Monthly Archives: January 2014

Why Cranky People Crave Sugar

In all the almost hysterical hype about sugar, which can paint this food with the same toxic attributes as arsenic or even nicotine, one fact is never mentioned. This sugar craving by emotionally miserable individuals may be a symptom of something awry with their serotonin levels.

Some who crave sugary foods are women who suffer from premenstrual syndrome. These women suffer from monthly menstrual cycle mood changes that would take them out of a competition for Miss Congeniality. Although these symptoms, thankfully, rarely last longer than two weeks each month and usually only two or three days, women feel transformed into a female Godzilla. Anger, muddle headedness, anxiety, depression, fatigue, mood swings, and irritability are some of the more common symptoms that women often feel helpless to do anything about.

Similar symptoms and sugar cravings are also common among people going through alcohol withdrawal. The symptoms usually appear within a day or two after alcohol intake ceases and may last for weeks. Anxiety, depression, not thinking clearly, fatigue, irritability and mood swings are characteristic feelings among those who have gone from excessive alcohol intake to none.

A change in season is sufficient to cause excessive moodiness, exhaustion, irritability, depression and anger. People who live where the sun rises late and sets too early for much of the late fall, winter, and early spring feel these moods descend on them like ice coating a car windshield, and may be unable to rid themselves of these miserable feelings until mid or late spring. These symptoms are not a reaction to depressing weather reports. They have been identified as a particular type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder and are tightly associated with cravings for sweet foods.

Why are PMS, alcohol withdrawal, and Seasonal Affective Disorder associated with an intense craving for sugar? These are three entirely different types of emotional misery and yet the woman with PMS would, “…kill for chocolate,” the recovering alcoholic could, in the words of a blogger on an alcohol withdrawal web site, “…eat a bucket of sugar,” share cravings for sweet carbohydrate. They also share this craving with a diagnostic feature of seasonal depression. Are these people sugar addicts? Has sugar caused their symptoms? Has it rotted their brains so they are left with all these dreadful emotions? If so, then why don’t women crave sugar when they don’t have PMS, as in the early stage of their menstrual cycle?

Why do recovering alcoholics eventually lose their overwhelming craving for sweets? Why is it that the person with Seasonal Affective Disorder rarely eats sweets during the spring and summer when the depression is gone, and replaced by the feeling of well-being? Indeed, if, as the sugar police suggest, sugar leads to addictive behavior, worse even than cocaine addiction, eating sugar should cause a permanent longing and craving for this dreadful nutrient. Why aren’t these people permanently addicted with brains shredded from their sugar consumption?

Certainly among the categories of intense sugar cravers described above, this does not happen.

The craving for sugar, like craving water, is simply a signal that something is missing in the body. When we are thirsty, we do not think we are having withdrawal symptoms from water. We know that thirst is a signal that the body needs water. No one is addicted to water even though severe withdrawal symptoms, including, ultimately death, can occur when denied.

Sugar is not water. No one is going to die from its absence. But the moods associated with a craving for sugar can be pretty dismal. This is because the sugar cravings associated with the crankiness of PMS, alcohol withdrawal and Seasonal Affective Disorder signals low serotonin activity. We know, but know not why, monthly hormonal changes affect serotonin. We know, but not how, the absence of light in the winter affects serotonin. And we know, but do not completely understand that low serotonin activity is common among many excessive drinkers.

Animal and research studies conducted over the past 30 years or so have shown that consuming any carbohydrate (except fructose) increases serotonin levels, and subsequently can improve moods. As sugar is digested faster than, say, rice or buckwheat groats, the longing for it among the emotionally distressed may be based on an unconscious desire to consume something that will work fast to make the eater feel better. When one is very thirsty, one gulps water. In a sense, eating something sugary is like gulping water. It takes away the bad feelings faster than chewing on a hard piece of whole grain bread.

Is it necessary to eat sugary foods to feel better? NO. As soon as any non-fructose (fruit won’t get the job done) carbohydrate is digested, serotonin will soon thereafter be made and moods will get better. And indeed, going through PMS each month, enduring weeks of alcohol withdrawal, or months of Seasonal Affective Disorder by munching on rich chocolate may increase weight as well as improve mood. Oatmeal, plain Cheerios, or a couple of graham crackers will do just as well.

But one should heed the dual symptom of crankiness and sugar craving. It is just your body’s signal to increase serotonin, and thus go from feeling miserable to mellow.

