Monthly Archives: August 2017

Travel Can Leave You Well Fed, But Not Well Nourished

The group of women with whom I was traveling stared at the menu in some dismay. For those who shunned gluten, meat, dairy, and a category of vegetables known to cause intestinal discomfort to some, there was almost nothing to eat.

“Maybe we can find a supermarket somewhere,” one suggested, but then realized that to do so required driving to a shopping mall a few miles away from the gift shop-congested town center. Fortunately, a few protein bars were discovered at the bottom of someone’s tote bag, and hunger was relieved momentarily. We were in a geographical part of the country noted for heat-infused food from chili peppers, the liberal use of melted cheese with pork products, beans refried in lard, gluten-containing flour tortillas, and a notable absence of soy or almond milk for those lactose intolerant.  Although the women were athletically fit and had traveled to spend a few days hiking in remarkable landscapes, their digestive systems did not have the same robustness as their muscles. Eventually, our finding a ride to a large supermarket provided enough food for dinner, as well as snacks for the hikes; an Internet search of restaurants revealed a few that met most of their dietary needs.

But their experience demonstrated how difficult it can be to obtain foods from restaurants in places not accustomed to altering menu options for those whose stomachs need special foods. These days, we assume when we travel, we will be able to get our personalized food needs met.  After all, it is no longer the early part of the 20th century when people traveling on the new highways had to content themselves with eating in small Mom and Pop restaurants their typically questionable cleanliness and food preparation skills.  Standardization of food for highway travelers came only when restaurants like the Howard Johnson franchises opened around the country. Today the ubiquitous fast-food restaurants and the next generation sandwich shops that make salads and sandwiches to order make it relatively easy to find safe and reasonably tasting food.

But even now, eating as a traveler may mean giving up trying to eat a well-balanced diet. The recommended five servings of vegetables and fruit to be consumed each day may not even be consumed in five days. Vegetables rarely appear on the plate with the main entrée, or are reduced in size to microscopic versions of the natural object. Salads and side orders of vegetables are costly, and the vegetables may come coated in cheese, drenched in butter, or breaded and fried.  It is possible, sometimes, to get fruit as a dessert but often the fruit is a few raspberries garnishing chocolate cake or in syrup topping a dish of ice cream. Foods we can obtain at home, such as low or fat-free dairy products (and milk substitutes), may also be hard to find. Many restaurants serving breakfast do not provide low or fat-free yogurt, cottage cheese and milk for cereal and coffee. And finding high fiber foods to maintain healthy and predictable digestion is harder than finding kale in a MacDonald’s.

When traveling is relatively brief—less than a couple of weeks—the scarcity of nutrients or fiber or food items suitable for a limited diet is not going to plunge the traveler into a state of malnutrition. We start our trip well-nourished and certainly are not going to develop scurvy or osteoporosis in a couple of weeks. But many people travel constantly for work and some have the time and financial freedom to travel for long periods for pleasure.  This type of travel can result in more than just piles of dirty laundry to take home; it can affect the nutritional status of the traveler. And curiously, we tend to ignore this problem when packing for a trip.

Packing requires anticipating weather conditions, activities ranging from work to sightseeing and entertainment and even sleeping comfort. But how many of us pack to ensure that we are not surprised by eating environments as unpredictable as the weather? Are we making sure that the eating culture at our destinations will provide food meeting our personal dietary needs? And if not, do we have in our carry-on luggage food items that will prevent us from returning several weeks later in a state of sub-optimal nutrition?

Some simple steps to take before a long trip:

Check out the types of foods typically eaten at the destinations. The Internet will provide this information both from a description of the food highlights of the destination, and also from a brief scan of moderately priced restaurants (these are the ones most likely to be visited, not the very pricey ones).

If breakfast is included in the lodging, try to learn what is served. Sometimes a breakfast buffet will provide foods from all the food groups. (Israeli hotel breakfasts have done this for decades.)

Pack multi vitamin-mineral supplements as insurance against many days of vegetable, fruit and dairy deficient menu options. Lactase pills to digest the milk sugar lactose are tiny, fit into a toiletries bag and allow you to add milk to your coffee or cereal if you have lactose intolerance.

