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The Buffet Phenomenon: Researchers Find More Food Choices Linked To Fatter Mice

(Alpha/Flickr)

(Alpha/Flickr)

This is why I hate buffets: Too many food choices make my head spin. For weight control, I prefer the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach — keep the oversized muffins and pepperoni pizzas out of the house altogether. Call me rigid, but it seems to work.

Apparently, mice have similar issues, according to a study published in the journal Endocrinology.

The study tried to tease out the relative importance of genetics vs. environment when it comes to obesity risk. So, baby mice born to mothers with a defined high-fat or low-fat diet were randomly assigned to one of three diet groups: either a high-fat diet, a low-fat diet or to an “eat what you want” diet in which they got to pick and choose among the various options.

Researchers from Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine report that:  “Offspring displayed negative outcomes of increased body weight, body fat, serum leptin, and blood glucose levels when given the choice diet compared with offspring on the [low-fat diet].”

This begs the question whether a child’s environment can indeed trump genetics when it comes to obesity.

The Virginia Tech news release quotes one of the study authors who wraps up the findings simply:

“We like variety,” said Deborah Good, an associate professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise at Virginia Tech. “But when there is a choice, we eat more than when there is not any variety.”

Though the study was done using mice, it can help inform researchers of how human’s natural environment can affect food choices and ultimately a person’s weight. In a country where one-third of adults and 17 percent of children are obese, understanding the root causes of the problem is imperative.

One apparent upside found among mice in the choice group, according to the report: they had “improved energy expenditure” compared to the low-or high-fat diet groups. “Essentially,” the news release says, “the mice burned more energy as they wandered around and evaluated which food they were going to eat.”

This recalls the food and environment research of Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. A recent Psychology Today article on how we eat (and overeat) called, “Why Out of Sight is Really Out Of Mind,” discusses how we can slip into mindless eating in a world where food is everywhere. But there are ways to eat smarter, if you think about what you’re doing:

Wansink found that slim people approach an “all you can eat” buffet by “scouting out” what is available — “getting the lay of the land,” as it were — before they grab their plates and pile on food. They are also more likely to sit facing away from, and to choose a table farther away from a buffet; more likely to choose small plates; and, if eating Chinese food, eat with chopsticks.

Jean Fain, a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist who runs “mindful eating” training sessions, has offered some tips on how to curb excessive eating, particularly during the holidays, when tables are brimming with tempting sweets and heavy dishes loaded with nostalgia. In a December post, she wrote:

If you find yourself automatically reaching for another piece of pumpkin cheesecake, step back from the dessert table and ask yourself: “How do I feel? What do I need? Do I really want another piece of cheesecake?” If you do, by all means, enjoy. But if you feel full, better to interrupt the automatic urge for more. It’ll taste better when you’re hungry. What’s more, a short interruption can give you back control.

Nutrition Panel: Cut Down On Sugar To Combat Obesity, Chronic Disease

(Mel B via Compfight)

(Mel B via Compfight)

A U.S. advisory panel on nutrition has issued a sweeping report on the American diet that many of us won’t find earth shattering. One key conclusion: we should eat less sugar.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee offered its recommendations to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture today as part of a process to develop new national dietary guidelines, which are updated every five years. Public comments are currently being accepted.

As far as sugar goes, the report states that: “Higher consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages as well as refined grains was identified as detrimental in almost all conclusion statements with moderate to strong evidence.”

The report’s authors said they were guided by “two fundamental realities”:

“First, about half of all American adults — 117 million individuals — have one or more preventable, chronic diseases, and about two-thirds of U.S. adults — nearly 155 million individuals — are overweight or obese. These conditions have been highly prevalent for more than two decades. Poor dietary patterns, overconsumption of calories, and physical inactivity directly contribute to these disorders. Second, individual nutrition and physical activity behaviors and other health-related lifestyle behaviors are strongly influenced by personal, social, organizational, and environmental contexts and systems. Positive changes in individual diet and physical activity behaviors, and in the environmental contexts and systems that affect them, could substantially improve health outcomes.

