Category Archives: Cravings

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.

 

 

 

An Afternoon Starbucks’ Drink May Be Great for Your Mood, but a Disaster for Your Weight

A full-page advertisement for an Ultra Caramel Frappuccino stopped me from turning the page in a magazine I was reading. The picture of this drink caused my mouth to water, and was one of several Starbucks drinks they are featuring to entice morning customers back into their stores for afternoon refreshment.  Hidden in small letters at the bottom of the page is the phrase “Find Your Happy.” Perhaps it refers to happy taste buds after drinking one of the Frappuccinos.  And for many, this may be the result. Moreover, I suspect that the marketing people at Starbucks who came up with the campaign did not know that an afternoon drink combining caffeine and carbohydrate are satisfying a need rooted in our brains, not our taste buds.

Collette Reitz describes how many of us feel around 3 or 4 pm when she writes on Elite Daily’s May 2018 web site”…you can’t decide what to order at Starbucks because you are craving both a giant piece of cake and a caffeine boost.“ What Ms. Reitz is describing is the phenomenon of a, “…universal afternoon carbohydrate craving and afternoon lack of caffeine fatigue.”

The flagging energy and blah feelings experienced around 3 or 4 pm is largely due in part to caffeine levels that have been declining since morning, when many of us drink our coffee or other caffeinated drinks. They can be quite low by mid-afternoon unless a caffeinated beverage was consumed with lunch.  But most of the mood changes in the afternoon seem to be associated with decreasing brain levels of serotonin. We don’t know why there should be a change in the level of this neurotransmitter, but its effects can be seen in the craving for carbohydrates along with the distractibility, grumpiness, irritability and restlessness many experience between 3 and 5 pm.

We discovered this in studies carried out at MIT almost thirty years ago with people who self-identified as carbohydrate cravers. At first we believed people were eating carbohydrates in the afternoon because they wanted something pleasurable to munch on when they took a break from work. But it turned that eating the carbohydrates was a kind of self-medication. Our subjects told us how they couldn’t concentrate or became irritable with their kids, or felt depressed or angry late in the afternoon. They said they needed to eat carbs at that time. They weren’t hungry, but they found it impossible not to eat a sweet or starchy snack and when they did so they felt better.

We tested their claim that eating a carbohydrate in the afternoon positively affected their moods by giving them a drinks containing carbohydrate or protein, and measuring their moods before and after the drinks. They didn’t know what was in the drinks. It turned out that the carbohydrate drink reversed their bad moods but the protein drink had no effect.   (“Changes in Mood after Carbohydrate Consumption may influence Snack Choices of Obese Individuals,” Leiberman, H.J., Wurtman, J., and Chew, B., Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 45:772-778, 1986)

Further tests in which they received either a drug that increased serotonin activity, or a placebo showed that when serotonin was more active, their carbohydrate craving disappeared.( D-fenfluramine selectively suppresses carbohydrate snacking by obese subjects.Wurtman, J.J., Wurtman, R.J., Mark, S., Tsay, R., Gilbert, W., Growdon, J. Int. J. Eating Disorders, 4(1):89-99, 1985.)

So it appeared that somehow serotonin was signaling them to eat carbohydrates. Why? The reason was actually discovered years earlier, also at MIT. Serotonin is made after insulin is released and changes the pattern of amino acids in the blood. When insulin does this, a particular amino acid, tryptophan, gets into the brain and instantly is converted to serotonin. Insulin is secreted only after sweet or starchy carbohydrates (with the exception of fructose) are eaten.  (“Brain serotonin content: physiological dependence on plasma tryptophan levels,” Fernstrom, J., and Wurtman, R., Science, 173:149-152, 1971) Perhaps the lack of serotonin sent a signal in the form of carbohydrate craving just as thirst is a signal that the body needs water.