Pack gluten-free baked goods if you must avoid gluten, because eventually a need for some digestible carbohydrate will arise.  Baby carrots, vacuum-packed apple slices, and a sandwich bag filled with high fiber breakfast cereal will provide some fiber. Oat bran cereal can be put in a sandwich bag as wel,l and if the hotel has a coffee maker, the hot water will reconstitute it as hot cereal.

Pack protein bars that contain 15 to 20 grams of protein. These will be useful when the protein on the menu is incompatible with a vegetarian, pescetarian (fish only), kosher, or low-fat diet.

Although these extra items take up space on the outbound trip, their consumption frees up space for the return home to be filled with whatever your heart, not stomach, desires.

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.

Would Walkable Sidewalks Keep Us Thinner?

A few weeks ago on a trip to a picture perfect Vermont town, we asked the proprietor of our B&B if we could walk to the concert that night.

“You can, sure… it is less than a mile, but it will be dangerous walking home in the dark. There are no sidewalks and no street lights,” she told us.  So we drove, despite feeling silly at using the car for such a short distance, but happy we had done so when we left the concert. Ground fog was adding to the darkness in concealing the road, and we were sure we would not have felt safe walking back up the hilly, winding route.

The next day, we chatted about the lack of sidewalks and street lights with our hostess. She told us that daytime walking on the roads was manageable in the non-snow months, but not in the winter; the snow banks reduced the width of the roads and eliminated any possibility of stepping off the pavement.  “See, there’s is no side of the road to stand on when a pick-up truck comes speeding down the mountain….no one walks; it’s just too easy to be hit.”

There is no lack of activities in Vermont to provide opportunities to exercise, even if taking long walks in the winter is not one of them (Unless it is on a packed snow trail.) But unlike the quick convenience of going out the door to take a walk when sidewalks (plowed, of course) do exist, the lack of sidewalks in suburban or rural areas makes this simple activity difficult to carry out.

For the exercise committed, there are, of course, numerous opportunities to engage in physical exercise regardless of weather or environment. Not so for those who prefer being sedentary and are unlikely to seek out opportunities to move. In an episode of a television program focused on finding a house to buy, the client announced that she was too old (she was in her fifties) to buy a house with stairs. “Too much walking, “she told her realtor. Not surprisingly, the community in which she was house hunting had no sidewalks. If this woman had been advised to walk for her health and weight, she would have had a ready excuse. “Where? There is no place to walk where I live!”

No one has to be told about the rising incidence of obesity. Simply looking around confirms its prevalence, although the effects such as diabetes, back & leg pain, as well as the increased risk of certain types of cancer are silent.  One obvious culprit is that we eat too much, in part because portion sizes of just about everything have increased. Another fault lay in that we no longer live a lifestyle readily allowing us to burn off those excess calories. When physical activity was unavoidable in order to earn a living and maintain a household, a large caloric intake provided the fuel for the constant physical activity.  Now caloric intake has remained the same, or most likely increased, while physical activity has become optional for the most of us most of the time.

Because they eliminate a source of calorie use, might the absence of walkable sidewalks be a contributing factor to the continuous rise in obesity? The Journal of the American Medical Association (“JAMA”) published a study in 2016 showing that residents living in walkable urban neighborhoods had a slower increase in obesity and diabetes than those living in less walkable ones.  For this specific research, almost 9,000 urban neighborhoods in southern Ontario were studied over more than 11 years.  This study’s “Walkability Index” was based on safety of the sidewalks, the residential and commercial density, cross walks at intersections, schools, coffee shops, banks, and other retail establishments which might be walkable destinations.  People living in the walkable neighborhoods, and New York City is another example; they use sidewalks not only to get to their routine destinations like work, stores and restaurants but as places for urban hikes. These city dwellers may spend an entire day outside, hiking and exploring different parts of their city. The seemingly limitless places to walk allow them to do so.

However, it’s important to note the benefits of walking by city dwellers are not available to residents of towns such as the one we visited in rural Vermont. The population density is too low to justify the expense of sidewalks, and indeed many of roads are not even paved. Of course there are numerous places to hike, but this activity is not only seasonally limited, but also limited to people whose stamina and age enable them to climb mountain trails.