Here’s more about the dietary recommendations:

The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat;i and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains. Vegetables and fruit are the only characteristics of the diet that were consistently identified in every conclusion statement across the health outcomes. Whole grains were identified slightly less consistently compared to vegetables and fruits, but were identified in every conclusion with moderate to strong evidence. For studies with limited evidence, grains were not as consistently defined and/or they were not identified as a key characteristic. Low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, nuts, and alcohol were identified as beneficial characteristics of the diet for some, but not all, outcomes. For conclusions with moderate to strong evidence, higher intake of red and processed meats was identified as detrimental compared to lower intake….

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That Extra Slice: Study Finds When Kids Eat Pizza, They Eat More Calories

Pizza birthday party (Flickr Creative Commons)

Pizza birthday party (Flickr Creative Commons)

By Alvin Tran
Guest contributor

Parents, if you want to prevent your kids from eating too many extra calories, you might want to think twice about letting them have that “just one more” slice of chewy dough, tangy tomato sauce and glistening melted cheese.

In a new study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that pizza contributed to children and adolescents consuming more calories, saturated fat, and sodium in their usual diet.

“They’re taking in substantially more nutrients we really want to be thinking about limiting,” said Lisa Powell, PhD, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor of health policy and administration and the study’s lead author.

Powell’s study, which analyzed 24-hour dietary recalls of more than 12,000 kids over a 7-year period, found that children between the ages of 2 and 11 consumed an extra 84 calories on the days they ate pizza, while adolescents consumed an extra 230 calories.

It’s not a good idea to eat pizza as a snack.

– Lisa Powell, PhD

They also consumed significantly more sodium and saturated fat, which nutrition and health experts often dub the “bad fat.”

There is a silver lining, however. Children’s overall caloric intake from pizza declined by 25 percent over the course of the study. The study’s adolescent population, which ranged from ages 12 and 19, also demonstrated similar trends: its caloric intake from pizza fell by 22 percent.

But while the number of calories that adolescents consumed dropped, their overall consumption, on average, did not significantly change over the course of the study. According to Powell and her co-authors, this may be due to a slight increase in pizza consumption.

“The average adolescent takes in 620 calories of pizza. By showing that they consume this extra 230 calories, that means that on days they consume pizza, they’re not adequately adjusting the caloric intake and other things they take in that day,” Powell said. “They may be eating pizza but they’re having this additional 230 calories that they’re taking in.”


Overall, pizza consumption remained highly prevalent across both groups. In 2009 to 2010, 20 percent of children and 23 percent of adolescents consumed pizza on a given day.

Powell and her colleagues also found that consuming pizza as a snack or from fast-food restaurants were the two greatest culprits influencing both children and adolescents’ overall daily calorie intake.

“It’s not a good idea to eat pizza as a snack. That’s one thing that teens and parents should keep in mind,” Powell said. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today (Even A Short Walk): Avoiding A Premature Death

I’ve been having such a hard time dragging myself out in the frigid, icy cold to run or get to a gym lately: there are so many excellent reasons not to do it. But here’s the best I could come up with today for why I shouldn’t listen to that “stay-warm-and-slip-into-bed-with-a-laptop little voice in my head: exercise is truly the “best way to avoid an early death,” according to U.K researchers, who report that even small chunks of exercise — a brisk 20-minute walk, for instance — can provide benefits.

Steve Koukoulas/flickr

Steve Koukoulas/flickr

The U.K. Telegraph headline sums up the new study tidily: “Lack of exercise is twice as deadly as obesity, Cambridge University finds.”

Indeed, this cohort study of 334,161 European men and women over 12 years, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that “physical inactivity may theoretically be responsible for twice as many total deaths as high BMI” and concludes: “The greatest reductions in all-cause mortality risk were observed between the inactive and the moderately inactive groups across levels of general and abdominal adiposity, which suggests that efforts to encourage even small increases in activity in inactive individuals may be of public health benefit.”

Here’s more from The Telegraph report:

Using the most recent available public data, the researchers calculated that 337,000 of the 9.2 million deaths that occurred in Europe in 2008 could be attributed to obesity.

But physical inactivity was thought to be responsible for almost double this number – 676,000 deaths. Continue reading

Weight Loss 2015: How To Get A Little Help From Your (New) Friends

feetonscale
If you made your resolution to lose weight in 2015 on New Year’s Eve, chances are you’re already feeling your initial determination start to flag. The dreary winter dusk calls for comfort food, and there’s slush between you and the gym.

