohydrate (i.e. rice crackers or oatmeal) that contains no more than 4-5 grams of protein to bring about an increase in serotonin and a decrease in stress.  (“Brain serotonin content: Physiological regulation by plasma neutral amino acids,” Fernstrom, J. and Wurtman, R. Science, 1972; 178:414-416). Eaten as a snack, or indeed in a meal, once the carbohydrate is digested, the increase in serotonin should bring about some emotional relief.

Stress happens to all of us, and usually when we are not prepared. A bowl of pasta or a few breadsticks is not going to take away the cause or offer a solution. But at least these carbohydrates may take the edge off of our emotional pain, and make the problem a little more bearable.

 

 

 

Low Carb v Low Fat: What if Neither Diet Works For You?

Are you on a Paleo diet, a South Beach diet, a feast and famine diet, or an all-the-chocolate you can eat diet (I made this one up)? There are so many diets from which to choose where all give evidence of success, with the participants claiming increased energy, decreased blood pressure, and no hunger. Sometimes specific foods, rather than the diet, are given credit for the weight loss: the dieter stops eating all white foods, gives up eating fruits with pits in them, drinks only milk that comes from nuts, stops eating all fried food, or eats only fried foods. Arguments about the virtue or uselessness of various diets cause unwinnable arguments, because one person’s weight loss is someone else’s failure.

Now the arguments can stop. Recently, newspaper and publications on health matters reported the results of a 12-month weight-loss trial that seemed to halt discussions of “my diet is better than yours.” Published in JAMA, the study presented the results of a year-long weight-loss study in which the 609 participating adults were assigned to a either a low-fat or a low- carbohydrate diet. (“Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion,” The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial, Gardner, C. , Trepanowski, J., Del Gobbo, L., JAMA, 2018;319(7):667-679.) At the end of the study period,their weight loss was similar.

The foods on the low-fat and the low-carbohydrate diets were carefully regulated; only healthy fats like avocado and nuts, and healthy carbs such as whole grains, lentils and beans, were allowed. The operative word influencing food choice was healthy. Both groups were encouraged to eat large quantities of fresh vegetables and instructed as to how to prepare foods that were relatively unprocessed.

The amount of weight loss was moderate; both groups lost about 6 kg, or about 13 pounds, in 12 months. This amount of weight loss cannot compete with claims made in television advertisements or tabloid magazine articles for commercial diets. However, unlike the “quick weight-loss” promises of such programs, the diets in the research study produced the type of weight loss that can be sustained over long periods of time and maintained after weight-loss goals are attained. Indeed, the food choices in both diets were similar to those recommended for everyone in order to avoid heart disease and diabetes.

But will this news make an impact on diet programs? Will it stop self-appointed nutrition experts from claiming that their method of weight loss is optimal? Will it decrease the claims that a particular herb, hormone, mineral, spice or berry has the power to alter metabolism so that weight will be lost easily? Might it stop celebrities from self-righteous statements about their total avoidance of a particular food group, usually carbohydrates but sometimes most food , in order to attain a perfect body? Probably not, because the diet plans tested were sensible, not sensational, and unlikely to sell tabloid magazines, books or magazines promoting the latest way to lose weight.
But there are reasons why the results from this study should not close the discussion on the best way to lose weight. People who suffer from morbid obesity often need an intervention that produces more than a 13 pound weight loss per year. Surgery that reduces the size of the stomach may be the only effective solution with the type of diet subsequently followed designed to ensure that patients eat enough protein. Besides, the JAMA study diets that include bulky vegetables, whole grains and other high-fiber foods may not be suitable for stomachs that can hold only tablespoon quantities of food after surgery. Of course eventually, when the stomach can receive larger quantities of food, patients might be able to follow the JAMA diets.

Obesity associated with emotional overeating, especially binge eating that is often linked to anxiety, will not respond to any dietary intervention without sufficient psychological counseling. When and if the emotional component no longer causes excessive food intake, then either low-fat or low-carbohydrate food plans may work.

Weight gained as a side effect of psychotropic drug treatment may be hard to reverse with either of the diets described in the JAMA article. Anti-depressants and related drugs cause a persistent craving for carbohydrates along with the absence of satiety. Patients who rarely had weight issues prior to treatment struggle to overcome their medication-induced need to eat. So far the only dietary intervention that increases satiety and decrease carbohydrate cravings is one which allows a small snack of carbohydrate to be consumed prior to meals and sometimes between meals. The carbohydrate increases brain serotonin which in turn increases satiety and turns off craving. Since the subjects in the JAMA study were not on such medications, there is no way of knowing if either or both diets might have been effective.

The weight-loss program in the study educated the participants in healthy meal preparation. In an ideal world, dieters have time to do just this: shop for the right foods, prepare them and clean up after the meal. One hopes that the advice and training given the participants also included what to eat when staying late at work, dealing with sick children, car pools, long commutes, bad weather, travel, holidays and other often unavoidable situations that make it difficult to make the right food choices.