Starbucks’ “afternoon made” drinks may be the solution to this serotonin-generated afternoon mood and energy slump. But it is also a problem. The heavily advertised Frappuccino contains so many calories that the elevation in energy and mood may be costly in added pounds.  A grande size of the Ultra Caramel Frappuccino contains 420 calories, 19 grams of fat, 59 grams of carbs and 5 grams of protein. The grande size Triple Mocha Frappuccino has 400 calories, 18 grams of fat, 55 grams of carbs and 5 grams of protein. One does not need to consume 55 grams of carbohydrate and 400 calories to increase serotonin levels. Twenty-five to thirty grams is sufficient and if the snack is very low in fat or fat-free like some breakfast cereals the calories rarely exceed 130. Moreover, the fat content of the drinks may actually have a negative impact on mood. Feeling logy or foggy or just tired after eating a load of fat is not uncommon. Drinking 18 or 19 grams of fat puts a “ball of fat” in your stomach, and when digested rarely leads to increased mental or physical energy. I would not want to have a surgical procedure if my doctor just finished drinking a Frappuccino. To add fat to the fire, as it were, the fat drastically slows down digestion so the beneficial effects of caffeine and carbohydrate on energy and mood take longer to be experienced.

Starbucks offers other options that refresh and rejuvenate with many fewer calories. Mango Dragon Fruit Lemonade has 110 calories and 26 grams of carbohydrate. Strawberry acai lemonade has a similar nutrient profile. Other low-calorie drinks such as lemonade do not have quite enough carbohydrate to activate serotonin synthesis in the tall size, but would if ordered in the next larger size.

Will you find your “happy” in these afternoon drinks? Yes—but only if your mood goes up without your weight doing the same.

Too Little of a Good Thing: Carbohydrates

I was in charge of refreshments at a reception held for a guest lecturer and, aware of some of the attendees’ dietary limitations, selected gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, and vegan cookies, as well as a large bowl of seasonal fruits.

“I am on the keto diet,” several of the guests told me as they avoided the cookies and fruit.

Where had I been?

I did not realize that the ketogenic diet had reappeared with such popularity, although I knew it never had really gone away since the days of Dr. Atkins. A few minutes on the internet made apparent the ubiquity of a diet that forces the body to switch from using glucose to fatty acids for energy. The diet seems to appeal to those who believe that total abstinence from sweet and starchy foods is the only way to control calorie intake. It also appeals to those who feel that carbohydrates are the source of physical and cognitive distress.

That adherence to such a diet has side effects ranging from unpleasant to worrisome is a small price to pay for those who follow a carbohydrate-free eating plan. Who cares about bad breath, constipation, “keto brain” (inability to concentrate and remember), difficulty sustaining strenuous exercise, and dangerously low electrolyte levels? As long as the weight comes off, it is worth it. Or so the thinking goes.

What happens after the diet ends can be dealt with after the diet ends, and if it seems impossible to maintain weight loss, well, why not go right back on the carbohydrate-free diet? Long-term effects? No one knows, so it could be good (or bad).

When someone is in ketosis, the body uses fat as a back-up energy system. Normally and naturally the body depends on glucose for all its energy needs. The glucose comes into the body as the end product of digestion of all carbohydrates, whether sucrose or brown rice, and is converted through a series of biochemical reactions into energy. In ketosis, the body uses fatty acids as its energy source. Once the body adapts to this alternate source of energy, it seems to run more or less the same (except for muscles which work longer and harder when using glucoose, the natural source of energy.) Exercise physiologists tell us that there is so little stored glucose in muscle on a carbohydrate-free diet, that muscles may fail to sustain strenuous movement after a few minutes of intense exercise. This means muscles used to sprint after a dog darting into the street, or a toddler about to climb up the rungs of a bookcase, will run out of energy reserves very quickly.

However, the body has a way of getting around the lack of carbohydrates for its glucose source by making its own. Certain amino acids in the protein we eat are converted to glucose in a process call gluconeogenesis. This occurs in the liver and kidneys and, according to advice given to wannabe ketotics, must be prevented. According to one Internet site, “Perfect Keto,” one should eat a specific ratio of fat to protein, because if too much protein and too little fat are consumed, the body will use the amino acids in protein as a source of self-made glucose. To prevent this, one should eat a very high fat diet, and only moderate amounts of protein, namely 75% fat, 20% protein, and a tiny amount of carbohydrate, 5%.