Global Fattening

We seem to be taking up more space on earth. This is not just because our numbers are increasing but because our girth is as well. A report of global weight gain and diminishing food resources by Sharada Keats and Steve Wiggins (Future Diets: www.odi.org/futurediets) reveals that, “the percentage of adults who are overweight or obese grew from 23 percent in 1980 to 34 percent in 2008.” One in three adults — 1.46 billion worldwide — is now obese or overweight. And this number may be considerably higher in developed countries.

The consequences range far beyond airplane seats being too small or clothing manufacturers investing in developing new lines of outsized clothing. As we have been told for decades, rising weight means a rising incidence of health problems related to excess pounds. The list is familiar: diabetes, stroke, heart disease, orthopedic problems, and perhaps some cancers.

Changes in diet is the most obvious culprit. According to the report, when people are sufficiently solvent to be able to switch from their inexpensive starch-based dietary staples to more costly foods, they do not replace their daily staple of bread, rice or maize with more fruits and vegetables. Rather (and our country is an example of this), they eat more oil, sugar and high-fat animal products and larger portions. Moreover, the extra calories are not spent on as much physical activity as previously, since their better economic status allows them to travel via motorbike, bus, or car, rather than by bicycle or foot.

Like global warming, global fattening seems difficult or even impossible to halt or reverse. Decades of January diets, public exhortations to exercise, mandatory labeling of packaged foods and calorie contents of restaurant items and even the banning of trans fat has had little visible effect. We are told to eat more fruits and vegetables, low or fat-free dairy products, and more fiber. We are directed to pay attention to portion sizes, to stop drinking sugary beverages, to eat apples in place of daily cupcakes, and broiled fish instead of fried clams, and to watch our alcohol intake. But do we? Perhaps we do, at least until the end of the New Year’s diet.

There are two problems: How are people going to be convinced to eat better nutritionally, and how are they going to be convinced to eat less? The article pointed out the “wimpy” (my word) responses of public officials and institutions to this problem. No one, except perhaps the past mayor of New York City, wants to impose taxes on junk foods or restrict how much of a bad food an individual is allowed to eat. Admittedly, there are some positive changes. School lunch menus have improved, and many vending machines that used to dispense chips and soda are either banned, or their contents replaced with yogurt and fruit.

Supermarkets sell ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables, so the sloppy task of peeling, slicing and dicing should no longer keep anyone from eating these important foods. Organic food sections have enlarged, and the dairy product cases are filled with so many containers of Greek yogurt, you feel as if you have learned Greek by the time you make your selection. Many items, from ready-to-roast marinated fresh salmon to freshly cooked turkey breast, make preparing healthful meals fast and relatively inexpensive.

But supermarkets also devote yards of aisle space to the chip family of snacks, as well as cookies, and food bars with the same calories and ingredients of a candy bar. No market, including those promoting organic foods, puts up a sign in front of the high-calorie food aisles warning about the temptations lining the shelves, or detours people back to the produce aisle.

Restaurants also contribute to the ease with which we can eat too much, and without nutritional soundness. Putting the nutritional wasteland of fast-food chains aside, how many restaurants promote, or even offer fruits and vegetables, without charging extra? High-fiber foods are rarely offered unless the restaurant is vegetarian, or defines itself as a place where healthy foods are served. And, of course, portion sizes only get smaller when the prices get higher.

So how do we convince people to reconsider eating a 2-pound steak, or a bucket of fried chicken, or polishing off a six-pack of beer along with chips and dip? Certainly not through government intervention. We are not about to install surveillance cameras over the heads of people ordering double cheeseburgers or buying a 64-ounce bag of Doritos. So far no EIS (Eating Investigative Units) has been established to monitor the overeating crimes of its citizens. And, as the authors point out, “Many people see food choices as a matter of personal freedom.” They are not likely to accept the same sort of restrictions on eating as we as a country have accepted for smoking. No one is going to make a co-worker stand outside to eat his cupcake.

Complicating solutions to the growing obesity situation even more is the kaleidoscope of opinions as to what constitutes the right diet for weight loss, good health and longevity. For example, the Internet is replete with warnings to avoid eating white carbohydrates such as potatoes and rice. These foods are considered serious threats to weight and health in general, not withstanding the fact that cultures such as the Irish ate almost solely potatoes for decades, and that rice was and remains a dietary staple in vast areas of the world. We have been told for decades to take mega amounts of supplements to avoid a variety of health woes. Now it seems most of them are useless. For everyone who says that a certain food is good, someone else contends that food will poison the body.