However, the study presents the hopeful possibility of stopping the arguments over which type of diet is best. Now future studies can focus on the best weight-loss intervention for those whose weight loss may not respond to conventional diets and on how best to help the dieter adhere to whatever program is recommended.

If I Don’t Pay Attention to What I am Eating, Will the Food Contain Calories?

“What do you usually eat on a typical day when you are not dieting?”

I often ask this question when meeting a weight-loss client for the first time. Although I write down the information, I know that it is rarely complete. It is very hard for any of us to recall everything we have eaten yesterday or a few days ago, especially food that is not consumed as part of a meal. Did we munch on the potato chips that came with the lunchtime sandwich? Did we pop a few nuts in our mouths when we saw the bowl on the coffee table? Did we taste the food we are making for dinner and perhaps do more than just taste? Did we or didn’t we have a glass of wine with dinner, or was it two?

As hard as it is to remember what we ate it is even harder to remember how much. Few of us visually measure the size of the entrée put in front of us in a restaurant, or notice the quantity of food we eat at home. Was the chicken 4 ounces or 6? Was the rice a half a cup or two cups? How big was that piece of blueberry pie? And sometimes our best intentions to eat only a small part of what is put in front of us get lost when our attention is directed elsewhere while we are eating. I remember seeing a couple aghast at the size of their meals when it was put down in front of them in a restaurant known for their supersized portions. But they consumed everything on their plates because their attention was diverted to an intense discussion they began as they started to eat. The faster they talked, the faster they ate, and I suspect they never noticed how much they were eating until their plates were empty.

Reading emails on one’s smartphone, watching a video on a laptop device, or texting with the non-fork containing hand also interferes knowing how much is being eaten. When attention is elsewhere, the act of eating becomes automatic. The fork moves from plate to mouth to plate again, and the eater may not notice how much is being eaten until the plate is empty. If an hour later the eater was asked what and how much was eaten, he or she might be able to give only vague details. Indeed, sometimes the eater denies that much was eaten at all. “I just tasted the food and left most of it,” he will claim when the reality is that there was nothing left on the plate when he finished the meal.
Unless we must keep track of our food intake for health and weight-loss reasons (for example, a diabetic keeping track of grams of carbohydrate), we usually give only perfunctory attention to what we are eating. But even if we forgot what we put in our mouths, our metabolism does not. A calorie we do not notice eating still counts as a calorie we have eaten.

This absent-minded eating can make it very hard to lose weight. The heavily advertised weight-loss programs that restrict all food intakes to packaged drinks, snacks, and meals delivered to your door make paying attention unnecessary because the meal choices are programmed to enable weight loss. But if you are on a weight-loss program that gives you choice of what, and to some extent, how much you are eating, then often the only way to keep track of what you are eating is “to keep track.” There are apps for this, along with the traditional paper and pen food diary. Some people are able to keep track of everything they eat (they also balance their checkbooks), sometimes for months, and they are usually successful in losing weight and keeping it off. But for the rest of humanity for whom even keeping track of today’s date is difficult, recording everything that is eaten becomes very tedious very fast.

People who have maintained an appropriate weight for many years often follow an unchanging menu for breakfast and lunch. They don’t have to pay attention to what they are eating because their meal choices never vary. They often have rules about what they will eat for dinner as well: limited alcohol intake, salads with dressing on the side, eating only half the restaurant portion or sharing an entrée, avoiding fried foods and dishes with thick sauces or melted cheese, or avoiding all carbohydrates or all fats.

Weight-loss programs that do not make it necessary to pay attention to what and how much is eaten because all the foods are pre-measured rarely offer effective advice on how to pay attention to what is being eaten after the diet is over. The concept doesn’t sell very well in television advertisements for people who just want to lose the weight, but it is critically important to do so.

Making rules that limit food choices may be the most effective method, but may turn eating into more of a chore than delight. One thing that helps is spending 20 seconds to look at what is on the plate before eating. In those 20 seconds you can decide what you will eat in its entirety, what you will avoid and what you will eat sparingly. Taking a picture with a cell phone so the calories can be figured out later is also useful. It also may give you an idea of whether you have eaten anything healthy that day. Mindless snacking is a caloric hazard. Dipping one’s hand into a bowl or bag of snacks like nuts, cookies, or chocolate almost always causes excess calories to be eaten without any memory of doing so.

Not paying attention to what you are eating has a price: you may not know but, alas, your clothes and scale will eventually know only too well.

Is the US Becoming More Obese Because of Medication?

Despite a blizzard of weight-loss programs, touting novel fat-reducing foods, and innovative exercise devices, the country is getting fatter and fatter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 4 in 10 U.S adults, according to their body mass index, can be classified as obese. Obesity is not evenly distributed among the states. The losers; i.e. the thinnest states, are Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and D.C. The gainer is West Virginia where almost 40% of adults are obese.