You will know whether or not you have achieved your goal of ketosis by testing levels of ketone bodies in your urine, blood or breath. Ketone bodies are three substances (acetoacetate, beta-hydroxybutyrate, and acetone) that the liver produces from fatty acids during periods of fasting, starvation, and very low or zero carbohydrate diets.

Although we tend to associate a carbohydrate-free or extremely low carbohydrate diet with dieting, it has long been seen as an effective treatment for controlling intractable pediatric epilepsy. Indeed, it is so important that the epileptic child not deviate from this diet that nutritional products have been developed containing flavored protein/fat liquid supplements that function as meal substitutes.

Moreover, avoiding carbohydrates used to be, prior to the availability of insulin, the only way someone with diabetes could handle this disease. And minimizing carbohydrate intake not only from sugary foods, but vegetables such as winter squash, corn on the cob, and carrots may help maintain a normal fasting blood sugar level.

Is it worth putting the body through a major physiological readjustment in order to lose weight?  What about the effect of carbohydrate deprivation on mood? Will there be any rebound eating of carbohydrates once the diet is switched back to including some carbohydrates? A definitive study comparing weight loss among 609 participants who were on a low carbohydrate or low-fat diet over a 12 month period was published this past winter in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study did not support claims that avoiding carbohydrate produces a better weight-loss outcome. The difference in weight loss between the two groups was about l ½ pounds.

But perhaps the low carbohydrate diet is better for mood. Certainly anecdotal reports of the benefits of eliminating or drastically reducing carbohydrate intake would have you believe that clearer, sharper, focused, energetic minds result.  Here, also, the claim was not borne out by results of another twelve month study comparing  a low-fat and low-carbohydrate diet.

That moods improve among those in the study not denied carbohydrate is not surprising, assuming that some of the mood effects such as energy, focus, calmness and a sense of well-being are associated with normal serotonin activity. The absence of carbohydrate over prolonged periods of time prevents the amino acid tryptophan from entering the brain where it is converted to serotonin. The result: a decrease in serotonin levels and the risk of mood changes associated with too little of this neurotransmitter.

What happens if and when carbohydrates are added back into the diet? Diminished serotonin levels may make the dieter vulnerable to overeating this food group.

Next time I am asked to bring refreshments, I will be sure to include some pork rinds.

References

“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., DelGobbo, L., et al,  JAMA 2018; 319:667-679

Long-term effects of a Very Low-Carbohydrate Diet and a Low-Fat Diet on Mood and Cognitive  Function .Brinkeworth, G, Buckley J, Noakes, M,  Arch Intern Med 2009 :169; 1880-1873

“Influence of tryptophan and serotonin on mood and cognition with a possible role of the gut-brain axis,” Jenkins. T., Nguyen, J., Polglaze, K.,, et al, Nutrients 2016 8(1): 56.

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.

Don’t Avoid Exercise Because It Makes You Hungry

Among the many kinds of advice given to those who are trying to lose weight, exercise usually ranks just below diet. But just as weight-loss advice can be contradictory and confusing, so too are the recommendations for exercise. No one disputes the benefits of physical activity on everything from improved digestion to better cognition. The adverse effects of ignoring the prescription to move ones body are just as compelling: no exercise equates to bad sleep, bad bones, and bad mood, among other unpleasant symptoms.

But many dieters and weight maintainers are reluctant to exercise because they fear the effect on their hunger. Exercise seems like an ineffective, and indeed unworkable, way of losing weight when post-exercise appetite may lead to eating many more calories than those worked off. Anecdotal reports by dieters of feeling ravenous after a stint on the treadmill or weekly Zumba class supports the erroneous belief that exercise while dieting should be avoided to prevent overeating.