So it’s time for a little help from your friends — only, maybe they should include new friends, not just the usual posse. Not the network that may have influenced you to over-indulge in the first place.

Dr. Sherry Pagoto, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and an obesity researcher, says studies show that social support is important for making lifestyle changes. “But just because you’ve decided to make a change, that doesn’t mean your friends or family members have. So what do you do? The best support comes from people who are on the same journey.” Social media lets you find people who are “exactly where you’re at, have the same interests and can support each other.”

“Maybe you don’t need everyone in your family to be as dedicated about the gym as you are,” she adds. “But if you can post to your online community — ‘I’m headed to the gym’ or ‘I just got back from the gym’ or ‘I’m on day 5 of my couch-to-5K’ — you’ll have someone who says, ‘Yay!'”

Here, Dr. Pagoto offers five top tips for using social media to help with weight loss:

1. Create a private Facebook group for friends interested in losing weight.

How? It’s easy: Post on Facebook asking if anyone wants to join a private weight loss group. Then create a group page (private, not public) and send invites to those interested. Identify a day when people report weight change from the last week, and a day to post goals for the coming week. Ask people to post helpful content, recipes, their exercise plans, questions, struggles and more throughout the week.

2. Find an existing weight loss community, such as those on Sparkpeople, Weight Watchers or MyFitnessPal websites.

Many are free. Just be sure they are promoting healthy lifestyle change, not a particular specialized diet.

3. Most commercial weight loss apps allow you to ‘friend’ other users. Connect with other serious users to increase your social support and motivation. Continue reading

Project Louise: The Project Ends Now … But It Lasts A Lifetime

baby steps, will 668/flickr

baby steps, will 668/flickr

With the end of 2014 comes the end of Project Louise. The official end, that is. My excellent CommonHealth hosts gave me a year of coaching and support to see how much I could improve my health, and that year is now over. But my efforts to keep improving my health will continue, I hope and believe, for the rest of my life.

In part that’s because I haven’t reached all the goals I set for myself a year ago. I lost some weight, but not as much as I hoped; I exercised more, but I still haven’t developed the consistent exercise habit that I know I’ll need in order to make fitness a real and permanent part of my life.

On the other hand, I have made some real changes that I know will last. My diet is much better than it was a year ago – more vegetables, less junk – and, maybe even more important, my relationship with food is less complicated and neurotic. I still sometimes eat “bad” foods, but I don’t hate myself when I do – and that means I don’t go off on a binge.

That change is part of a larger one, one that Coach Allison Rimm urged me to undertake – and one that, frankly, didn’t immediately strike me as relevant to this project. Gently, consistently and with remarkable success, she has encouraged me to speak more kindly to myself, to focus on what I’m doing right rather than what I’m doing wrong.

Gentle Nudging

It turns out that gentle encouragement works much better than relentless criticism – something I knew and practiced in raising my children, yet somehow needed to learn in “raising” myself. In teaching me this lesson, Coach Allison has given me a priceless and lasting gift.

And that newfound sense of patience with myself is connected to the main reason I’ll keep working on this “project,” the single most important thing it has taught me. More than better nutrition, more than motivation for exercise, what Project Louise has shown me is that nothing lasting happens overnight. Change is a continuous process, not an isolated event.

No Overnight Success

We all fantasize about the life-changing moment, the day that divides our imperfect past from our glorious future – isn’t that what New Year’s Eve is all about? But in fact most days are pretty much like most other days; the calendar may change tomorrow, but we all know that Jan. 1 won’t feel much different from Dec. 31. Continue reading

Good Potato, Bad Potato: War Over Starchy Spud Rages On

Hideya HAMANO/flickr

Hideya HAMANO/flickr

By Alvin Tran
Guest Contributor

Potatoes, it turns out, are political.

At least in the cutthroat world of food and nutrition where, increasingly, what we eat is a highly partisan, hotly debated and frustratingly gridlocked battle pitting health policy types against one another.

Here’s where the potatoes come in:

On one side of the battle, you’ll find politicians, farmers and advocates lobbying for potatoes to become a part of the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, saying they are cheap and potentially nutritious. On the other, you’ll find researchers, including many doctors from the Institute of Medicine, steering patients away from potatoes and saying that Americans are currently consuming too much of the starchy vegetable.