We have been becoming heavier for so many decades that we forget how thin we were as a country 80 or more years ago. It is only when viewing newsreels of the first half of the 20th century in which most adults look extremely thin that you realize what we now consider thin was considered normal weight back then.

The same old reasons are brought out yearly to explain why we, and indeed the rest of the world, is getting fatter: junk food, sugary drinks, dependence on motorized transport rather than our two feet, humongous restaurant portions, intestinal flora that make our bodies store fat, too much time on electronic devices, and too little time in the gym.

Might our growing obesity be related to the weight gain after smoking withdrawal? Weight gain is common among ex-smokers, and studies as reported by the National Bureau of Economic Research (Sharon Begley, “Gut Check”) suggest that it may be 11-12 pounds on average. But a close examination of who gains the most weight indicates that smokers with the lowest BMI are most likely to gain the most, and 11 or 12 pounds is not enough weight gain to make them obese.

Could medications used to treat mental disorders be another, mostly overlooked cause of national weight gain? That psychotropic drugs—the medications used to treat depression, anxiety, bipolar disorderschizophrenia and other mental diseases—cause weight gain is established. Sometimes the weight gain is only a few pounds, stops after a month or two, and is lost as soon as the treatment ends. But many drugs cause substantial weight gain because the patient experiences a relentless urge to eat. Moreover, to the chagrin, indeed horror of some patients, stopping the medications does not always cause weight loss even with dieting and exercise.

Data on the use of psychotropic drugs comes from a 2013 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey discussed in a Scientific American article by Sara Miller.  One in six Americans is taking a psychotropic drug, although not all are being prescribed for mental illness. There have also been many studies showing that depression itself is linked to future obesity. A common depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder, is diagnosed in part by the overeating and weight gain of patients during the increased darkness of winter. Often the depression of PMS and pre-menopause is accompanied by overeating and weight gain as well.

Yet in the list of causes for our increasing girth, reasons such as genes, inflammation, bad gut bacteria and bread are more likely to be found than the weight-gaining potential of depression and the drugs that treat it.

Where are the weight-loss programs specifically designed to help those whose overeating is caused by lack of sunlight, or hormones affecting appetite control centers in the brain, or drugs that hijack control over satiety? Where are the support services for those who are embarrassed to go to the gym because their medications have turned their formerly fit and slim body into a much heavier one?  Recently someone who has been struggling to lose the weight gained on her medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder told me that her dietician put her on a low- carbohydrate diet. “I was craving carbohydrates all the time,” she told me, “so the dietician figured the easiest way to take care of that problem was to remove them from my diet. She did not realize that my medication had caused the cravings even though I told her. And since I couldn’t stop my drugs, I just craved bread and pasta so much on her diet that I began to binge.”

 

This story is typical in that this patient was not seen as needing specialized weight-loss help because her weight gain was the result of a drug, and not related to emotional issuesor an inability to make healthy food choices. Moreover, the dietician’s advice to remove carbohydrates showed lack of knowledge on the effect of eating carbohydrates on serotonin synthesis. Serotonin levels drop when carbohydrates are not consumed and often lead to a worsening of the obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, or other mental disorders.

How long is it going to be before weight-loss professionals acknowledge that many of the obese in the United States are that way because of their medications? How long will it be before thought, labor, and money are put into programs to address their special needs?

Will 2018 bring about needed innovations in weight-loss therapy for these individuals, or will we just become fatter?

Could Being Obese Make You Lose Your Teeth?

Having one’s teeth cleaned is not as bad as undergoing a root canal procedure, but certainly not as pleasant as getting a manicure. However, it does give one time to think of the implications of not doing so frequently, and the importance of carrying out the in-between cleaning tasks such as brushing, flossing and not eating caramel apples. Many of us may be not as compulsive about doing so as our dentist would like, but if we are also obese there is a greater cost to the health of our teeth and gums if the basic requirements of good dental hygiene are ignored.

No one disputes the adverse effects of consuming simple sugar on tooth decay. Ideally, if we indulge in eating or drinking sugar (as in soda or juice), we should race to the sink and brush our teeth immediately.  Dentists see the unfortunate consequences of not doing so, especially among those whose weight was gained by frequent consumption of sugar-rich snacks and drinks. Very few people will stop in the middle of a chocolate chip cookie or ice cream binge to floss and brush their teeth.

Obesity puts teeth and gums at risk for other reasons as well. Gastroesophageal reflux (aka acid reflux or heartburn) tends to be common, and causes teeth to be in contact with acid from the stomach, thereby contributing to the breakdown of teeth enamel. If the obesity is associated with depression or other mood disorders, the medications used to treat these disorders often leave the mouth extremely dry. The absence of saliva is also associated with dental decay. (Obesity Complicates Dental Health – Be Proactive!” Obesity Action Coalition, Stillwell, D.)