Whose information can we really trust? The answer may be the decidedly boring one of moderation. Eating moderate amounts of a variety of high-fiber carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, lean protein and dairy products is not the kind of advice that makes for best-selling diet books, but doing so will sustain good health and a sensible weight.

But how can people be motivated to do something about their weight? When one in three individuals in your family, workplace, and neighborhood is either overweight or obese, does the individual even see this as a problem? Think of how we are now accustomed to seeing men with shaved heads. This is a look that, in the past, represented the unfortunate consequence of chemotherapy, or the results of a stressful situation that caused total hair loss. Now it is simply a fashion statement. If most people we see are not thin, we accept this as normal. Why worry about our weight and the possible health issues that may be developing because of it when everyone around us are also the same size or larger?

The answer may be in the strength and creativity of advertising. Motivating consumers to take on new behaviors such as buying gigantic TV screens, new cars, or the latest generation of cell phones is what effective marketing is all about. Stopping global fattening may depend on the talent of these professionals to convince us that we need to change our behavior in ways that make it seem that it was our idea all along.

Note to the FTC: You Mean I Can’t Lose 20 Pounds in 20 Days?

We all knew it was too good to really be true. Sprinkles on food that melted away extra pounds! Acai berry and colon cleanses that relieve us of our extra fat cells! Creams to eliminate cellulite  (oh how we wanted that one) or reshape our bulging thighs!  The only one which we hesitated to think about trying was the HCG diet drops. Even though taking them could make, “… fat disappear without the need to diet or exercise,” they seemed too much like medicine without a prescription. Should we really be ingesting human chorionic gonadotropin extracted from human placentas?  If it really made people thin, why did some pregnant women gain so much weight?

The Federal Trade Commission has now brought us back to reality: If you want to lose weight, don’t depend on promises and testimonials and even research that promotes magical weight-reducing dust and other fantastic products.

Recently, Jessica Rich, who is the director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection, stated that her bureau was fining several companies for making false claims about their weight-loss products. One product, Sensa, was advertised heavily on the Internet and television. The company had extravagant testimonials from dieters who said they lost copious amounts of weight from sprinkling a special powdery substance on food before eating. The ads, and doctor’s supportive assertions were so believable the company sold $364 million dollars worth of product. That is a lot of sprinkles. PT Barnum would have been impressed.  What is particularly egregious is that the company posted the results of placebo-controlled double-blind study (this means that the investigators did not know what the volunteers were taking until the end of the study) through  clinical trials that proved the efficacy of their product in producing significant weight loss. What they did not share with their public was the fact that the results were made up.  The other companies named in the action by the FTC also pushed erroneous information onto the public and who presumably, had the FTC not acted, would still be buying their products.

Alas, the actions of the FTC are merely a finger in the dike of outrageous weight-loss claims that are flooding the media and Internet. After all, this is January, the universal dieting month.  My email keeps churning out an advertisement for a book that will allow me to lose 20 pounds in 20 days.  I am not tempted to buy it (although my dog is looking a bit pudgy), but I am curious as to how it is possible to lose so much weight so fast.  Perhaps the diet allows one to lose muscle, water and hair along with fat.  I imagine that Ms. Rich has not found this ad in her inbox yet. Otherwise, I am sure her office would be investigating it.

But how do we know what is real or imaginary when it comes to advertisements for weight loss, bigger biceps and six-pack abdominals, wrinkle-free skin, toxin-free gastrointestinal tracts, and skinny knees?  There is a bewildering amount of text on health matters in magazines and Internet sites. Pick up any publication with the word HEALTH prominently displayed, or search for information on the Internet on any health matter, and the reader is inundated with material that ranges from science to science fiction. The reader has to be cautious and use common sense to see if there is any sense in what is being published.  Just as women’s magazines insist that this year blue lips and pink eyelids are IN and next year, the opposite, recommendations as to what to eat and what to avoid also follow fashion, fads and advertising revenue.  Sometimes the advice is so obviously silly or outrageous it is easy to ignore. For example, a recent issue of a magazine that promotes healthy eating and exercise for women mentioned that one should eat runny eggs (yuck) because they contain vitamin D and that is good for women trying to get pregnant.  A quick check with the Egg Safety Center confirmed that one should NEVER eat runny eggs because of the possibility of bacterial contamination. Salmonella is not good for fertility except for other salmonella. Vitamin D can easy be obtained by drinking pasteurized vitamin D fortified milk, and not undercooked eggs.