Perhaps the answer is to emulate many European cities which have set aside parkland filled with paved paths for walking. From my limited experience of these parks which I have seen in Holland, France and Germany, they are usually filled with walkers early in the day and then especially in the summer, after dinner. Benches are numerous for those who need to rest or just admire a view.  Strolling through one of these walking parks has the additional advantage of allowing members of a community to see and talk with each other. People often walk in small groups, or stop and greet others coming in the opposite direction. When so many members of a neighborhood are out walking?  It is easy to see this activity as a routine and healthful aspect of the day.

Eating less to prevent weight gain and/or lose weight is difficult because potential temptation lurks in the next meal. Walking may not compensate entirely for excess calories, but it can have a positive effect on preventing weight gain… unless of course, one walks to the doughnut shop.

Cite: Association of Neighborhood Walkability With Change in Overweight, Obesity, and Diabetes. Creatore M, Glazier R, Moineddin R.  JAMA  2016, 315; 2211-2220

The Covert Bullying of Obese Adults

When I congratulated a friend on her promotion to the head of a non-profit organization, she smiled and then told me it almost did not happen. “I learned that someone on the board did not want me to get the position and campaigned actively against me,” she told me.

“Why?” I asked. “You were obviously the front-runner.”

“Because I am fat,” she replied. “He told everyone on the board that he would not hire anyone who was fat. At least he is not criticizing my competence, only my size.”

But she was wrong.

The board member was likely not rejecting her solely because he believed her size or shape might affect her stamina in wearing the hats of an administrator, fundraiser, and creative director of a mid-size organization. He may have believed that her obesity reflected a deficit in her overall ability. A review of many studies of employer attitudes toward obese workers presented evidence that obese people are thought to have less leadership potential than normal-weight individuals. The obese are viewed as lazy, undisciplined, slow, unmotivated, and incapable of advancing to positions of responsibility. Thus my friend, whose resume indicated an unusually strong record of leadership and creativity in a previous position, could have been judged as inferior on these traits simply because she was fat.

Had she been male and obese, her size may not have been considered a detriment unless the job required physical skills that were difficult to perform because of weight. But an obese woman whose job requires some visibility—while fundraising, representing the organization at meetings, or giving presentations—might be passed over because of her appearance.

Had she failed to win the position, a claim that she was being discriminated against would have had no legal impact in the state in which she worked. The state of Michigan and some cities, including San Francisco and the District of Columbia, have outlawed employment discrimination against the obese.

Proving that a job is not offered or advancement not received because of size discrimination is very difficult. The board member did not publicly announce the reason for his opposition to anyone, but secretly told other members of the search committee. Happily, there were leaks, and eventually everyone in the organization knew and so did she. But even though he wished to deprive her of the position because of her weight, there was little she could do about it. What real proof did she have?

Obese employees face the same type of discrimination that smokers do, although 29 states prohibit the non-hiring of smokers. However, one justification of the employment discrimination against smokers is based on health risks to the smoker and thus increased medical costs to the employer. Other reasons include leaving the work site to smoke in a designated area, although this is a weaker argument since breaks for everyone are often built into the workday.

Many assume that the smoker, or indeed the obese individual, could quit or lose weight if he or she wanted to. Thus discrimination against these groups is sometimes justified by the belief that it’s their fault.

An article in the New England Journal of Medicine refutes the argument that smokers irresponsibly raise healthcare costs because they don’t want to stop smoking. What is rarely understood, except by ex-smokers, is how hard it is to break the addiction to nicotine. Surveys have shown that 69 percent of smokers want to quit but are unable to do so.

Losing weight and maintaining weight loss is similarly difficult, and the same uninformed attitudes persist. “Just stop eating so much and start exercising!“ (As if they hadn’t tried to do so.) The reasons for gaining weight are so varied and often so psychologically complex that simplistic solutions make about as much sense as trying to prevent the oceans from rising by stacking sandbags on a beach. I have a neighbor who gained a substantial amount of weight while she was on large doses of prednisone to reduce inflammation, and a distant relative who gained 125 pounds on a combination of antidepressants and mood stabilizers. Would they be unemployable?

The laws protecting the obese from workplace discrimination are insufficient or nonexistent. Children bullied on the playground may have more protection, because sometimes there is a teacher who can intervene. No one is watching or reprimanding the adult bully who refuses to hire or promote someone who is overweight.