Patients who choose bariatric surgery to reduce the size of their stomach may be even more vulnerable to dental problems. Often vomiting occurs after this stomach surgery if too much food is put in the now tiny digestive organ. As with acid reflux, the teeth are coated with stomach acid, and enamel demineralization may result.  Moreover, according to Stillwell, an increased craving for sweets has been seen after surgery along with a significant tooth sensitivity that may make exposure to water or pressure uncomfortable. Patients who were not diligent about caring for their teeth before surgery are not likely to improve their dental hygiene afterwards, unless the importance of doing so is stressed.

Complicating care of the teeth and gums for someone struggling with obesity is this unpleasantness of attempting to fit an oversized body into a dental chair sized for smaller bodies. For someone with morbid obesity who finds walking difficult, getting to a dentist’s office is often physically painful. Added to this is the psychological pain of attempting to squeeze onto the reclining chair underneath the hanging trays and instruments. Stillwell suggests in his article that obese patients seek out dental offices equipped to handle their needs, but admits that there are very dental few practices that even consider this a problem.

Ironically, dentists were involved in developing and inserting devices in the mouth that would markedly reduce food intake to produce significant weight loss. Wiring of the teeth to prevent chewing was popular several years ago, but interest in using this approach declined rapidly in proportion to the rapid regain of weight when the jaws were freed. A modified version using a retainer-like device custom made to fit the roof of the patient’s mouth has been used with some success. The mouth can open only partially, so the patient has to take very small bites and consequently must eat very slowly. Since it takes about 15-20 minutes for the brain to realize that food has been consumed, the idea behind the retainer is that forced slow eating will produce fullness or satiety before excessive amounts of food can be consumed. Of course, it is also possible that the eater loses patience or becomes bored with the length of time it takes to complete a meal and goes on to do something else.  (“Are dentists involved in the treatment of obesity?” Karma, M.,Aw, G., and Tarakji, B., J Int Soc Prev Community Dent 2016 183-188) Once the retainer is removed, weight can be regained, unless the patient is willing to continue to eat very slowly. .

Although dental devices to reduce food intake may not be the most effective way of producing weight loss, the dentist may be an effective “first responder” in offering help and advice to obese patients. Most of us are unaware of the health of our mouths since it is almost impossible to see the state of our teeth and gums except for what stares back at us in the mirror. The possibility of losing our teeth and/or going through the pain and expense of periodontal surgery for gum disease is enough to motivate or frighten us into practicing what the dentist preaches.  Unlike a physician who makes the obese patient confront his or her weight, a dentist does not deal with the size of the patient’s body. The advice and suggestions about modifying food choices to decrease sugar intake and pointing out the association of gastric reflux with enamel erosion focuses on what is above the neck.  It is hard to ignore advice which, if not followed, may cause loss of one of our basic functions— chewing—as well as negatively affecting our appearance.  The simple suggestion about brushing in association with snacking might be enough to decrease between-meal food intake. The feel of a clean mouth and teeth is sometimes enough to prevent eating from immediately starting again.

And the dentist has an immense advantage over everyone else trying to help an individual improve food intake and lose weight: the patient can’t talk back.

Does Running Holiday Errands Count as Exercise?

“I‘m exhausted!” a friend told me when I bumped into her at the supermarket. “I spent the entire weekend running around doing errands.”

“Sounds like a good way of getting exercise and errands done at the same time,” I replied, knowing what the response would be. “Well, obviously I am not running,” she retorted. “But fighting the traffic in the mall parking lot and standing in line every store is so tiring. I don’t have the energy even to get to the gym.”

Holiday preparations, with its multitude of obligations and looming deadline of December 25th, seem to cause a frenzy of multitasking and soak up scarce free time. Even before Thanksgiving leftovers are consumed, the holiday to-do list is made and the running begins.

There is a high mental and physical cost to transforming ordinary life into one characterized by holiday decorations, buying and wrapping presents, sending cards, cooking, entertaining, hosting company and/or traveling. Since these tasks are added to those normally carried out each day, such as going to work, caring for family and social activities, the result is that time normally spent preparing and eating meals and exercising is drastically decreased. Indeed, going to the gym, a yoga class, or for a run seems like an indulgence done at the cost of cramming even more holiday obligations into remaining hours of the day or week. And for some, like my friend, the fatigue that comes with probably too little sleep, too much stress, too much shopping in malls with recirculated air, and too much waiting in traffic…it all makes sitting on a couch rather than on an exercycle seem like the only option at the end of the day.

Weight gain during the holiday season is so common that right after New Year’s Day, dieting kicks in. Gaining five pounds or more from Thanksgiving to the next year is not unusual, and holiday food and drink are major contributors to increased calorie intake. But even without the eggnog, sugar cookies, mayonnaise, sour cream or melted cheese dips, and fruit cake, weight would probably be gained. Lack of time leads to food court dining, fast food drive-ins, pizza, or nibbling all day on nutritionally weak snacks. Steamed vegetables, grilled fish and large salads are for January, not for December with its endless errands.