Relying solely on the FTC to monitor ineffective and/or dangerous advertising claims is not sufficient, however. This agency takes years to build cases against fraudulent products. The FDA sends out warnings about contaminated or dangerous herbal supplements, but products pop up faster in the health food stores or on the Internet than the FDA can shut them down.

The solution is to avoid the temptation of a quick fix.  We would not expect a quick fix for a car with a faulty transmission or a basement full of mold.  There is no weight-loss product that is a quick fix for obesity. Even bariatric surgery fails to reduce most people to their normal size within the first post operative year and many never lose more than 50% of the weight they should lose.  Long-time weight loss, physical fitness, and healthy cardiovascular measurements require permanent changes in lifestyle.  And that is something that does not come in a box. 

Why Should Exercise Be a Luxury?

The health club was packed. Legs and arms were waving around in the air, grunts and groans came from the free weight area, and the thump, thump, thump, of heavy feet on the treadmills competed with the blaring music.

But this was no after work crowd of gym users. It was 11 a.m. during the winter vacation week, and the crowds of gym-goers were luxuriating in having time to really work out without watching the clock. The weather was foul outside, the sidewalks were crowded with people returning gifts or taking advantage of sales. But inside the gym member’s concentration was solely focused on getting their bodies more fit, strong or well-toned.

A companion who has a difficult work schedule told me she was going to spend several hours working out.  “I never have time to really exercise, ” she told me. “I get to work really early and often don’t leave until after 8 p.m. Going to the gym before work means waking up at 5 a.m., and I just can’t do it. And at night, going to the health club means getting home after 10, and I am so wound up, I can’t sleep… Being able to spend as much time as I want in the gym is a real vacation.”

To the individual who thinks of exercise with the same delight as having a root canal, this thinking must seem insane. But for people whose bodies and heads simply don’t feel energetic, clear, focused and alert without their daily or almost daily workout, not being able to do any physical activity is a psychological hardship. To them, a day without exercise feels like a day without being to brush their teeth. It doesn’t feel right.

Yet in our ever-increasingly busy lives, finding time even to take a
walk at lunchtime is difficult, and early morning or late afternoon
meetings, heavy traffic during the commute, unexpected deadlines or
elongated work hours because of seasonal demands… all of these reasons
may make it impossible to exercise for days.  Working 12-14 hour days
is often demanded by corporate America and has become a necessity for
many hourly workers.  When the choice comes between making enough money
to live, or going for a long run, few would choose the latter option.
And jobs cannot be halted because it is time to work out. Can one
imagine a neurosurgeon in the middle of a multi-hour operation saying to
his team, “We have to stop now. There is a Zumba class I want to take
at the gym…” ?

The response to this is (and mea culpa, I have said this to my own
weight loss clients),  ” You can always make time to exercise.”
Theoretically, that is true.  One of my clients, in the early days of
computerized spread sheets, showed me how he scheduled exercise into his
week. He analyzed how random time periods could be used for a run, or
at home weight lifting, or riding his exercise bike, instead of looking
at his email or doing laundry.  Because he lived by himself, he did not
have to consider the schedules and needs of others when deciding at
which time to work out.  Moreover, he had turned his living room into a
quasi-gym, so he did not have to spend time traveling to a health club
or the Y. Most of us do not have this option, alas.

The scientific literature is replete with articles attesting to the
multitudinous benefits from exercise. There is no dispute over these
data. Alas, the scientific and public policy literature is not similarly
replete with articles that allow timely and easy access to exercise for
most adults. The oft-repeated recommendations to walk are irrelevant
for people who live in harsh seasonal climates hostile to outdoor
walking, or who live where it is dangerous to walk. Where and when, for
example, do shift workers exercise? What about those with two jobs and a
family, or people who are constantly on a plane flying to far-off time
zones, and then back two days later? How many can afford memberships at
the Y, or more expensive health clubs, or have the money or space for
at-home exercise equipment? Do factories, hospitals, government
buildings, department stores, supermarkets, etc., have workout spaces
for their employees? And those that do, like corporate or legal offices,
may have well-appointed health clubs in their basement, but rarely give
their employees the time to use them.

Perhaps the answer to ensuring that workers have time to exercise is to
be found in the history of labor laws. Working conditions were appalling
until political processes acknowledged that they had to be improved. We
no longer have child labor in this country, employees have the right
for two days without work each week (although email and text requests
related to work erode the time off), and workers are allowed time for
bathroom breaks and meals.  Employers cannot demand that people skip
meals in order to work longer hours, or forbid them to go to the
bathroom until the end of their shift.