Curiously, highly-trained athletes (who, of course, don’t have to worry about their weight) are the least likely to want to eat after their highly intense exercise routines are completed. In a study published a few years ago on appetite among female athletes, the scientists found that intense exercise actually decreased subjective hunger. Moreover, ghrelin, the hormone in the gut and blood that regulates hunger, was decreased and another hormone that shuts off appetite, increased. (“No Effect of Exercise Intensity on Appetite in Highly-Trained Endurance Women,” Howe, S., Hand, T., Larson-Meyer, D., Austin, K. et al Nutrients, 2016; 8 ) The same effect had been found earlier in studies carried out with male endurance athletes.

Since most of us are not likely to devote a good portion of our lives to training for competitive athletic events, we cannot rely on this for suppressing appetite after exercise. However, it seems that even unfit obese men may also experience a decrease in hunger after intense exercise, at least for 30 minutes after the exercise session completed. Whether they overate several hours later was not reported. (“The Effects of Concurrent Resistance and Endurance Exercise on Hunger Feelings and PYY in Obese Men,” Asrami, A., Faraji, H., Jalali, S., International Journal of Sport Studies, 2014 4; 729-)

But one may ask: what is wrong with being hungry after physical activity? Isn’t hunger a natural and inevitable response of the body after calories are used up? A Food Network show featuring life on a ranch in some unnamed cattle-raising part of the country often features recipes for the “hungry” family and ranch hands after a day of especially hard work. It would be absurd for the workers to avoid physical labor just because they are very hungry when they return home to eat a substantial meal.

But most of us have traveled far from the natural progression of physical activity to hunger to eating to a return of energy, and thus being able to work again. The “I am so hungry that I could eat a horse” (or whatever animal comes to mind) statement after hours of manual labor or recreational physical activity seems to many like a prescription for weight gain, rather than the way nature intended us to feel.

But it is not. Hunger is natural. The hormones causing us to want to eat are there to make sure we do so in order to live. If hunger disappears, as is the case for some with late stage Alzheimer’s disease, the individual will not survive unless others make sure to feed the patient.
In short, we should stop being afraid of being hungry. Hunger means our bodies need food the way being thirsty means our bodies need water. How we satisfy our hunger is what we have to improve if we want to stop gaining weight and begin to lose it. Just as we could, but should not, satisfy our thirst by drinking gallons of champagne or sugary sodas; we should satisfy our hunger not by consuming junk food, but by eating foods that not only supply calories (to replace those used up in exercise) but also needed nutrients into our bodies.

Dieters are told to try to eat fewer calories than needed so the calories in their stored fat will be mobilized to make up the difference. But unless the dieter goes on a drastically low-calorie diet, or a diet that eliminates certain categories of foods, it is possible to eat less, satisfy hunger, and still lose weight. We often eat beyond feeling full, that is, beyond the cessation of hunger; this is why we eat dessert. If eating stops when hunger disappears—even if all the food has not—weight can be lost.
Should you eat before or after exercise? It depends on your body. Some cannot exercise after eating and will eat breakfast after, rather than before, working out in the morning. Others find that they don’t have the energy to play tennis or go hiking unless they have eaten. Therefore, they will eat enough to give their muscles fuel for their workout, but not so much that they feel too stuffed to move.

Sometimes during long bouts of exercise, such as a long bike ride or hike, the first sign that the body needs food is not hunger but fatigue. I remember once when I was cross-country skiing all day, I become too exhausted to move my skis up a hill to get back to the lodge. As I stepped outside the track to let a woman behind me pass, she handed me an energy bar. “You need food,” she said. “Eat this.“ She was right. Within a few minutes I felt my fatigue lift, and I was able to continue moving.

We are told to be in touch with our bodies. Exercising, being hungry, and eating healthfully are excellent ways of communicating with ourselves.

 

 

 

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?

Can You Lose Weight If You Don’t Know How to Diet?

Our formerly thin, physically active friend had gained close to 80 pounds following two years of debilitating orthopedic problems that left him with chronic back pain. His previous constant exercise, which included tennis, skiing, long bike rides, hiking, and running had kept his weight normal, but became no longer possible. Now he was able to move only with the help of a back brace and two hiking sticks that he used as canes.

“I am trying to lose weight,” he told us, “but it is slow going.”