Frequent exercise classes or solitary workout routines followed by a shower, hair drying, and make-up applying is not compatible with a mind-set of counting down to Christmas.  And for those who exercise at home rather than at a health club, the convenience of having a piece of exercise equipment nearby is often ignored, because household tasks call more loudly than 30 minutes on the treadmill.

The approach to getting through the next few weeks without compromising sleep, weight, emotional well-being and fitness?

Schedule time to keep the body and mood healthy. You are not running a toy workshop in the North Pole and setting up a sleigh (rather than Amazon) delivery system by Dec 24. Which is to say that if there is a choice between getting enough sleep, or eating a salad, lean protein and high fiber carbohydrate, or taking a brisk walk or an exercise class, or making another dash to the mall, or baking one more batch of cookies? Choose exercise you want to do. Study after study has shown the positive and immediately impact that exercise has on decreasing stress and improving mood and cognition. Over the long term? Exercise can improve general health, decrease risks from heart disease, and perhaps even neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.  A fatigued, stiff, grumpy body dragged to the gym unwillingly will not be the same after exercising. Paradoxically, the fatigue seems to lift….probably because increased blood flow oxygenates the muscles and brain. Stiffness from sitting in a car or standing in line goes away as the heat from the exercise makes the muscles more limber. Grumpiness disappears as well. People do not scowl at themselves in a health club; they may grunt or groan from the difficulty of their particular exercise, but somehow nasty moods go away (except if there are no towels when you leave the shower).

But the best part of literally (not figuratively) running or doing any other form of physical activity is that you are doing something for yourself. You are the beneficiary. You are the one who feels better, more energetic, less irritable or worried. The time you spend in exercise belongs to you.

Giving yourself the pre-holiday gift of time to take care of yourself is not something that is done easily. Guilt and anxiety over what has to be done, and what might not get done, may interfere with your healthy intentions: “I will make that salad or take a walk after I do (fill in the blank),” you say to yourself.

Putting your need for healthy food, exercise and sleep at the top of the long to-do list is hard. And yet, what better gift can you give to your family and friends than a cheerful, not sleepy, energetic, and unstressed you?

If We Had More Time to Eat, Would We Eat More?

The national eating day, Thanksgiving, is unusual in several respects. People who rarely cook spend hours in the kitchen transforming a rather ungainly raw bird into something beautifully edible and making artistic creations out of mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows.  Stale bread that otherwise might be fed to the birds is turned into a complex dish that may or may not cook inside the turkey.  The table is formally set, and many courses with numerous dishes are served.  And the meal will take time.

Unless they have another Thanksgiving meal to go to, or feel compelled to Christmas bargain shop, guests are happy to dine leisurely. The meal may take considerably more than an hour, and rushing through is restricted to getting seconds on desserts before they are gone.  In this respect, Thanksgiving and other major holiday dining differs significantly from the way many of us eat the rest of the year.

That we eat more on Thanksgiving than on other days is not disputable.  Serving excessive amounts of food is appropriate, and we are expected to eat until we feel stuffed, and then eat some more. But would we eat so much if there were less time to do so?  Would we eat less if, like so many other days of the year, late afternoon/early evening activities and obligations shorten supper to a grab-and-chew type meal, rather than a sit-down dinner? Would we change the amount of food we eat if we actually sat and ate breakfast and lunch, rather than standing in line for take-out and then quickly consuming it before going back to work? Is eating quickly a prescription for too much, or too little food intake?

A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a relative who works for a large law firm. She kept looking at her watch as we stood in line for our salads at a food court. “They don’t like us to take more than 30 minutes for lunch,” she told me. “I hope I have time to eat.”

She is not alone. For many of us, eating is something we fit into our busy schedules often while we are doing something else, e.g. sending messages on our cell phone, working at our desks, or driving.

Hypothetically, if we have very little time to eat, we should be eating very little. A muffin or bagel for breakfast and two slices of pizza or a tuna wrap for lunch feels like fewer calories than a traditional breakfast of eggs and toast… or a lunch of baked chicken, potato, vegetables, roll and dessert. However, often when we choose foods that can be eaten quickly, we don’t notice that they can be calorically dense. A muffin or bagel with cream cheese may contain 600 calories, and a tuna salad sub with mayonnaise and cheese delivers as many calories as the hot lunch.

When we do not have time to eat, we may do it so quickly that we dump more food than necessary in our stomachs, like someone competing in an “All the hot dogs you can eat!” contest.  Sometimes when we gulp our food we don’t even notice how much we are eating. This is also true if we are multi-tasking while putting food in our mouths.

Sitting for a long time at a meal has its own perils. We may find it impossible to resist eating more than we intended to because we have the time and the food, especially the desserts, are there to tempt us. We are no longer hungry, yet the cookies or nuts or chocolate or pies are still on the table and it is hard, unless we are sitting on our hands, not to reach for them. A friend who often hosts long, leisurely meals told me that guests who resist eating dessert when she first serves it will often reach for the cake or cookies later on if they are all still sitting and chatting. Of course, meals that are interrupted by speeches between courses are a perfect prescription for overeating. The guest is a hostage to someone’s boring talk and eating seems to be the only way to endure it.

