Monthly Archives: December 2016

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

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

Consider this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Mindless Eating Like a Dog Worrying a Bone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Kids Born, or Made Into, Emotional Overeaters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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