When we were guests at his home, it was obvious how physically impaired he was as well as how hard it was going to be for him to attain a weight that would help relieve his back pain. The one day he walked on his long hilly driveway to point out a particularly beautiful landscape, he paid for it in increased pain the next morning. Simply moving from living room to dining room was difficult for him. He talked about how he never needed to diet before he developed a back problem because his level of physical activity kept his appetite down and burned off excess calories. A review of the relationship between physical activity and weight change confirms his experience. (“The Role of Exercise and Physical Activity in Weight Loss and Maintenance,” Swift, D., Johannsen, N., Lavie, C., Earnest, C., Church, T Prog Cardiovasc Dis 2014, Jan-Feb; 56 (4): 441-447.)

Routine physical activity like the type my friend used to do slows, or even prevents weight gain, without any change in calorie intake. And the long duration of many of his physical activities may even have dampened his appetite according to a very recent study published in the Journal of Endocrinology. (“Acute effect of exercise intensity and duration on acylated ghrelin and hunger in men,” Broom, D., Miyashita, M., Wasse, L., Pulsford, R., King, J., Thackray, A., Stensel, D., J Endocrinol. 2017; 232 (3): 411-422.)  Now, however, the beneficial effect of exercise, when added to a reduced calorie diet on hastening weight loss is out of reach for him.

Told by his physician that a substantial weight loss might lessen his back pain has motivated him to decrease his calorie consumption. His strategy, as he told us, is to consume less than he had been eating.  But he has lost very little weight over the past few months of attempting to do just this.  His lack of success may be due to his inexperience in dieting. He doesn’t know how much he is eating, nor does he know whether what he is eating is particularly high or low in calories (he does know the difference, however, between salads and cake.)  Another family member, who has never had a weight problem and likes to cook dishes containing high calorie ingredients, prepares his food. Butter, heavy cream, and cheese are routinely added and her sweet tooth motivates her to bake or buy cakes, cookies, pies and other desserts that are offered to our friend.  Eating in restaurants for dinner (and occasionally both lunch and dinner) occurs frequently, and this adds to the uncertainty of how many calories are being consumed. Overly large restaurant portion sizes, and the habit of chefs to add butter or oil to food to keep them moist, also inadvertently boosts his calorie intake. And, unlike experienced dieters, he has not developed an eye for judging portion sizes and not eating the entire amount if it is too big.

None of this would matter if losing weight were for cosmetic rather than medical reasons. However, when weight loss is crucial to improving health, and, in his case, restoring lost freedom of movement and removing his pain? Dieting must be done with the same care and knowledge as any other intervention to improve health. The approach cannot be casual or haphazard, and would probably benefit from the professional services of a dietician or nutritionist. The type of diet must also be sustainable and balanced nutritionally for the many weeks it takes to lose the necessary weight. Many alleged quick weight-loss diets, so tempting because results after only a few weeks are supposedly so dramatic, often lead to weight gain as soon as the diet is over. (Remember the Oprah Winfrey’s famous fast weight-loss from a low calorie liquid diet, and the subsequent rapid regain several years ago?) Regaining weight is not an option when it may bring about a return of the medical problem like intolerable back pain. Thus the diet plan has to be malleable enough to change into a long-time maintenance program to keep the now lower weight stable.

Being honest with family and friends about how hard it is to lose weight and consequently asking for help will improve the chance of success. Imagine how much more weight our friend would have lost if his meals had been significantly lower in calories and size. Preparing meals at home that that could be made without the addition of fat-dense ingredients such as cheese would help reduce the calories he was eating. If others wanted to add more cheese to their dishes, for example, they could do so after the food was prepared.  His problem in reducing calorie intake in restaurants could be solved by either eating in establishments that served normal-size portions, or ordering appetizers for a main dish or splitting an entrée. The temptation to eat dessert would disappear if it were not on the table in front him.

Dieting is like any new activity. As it is with playing the piano, speaking a foreign language, or planting a successful garden, it has to be learned. Instruction is needed, along with patience, the willingness to practice and make mistakes, and encouragement from others. And like taking on any new activity, even small successes are worthy and worth striving for.