On the other hand, if we have the time to have an “appetizer” of carbohydrate, e.g., a roll, rice cakes, or crackers about 20 minutes before we start our meal, we may find ourselves eating less.  The carbohydrate potentiates the production of the brain chemical serotonin, and that in turn will make us feel somewhat full before the meal begins. This helps control how much we eat subsequently (a critical aid for dieters), and causes us to stop eating before we clean our plates.  But when time is limited, eating quickly and without the benefit of the satiating effects of serotonin, we could be eating more than we should.

Either too much or too little time can disrupt moderate and reasonable food intake. But certainly we should take the time to enjoy Thanksgiving for its own sake regardless of how much, or how long it takes to eat.

Does Halloween Begin the Trifecta of Weight Gain?

Soon after Labor Day, almost before the bathing suits of summer have been put away, bags of miniature Halloween candy begIn to appear on supermarket and drugstore shelves. Those tiny candy bars will be devoured to celebrate a holiday that has nothing to do with candy, and the hundreds of calories they contain will initiate the fall season of weight gain. Soon the black and orange wrapped candy will be replaced by chocolate turkeys for the national binge day, Thanksgiving, and then towers of green and red wrapped candies, cookies, and cakes will be displayed for the December holidays.

It is understandable how Thanksgiving and Christmas became holidays characterized, in part, by excessive consumption of special foods that are usually replete with cream, butter, sugar, egg yolks and chocolate. In the old days, these holidays represented the few times a year when expensive, scarce food stuffs like sugar, chocolate, costly cuts of meat, and exotic fruits like oranges, and special alcoholic drinks were served in liberal portions.  Religious and national events like Christmas, the 4th of July, or the yearly fair have always been celebrated with copious amounts of food.  Often guests contributed their own special recipes to a gathering, and it was not unusual to have several main dishes, many sides and a large number of desserts. No one worried about how many calories were eaten because food intake was frugal and, for some, even scarce for the rest of the year.  But now, of course, the caloric excesses that begin with devouring miniature candy bars and end with New Year’s Eve buffets may not be compensated with frugal eating the rest of the time.

But how is that Halloween, a holiday which originated as a religious event, has metamorphosed into the opportunity to eat excessive amount of sugars, fat, artificial flavorings and color while wearing a costume? And how is it that the attempt by some food companies to reduce sugar content in many of their products is being offset by large confectionery companies marketing Halloween candy? And how, as our nation becomes fatter every year, are we going to continue to allow this?

Collecting, counting, and collating the candy gathered during an evening of trick or treating is a relatively new phenomenon. To be sure, hordes of face-painted or masked kids have been roaming the streets on Halloween, ringing doorbells and asking for handouts for many decades. Mid-20th century, the handouts were rarely commercially packaged miniaturized candy bars. Treats like cookies, popcorn balls, Rice Krispy squares, brownies and fudge were often homemade. Candy corn, invented in l880, Hersey’s Kisses in l907 and M+M’s in l941, along with a smattering of regular size candy bars, were available as treats, but competed with homemade chocolate chip cookies. Then we became scared of anything that was not made and sealed in a factory. The appearance of razor blades in apples and the possibility of toxic ingredients in homemade baked goods frightened us into allowing our children and ourselves to accept only commercially produced, sealed snacks like miniature candy bars and tiny bags of candy corn. And the confectionery companies responded. Any candy that could be shrunk, wrapped in Halloween colors, put in a large bag and sold in bulk, was.

Of course, the calories per candy item were also shrunk because the candies were one big bite.  Alas (and the candy makers know this), we think, “They are so small, how could they be fattening?” and pop three or four tiny Snickers or Butterfinger bars into our mouths.  The little candies can be stashed in drawers, brief cases, knapsacks, glove compartments, pocketbooks and pockets and constitute an almost endless supply of sugary, high-fat treats—and calories. And so the season of fattening ourselves up begins.

The over-consumption of sugary treats falls at the time of year when we may be feeling stressed because of after-summer vacation workload for adults and for kids, homework.  Are we craving candy because as darkness increases, our good moods decrease? Would chewing through a mound of candy corn be as appealing in the middle of July as it is at the end of October?  We know that the good mood brain chemical, serotonin, is made when any carbohydrate (sugar, starch) other than fruit is eaten. Is candy more appealing than a bowl of oatmeal that brings about the same feelings of calm and comfort?

It is hard to find any good reason for children or adults to consume mounds of candy. In an ideal world, the plastic bags of miniature candy bars would be replaced by bags of vacuum-packed apple slices, or oranges or baby carrots. Treats might also include pretzels, popcorn, miniature protein or high fiber, high-energy bars or breakfast bars. These have the virtue of being low or fat-free, have some nutritional value, and, after the holiday, can be put in a lunch box for a daily snack.