Should we now consider legislation to ensure that a 15- or 20-minute
exercise break be built into the work day? It sounds radical, but is
probably less so than the laws that reduced the workday to eight hours
many decades ago, or legislation not allowing children to work in mines
or crawling into machines to clean them.  Having two days off from work
was unheard of, and considered only something the rich and/or retired
could enjoy.  Must exercise also be an unattainable luxury as well? If
so, then good health may also be.

Put Soup on Your New Year Resolutions List!

The other day I was attempting to describe to a young granddaughter how to make chicken soup. She had trouble believing that the first and major ingredient in soup was water. “Don’t you open a can or a box of broth or buy ready-made chicken soup and add a few vegetables? “ she asked. (In the interests of full disclosure, her mother is a very limited cook.) After I had gone through the various steps, including the skimming off of the grayish foam that floats on top of the water when the chicken begins to cook, she pointed out that it would be much easier and less messy to buy ready-made soup at a local grocery store with a large prepared food department. “It is just too much trouble to start with water,” she announced.

But is it really too much trouble? The wonderful thing about making soup is that it makes the cook feel like an alchemist. You don’t turn lead into gold but you do turn water into food. After an hour, more or less, of cooking its many healthful ingredients, soup is no longer water, but something substantial and delicious.

Soup is perhaps the most forgiving of culinary mistakes and non-compliance with recipes. Sure you can oversalt it, but there are tricks to take away the excess saltiness. You can make it too thick, but adding more water takes care of that problem. If it’s too thin, then add something starchy like a potato or blend some of the soup and add it back to the pot. Are you missing half the ingredients called for in the recipe? Find something in the refrigerator that more or less resembles the ingredients in the recipe. Indeed, it is inefficient to compulsively follow a soup recipe precisely, because soup was never meant to be precise. The water in the pot is the dumping ground for combinations of ingredients that should not, but nevertheless do, work together to create an entity much more tasty than the sum of its parts.

And soup satisfies. Hot soup, as we go into the depth of winter, warms us inside and out. It may be the savory steam rising from the bowl that brings some welcome humidity to our face, oftentimes overexposed to the elements of wind outdoors and artificial heat indoors. Or it could be that holding a mug of soup warms our still cold fingers. Soup can’t be gulped and the leisurely spooning is a welcome relaxing change from the usual urgency of eating quickly in order to return to our cell phones and computers. Eating soups with multiple ingredients is entertaining. One never knows what might be on the spoon (is that potato or parsnip, carrot or orange squash, meat or mushroom?). And because it is filling, we are better able to eat smaller portions of the main course or indeed be satisfied with just some bread, a salad and fruit for the meal. And unlike many foods, the next-day soup often tastes even better.

But why make it when the supermarket is filled with shelves of canned, boxed and frozen soups? Because, despite the advertisements that have you believe there is no difference between the canned and homemade variety, there is. It is not just the uniformity of the size of the vegetables and chunks of chicken or meat or the unappetizing clump as it falls out of the can into the pot or plop as it is squeezed out of the box, or the absence of herbs and spices. It doesn’t smell like homemade and the taste and texture disappoint. But the basic reason factory-made soup disappoints is that it does not reflect the personal quirks and idiosyncratic way of cooking of the home soup maker.

Homemade soup is tasted, tweaked with spices, herbs, lemon juice, perhaps a splash of wine or, if it is a cream soup, of nutmeg or cayenne pepper, rested and cooled, strained, blended, re-heated, and even topped with crusty bread and melted cheese or a dollop of yogurt and chives. It probably never tastes exactly the same every time it is made, and that is also part of its appeal. It is hard to make soup in a hurry but once it is on the stove and simmering, you can go away and it will take care of itself. (Don’t go too far away though. When I was a young cook, I decided to make soup stock with marrow bones given to me by a butcher. I left home with the bones cooking in a large pot in a large amount of water. Hours later, when I returned, there was an inch of water left and the bones had turned to gelatin.)

New Year’s brings a renewal and commitment to achieving a thinner, fitter, no longer sleep-deprived self. Soup should be part of the New Year’s healthier life- style objectives. So buy a pot, fill it with water, rummage around the refrigerator for those vegetables you never got around to eating, the chicken breasts still in the freezer, the handful of rice or pasta in the back of your pantry shelf, and that can of navy beans you bought because you wanted more fiber in your diet. While the water is heating, check the Internet for instructions on making a simple vegetable soup (you can leave out the chicken if you wish) and then start adding ingredients.

Enjoy. And Happy New Year to all.