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.

Are You Losing More Than Weight on a High Protein Diet?

Adherents of high-protein/low-or no-carbohydrate diets have, to some extent, hijacked the discussion of whether we should still be eating carbohydrates. Indeed, for some militant followers, carbs are seen as leading only to brain and body decay, and are to be avoided at all costs. Well, maybe it is time to reconsider this attitude.

Avoiding carbohydrates seemed like the logical response to poor insulin activity. Obesity often causes a decreased responsiveness to insulin and may result in Type 2 diabetes. But before the diabetes is confirmed, there are signs that the body requires more than normal amounts of insulin to push glucose in the cells. This is called insulin resistance or decreased insulin activity. “Well,” say the high-protein folk, “stop eating carbohydrates! No carbs, no glucose? No problem getting the glucose into your cells.”

What these high-protein adherents fail to mention is that the body can make its own glucose and only by following an exceedingly stringent no-carbohydrate diet does the body switch from its natural use of glucose to using fat for energy.  There are many side effects that come with a fat- burning (ketotic) diet:  dreadful breath, foggy brains and bad moods. But so what if one’s breath will kill mosquitoes? It is worth it so one does not have to worry about insulin and carbohydrates?  Eliminating fruits, vegetables, fiber, and dairy products, in short the foods that our bodies require for their nutrient contents, on such diet shouldn’t be a problem according to the non-carbohydrate folk.  Just take lots and lots of vitamin/mineral/fiber supplements.

There was only one problem with this approach. It apparently did not work.

A few weeks ago, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis published a study that is challenging the relationship between high protein and better insulin responsiveness. Bettina Mittendorfer and her colleagues divided 34 obese post-menopausal women into three groups: a non-dieting group, a dieting group that ate only the recommended daily amount of protein, and a third dieting group who followed a high-protein diet.

If the ‘high protein diet to improve insulin sensitivity’ proponents were correct, the women on the high protein diet should have shown the most benefit. They didn’t. In fact, there was no improvement among this group. Only the group whose diet contained carbohydrate showed improvement in insulin sensitivity; it increased by about 25-30%. And a side benefit assumed to be conferred by eating lots of protein while on a diet, i.e., no muscle loss? This did not happen either.

This study generated headlines, albeit brief about these unexpected results. However, Sargrad, Mozzoli and Boden reported similar results in the April 2005 journal American Dietetic Association. They found no improvement in fasting glucose levels or insulin sensitivity among dieters on a high-protein diet. Those on a high-carbohydrate diet did improve.

The absence of improvement of insulin sensitivity among the obese women on a high-protein diet is worrisome because they are already at risk for developing Type 2 diabetes. To bring glucose levels in the blood to normal levels, their beta cells in the pancreas have to produce abnormally high levels of insulin. Eventually diabetes can result.

What is also worrisome is that blunted insulin response affects the ability of a critical amino acid, tryptophan, to get into the brain. Tryptophan is the essential component of serotonin; too little or too inactive serotonin may result in depression, anxiety, inability to focus, or even fatigue. Insulin removes other amino acids from the blood that interfere with the ability of tryptophan to get into the brain. High-protein diets fill the blood with these interfering amino acids so that with such a diet, tryptophan levels in the brain may be lower than normal. Consequently, serotonin levels are lower. This may be one reason why there is a strong relationship between diabetes and depression.

The results of the Washington University study seem unfair. High-protein diets are no fun. The dieter can’t eat starchy carbs like popcorn, rice, or bread and must limit fruits and starchy vegetables like winter squash or potatoes. But this deprivation seems worthwhile if the result was an improvement in insulin sensitivity. But of course this did not happen.

The better option it seems is the natural one: Eat the amount of protein that corresponds to what the body needs but no more. Eat a variety of healthy fruits, vegetables, grains, and low-fat dairy products. And finally do physical activity, which in itself helps insulin shunt glucose into the cells so the body can use it for energy.