But how are we going to stop the avalanche of fall candy consumption? It means pushing back against the confectionery companies so that like the large soda manufacturers who have reduced sugar in their drinks, they see a profit in offering healthier Halloween treats. It means working within neighborhoods and schools to convince everyone to resist dumping handfuls of candy bars into plastic pumpkins held by seven year-old trick-or-treaters. Perhaps people can be convinced to donate some of the money that would have been spent on candy to a local food bank and contribute the rest to the local school or neighborhood center for a Halloween party.  Halloween is a holiday made for fun, and surely we can figure out how to have fun without the candy calories hanging on our hips the next day.

Feeding Your Guests to Decrease Their Stress

“I am reluctant to have friends over for dinner,” my neighbor confided in me recently. “By the time we are finished with the main course, everyone at the table is arguing about politics or sports. Once I had two guests get so upset that they stopped talking to each other for almost a year. “

“Maybe it is what you serve,” I responded.

She looked offended.

“No,” I said quickly, “You misunderstood…your food is delicious. I wasn’t criticizing your cooking. But maybe you could alter the menu to decrease their agitation. “

Usually contentious dinners are limited to family occasions, most notably holiday celebrations when relatives who may not like each other are forced to eat at the same table. Avoidance of either the relative, or avoidance of topics offensive to said relative, is the strategy many take when forced to attend such gatherings. But having friends over for dinner used to mean assembling people who enjoyed each other’s company, with the presumed mutual goal of a pleasant evening of food and conversation. Now it seems that the conversation may have to be limited to traffic, weather and vacation travel, unless all the guests have exactly the same political views and love of the same sports teams.

But why resort to such vetting of the guests or the topics?  A better option is to feed the guests in such a way that they become mellow, patient with the opinions of others and, in general, agreeable.

Years ago, in a book I co-authored called Managing Your Mind and Mood with Food, I described the culinary strategy of the CEO of a large French pharmaceutical company. The research department often invited scientific consultants to discuss and evaluate research on new drugs. One of the CEO’s associates told me that the lunch menu was designed to induce a state of benign drowsiness in the scientists so they would be agreeable to anything the company might discuss in the afternoon session. Having been witness to the aftermath of some of these meals, I can attest to the success of the strategy.

This being Paris, the meal contained different wines for each course including brandy with coffee. There was always an appetizer, main course, salad, cheese course and then, unusual for Paris, an elegant cake or elaborate pastry, sometimes with ice cream.  Sauces rich in butter, cream and possibly egg yolks were poured over the entrée and sometimes the vegetables as well. The cheeses were 95% or higher in fat and the desserts sweet enough to make one welcome the mild bitterness of the tiny cups of espresso. (There certainly was not enough caffeine in those tiny cups to counteract the soporific effects of the meal.) Interestingly, the host the CEO drank only water, and nibbled at the food.

An American host would need a sizable kitchen staff to prepare such meals. Fortunately, altering the mood of the guests so they also become tranquil and agreeable can be accomplished with much less effort and food.

To do so requires knowing only two facts about food and mood: carbohydrates consumed with little or no protein will make serotonin, and leave most people feeling relaxed. Fat, which can be consumed with protein, carbohydrate or both, may make the diners mentally fatigued and sometimes even a little befuddled. Befuddled is not a good state for scientists or dinner guests to be in, so it is probably best to use carbohydrates to alter mood rather than bacon, butter, egg yolks, cream and high-fat cheeses. Curiously, our American habit of serving appetizers of cheese and crackers may inadvertently potentiate mellower moods because of the combination of fat (cheese) and carbohydrate (crackers). The wine or other drinks will (usually) add to the relaxation effect.

Perhaps the ideal sequence of foods to produce happy, enjoyable guests is to be found in Italian homes. Carbohydrate, as in pasta and sometimes polenta, is usually served a first course. The amount is small, unlike American-size portions, but certainly contains at least the 30 grams of carbohydrate that must be consumed in order for serotonin to be made.  Because the pasta is eaten first, the eater benefits not only from the mood-soothing effects of serotonin but, in a value added sort of way, the beginnings of satiety as well.  This means that when the small portion of protein is served as a second course, it will not be viewed as too small, because the eater is already feeling a little full. Bread and wine accompanies the meal, and presumably even if arguments occur at the dinner table, there is enough serotonin being made to keep the arguments from becoming contentious.

Alas, our American avoidance of carbohydrates, and this incorrect insistence that eating copious amounts of protein may have the opposite effect on our temperament. Eating protein inhibits serotonin from being made because it prevents the amino acid tryptophan from getting into the brain (tryptophan being this from which serotonin is made.) Is it possible that our moods are deteriorating because we are not eating enough carbohydrates?

Eating carbohydrates to improve the group mood does not have to be restricted to your dinner guests. There are work environments so stressful that, as one employee told me; it feels as if her flight or fight responses are going off and on all day. “I am sure it is not healthy to be working in such a stressful culture where people think it is all right to continually shout, demand, berate, and insult those beneath them, “ she told me.

Would carbohydrates help? Apparently, no one in that volatile office touches them because not being fat is mandatory (unspoken), and everyone is convinced that eating a piece of bread will cause them to gain weight. What they don’t realize is that eating a piece of bread or a cup of breakfast cereal might make them a little less abrasive, and perhaps a little kinder. And that is a good thing.

Getting the Super Obese to Lose Weight: It May Take a Family

Anyone who ever saw any of the television programs focused on the attempts of individuals 600 pounds (or heavier) to lose weight often wonders why their family members are enabling the obesity. The viewer watches the mostly bed-ridden obese individual demanding food, lots of it, and then being served large portions of whatever has been requested. The camera lingers over the individual crunching potato chips, spooning up macaroni dripping with melted cheese, or eating a gallon of ice cream. It is possible that the television crew doesn’t film the subject of the show when he or she is eating kale salad, or fat-free cottage cheese, so we get the wrong impression. But given the stated food demands of the obese individual, the viewer has the impression that if kale salad, or indeed anything resembling low-calorie healthy food were offered, he or she would be in the unique position of saying no to the food. The occasional trips to the supermarket by some of these TV stars who are able to ride in car (and use a motorized shopping cart) also focus on the purchase of junk food. Although it is obvious that some nourishing foods must be bought and eaten to avoid nutritional deficiencies like scurvy or anemia, the healthy menu items are rarely, if ever, shown being consumed.

The viewer wants to shout at the family members bringing food to the massively obese person, “Why are you enabling this?” Indeed, in one particularly poignant episode, a father buys a large pizza for his son who has been told he must lose 60 pounds before weight-loss surgery can be performed. The son has demanded the food and as the father watches the son gobble the entire thing, he asks for a piece for himself. “No,” was the reply, “I am going to eat the entire thing.”

Internet comments predictably share the bewilderment over the enabler function of family members as depicted on the show. As the fattening foods are prepared and served, the enabler expresses concern on air about the likelihood that the obese family member will die in a few years from the massive weight gain. And yet the food is served, and the concerned warning is absent. But to be fair, perhaps saying something is useless. The obese individual expresses concern over the pain caused by living in such a large body, and also worries about dying. So what good could it do if a family member states the obvious? It may even have the opposite effect. But still, we the viewers still wonder why the family members enable the continued weight gain.

What if the family member was a chronic alcoholic and developing liver disease, collapsing from frequent blackouts, and cognitive impairment? Would the same restraint be used, that is, “Don’t criticize, nag, cajole and threaten?” Would family members buy alcohol for the abuser who might be too drunk to get to the store?  Or drive the alcoholic to the nearest liquor store?

People say that one can’t compare alcoholics to excessive overeaters because the latter have to eat to live, so they cannot be abstinent. True, but one can live quite nicely without consuming highly caloric food in mega quantities, and drinking sugar-filled soda and juices.

Nevertheless, it is hard for family members to take corrective action alone. Professional help is needed, yet there is no process by which a concerned parent, for example, can force the adult extreme overeater to see a physician, dietician and/or therapist. Medical privacy laws forbid sharing the information with healthcare providers unless written permission from the family member is given. But waiting for the heart attack, stroke, skin infection, or cancer to occur in order to obtain medical intervention to start the weight- loss process is hardly an option either.

Family members of an alcoholic often turn to Al-Anon, whose meetings offer advice and support. Inpatient rehabilitation facilities often insist that family members be present for some of the therapeutic sessions to support recovery.

O-Anon is a spin-off of Al-Anon and runs with the same rules of privacy and espousal of the twelve-step process. But is this enough? Can a family take upon itself to provide only healthy, portion-controlled meals and beverages without medical and nutritional advice? Can the family handle the emotional fallout when the obese individual no longer has access to foods that for many are the only reason for living? What happens if anger, anxiety, and depression follow the imposition of a new eating regimen? Must someone be home all day to prevent fattening foods from being delivered, or the obese individual from finding these foods hidden in the house?

It is hard not to notice that often family members on the show are also obese, but may be 100 pounds overweight rather than 600. Will these folk be willing to change their eating habits to support the dietary changes they are imposing?

It may be as hard for the family to change its role with the patient as it is for the patient to lose the weight. In an ideal television series or world, such issues would be raised and solutions found. The bariatric surgeon would insist that both patient and family members meet privately, and as a group with a dietician, therapist, and even personal trainer instead of telling the patient to go home and lose sixty pounds.

People don’t gain 500 pounds simply because they like doughnuts or French fries. Their reasons for their morbid weight gain are complex, and their success in losing weight permanently depends on the family with whom they live and eat understanding these reasons. Maybe the producers of these television shows ought to realize this, even if it doesn’t make such interesting viewing.