Not terribly exciting, nor the focus of television health talk shows or dinner table conversation….But it works.

If Teens Eat According to Their Own Internal Clock, Maybe They Will Eat Better

Do any teens eat breakfast? Do they eat it at breakfast time? Possibly there are a few who manage to wake up on school days early enough to get breakfast, but given the choice of sleeping longer or facing a bowl of cereal and milk and toast, it would be the rare adolescent who opts for feeding over sleeping. Conversely, late in the evening, when their homework and/or social networking is complete and everyone else in the house is asleep, the teen may prowl the kitchen for something to eat, even the cereal or toast that was ignored that morning.

That the food intake of the contemporary American teen may be lacking in many nutrients considered essential for life is well known. And that their diet may leave them too thin or too fat, this is also well known. Studies have been done to see how parents cope with the resistance of their adolescent offspring to consuming a nutritionally balanced diet, one which when they were a few years younger, they willingly ate. They, the parents, are not very successful.

Nagging, bribery, coercion, feigning lack of concern or interest, and controlling the foods coming into the household have some effect; but the pushback from the teens can be strong. And once the adolescent can buy food from vending machines, convenience stores, or fast-food franchises? Parental control over food intake is weakened considerably. Parents may not even know what their teens are eating.  A 16-year-old relative told me that she ate only white bread, peanut butter, and honey for a month before her parents noticed. A friend’s daughter used to eat dinner in her room during school nights so she wasn’t wasting time eating dinner with her family, but could start on her homework. She prepared her own dinner, usually microwaved chicken nuggets, and never ate what her mother prepared.

Teens are like the proverbial horse: they can be led to water but can’t be forced to drink or…in the case of the teens, eat. However, when they are hungry, they will eat what is available.   Perhaps one solution to improving their nutrient intake is to only make available at home foods with some nutritional value. This means eliminating junk foods, e.g. chips, cookies, sugary drinks, candy, batter-coated fried foods, cheese dips, and fatty cold cuts.  At night when the teen is looking for something to eat, he or she will just have to settle for what is in the kitchen. If no sugary beverages are in the refrigerator, then the thirsty teen will have to settle for something that is healthful, e.g. milk, juice or water.

Their hunger will have to be satisfied with sandwiches made from lean proteins such as turkey breast, cold chicken, or tuna. It is possible that the desire to crunch on something will lead the teen to baby carrots rather than nacho chips. Even breakfast foods, so soundly rejected at breakfast, will seem tempting before bedtime. Cereal & milk, yogurt, fruit, or whole grain toast or waffles topped with peanut butter will seem satisfying to the hungry teen at 10 or 11pm, and they can claim that they did indeed eat breakfast that day.

Another solution, which does not yet exist, is to invent a food or beverage containing the nutrients teens should be consuming. Surveys among adolescent populations indicate that vitamin and mineral intake is below required levels due, no doubt, to an avoidance of the vegetables and fruits that contain these nutrients. To be sure, if all teens suddenly started to eat kale salads, grapefruit segments, and low-fat cottage cheese as consistently as they eat nachos, pizza and subs, they would not need any vitamin/mineral pills or nutrient-laden beverages. And, as the saying goes, “If pigs had wings, they would fly.“

But when I asked my 16-year-old relative whether teens would consume a food or beverage that contained most of the daily nutrient requirements, she was skeptical. “Most kids would not consider it cool. And besides, it would have to be really tasty.”

However, we have seen the power of marketing on changing almost every aspect of our lifestyle, and indeed the negative power it has on generating nutritionally poor food choices. Images of older teens enjoying life in some magical environment while drinking popular carbonated beverages are so enticing that one is tempted to believe that such beverages even erase credit card debt.

What will convince teens, and indeed adults, to consume formulated beverages or foods is the belief that doing so enhances athletic power, improves complexion and hair texture, increases cognition, or even removes stress. The effects must be more or less immediate, not something that will be of benefit 40 years in the future like improved bone strength or decreased cardiovascular disease. And if the beverage or food is available when the teen decides that now is the time to eat, then there is a chance that it will be consumed.