As a doctoral student in nutrition, I often find myself caught in the crossfire of such food battles, whether they’re over the health benefits of dark chocolate, red wine, coffee or my current fixation: potatoes. All too often, friends, family members and even strangers on the bus beg for a little simplicity: they just want to know if certain foods are “good” or “bad.”

Unfortunately, things are rarely so simple and, like many foods that have become mired in controversy, nuances around the relative benefits or ills of potatoes have been obscured in the rhetoric.

Some specifics:

For starters, potatoes contain a large amount of carbohydrates and they have a high glycemic load – meaning they are quickly digested. Foods that have high glycemic loads generally cause blood sugar and insulin levels to rapidly spike and may cause a person to feel hungry again shortly after eating a meal.

According to The Nutrition Source, a publication of the Harvard School of Public Health that acts as a source of research-based nutrition information, previous research studies have linked diets high in potatoes and other rapidly digested carbs to chronic health outcomes, including diabetes and heart disease.

The findings from a new study, published in early September, suggested that a low-carb diet, compared to one that is low-fat, may be more effective for weight loss and in reducing the risk of heart-related health problems.

Nutrition researchers, however, have raised concerns over the study’s findings. For example, in a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, David L. Katz, a nutritionist and the founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, is quoted saying that diets focused on eliminating solely one item, such as carbs, aren’t always good and can actually be harmful: “Our fixation on a particular nutrient at a time has been backfiring for decades…”
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2,780-Calorie French Toast: Cheesecake Factory Tops The (Calorie) Charts

(atobest/Flickr via Compfight)

Veronica Thomas
CommonHealth Intern

The Cheesecake Factory doesn’t just have the biggest menu. It also has the biggest calorie bang for your buck, according to this year’s Xtreme Eating awards from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Consider their Bruléed French Toast, described in the menu as: “Extra thick slices of rustic French bread baked and grilled golden brown. Topped with powdered sugar and served with maple-butter syrup with bacon or grilled ham.”

French toast seems innocent enough, and it’s even “bruléed.” If the French do it, it must be healthy. After all, French women don’t get fat, right? But at a whopping 2,780 calories, this breakfast treat is enough to satisfy an average person’s energy needs for the entire day—and half of tomorrow. To burn off that toast, you’d have to run a marathon. Yes, you read that right. A marathon.

This custard-stuffed toast, along with the Farfalle with Chicken and Roasted Garlic and the Reese’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake Cheesecake (yes, that’s double the “cake”), placed The Cheesecake Factory as the clear winner of this year’s Xtreme Eating awards.

Ranked by the Center for Science in the Public Interest each year, these nine awards go out to the meals highest in calories, sugar and salt sold at chain restaurants around the country. The center is making a point: It’s pushing for the federal government to require calorie counts on chain-restaurant menus — and the numbers certainly do pack a punch.

So, who are the other six offenders—or should I say, winners?

  • Red Robin’s A.1 Peppercorn Burger, a serving of Bottomless Steak Fries, and a Monster Salted Caramel Milkshake (3,540 calories and four days’ worth of sodium)
  • Famous Dave’s “Big Slab” of St. Louis-Style Spare Ribs with a corn muffin, Famous fries, and Wilbur (baked) beans (1.5 pounds of meat and 2,770 calories)
  • BJ’s Signature Deep Dish Chicken Bacon Ranch Pizza (2,160 caloriesor what you burn while swimming for four hours straight)
  • Chevys Fresh Mex’s Super Cinco Combo (1,920 calories, not including the bottomless basket of greasy tortilla chips)
  • Joe’s Crab Shack’s Big “Hook” Up Platter (3,280 calories and three days’ worth of fried saturated fat)
  • Maggiano’s Prime New York Steak Contadina Style (2,420 calorieshalf of which come from the sausage-and-potato garnish alone)

I must admit, I got a little hungry writing this post. But if I ever do get one of these meals, I think I’m going to have to take the long way to the restaurant — as in walk to the location in the next state over.

Mindset Can Boost Metabolism? Not So Fast…

(Gravity_Grave via Compfight)

(Gravity_Grave via Compfight)

Would that it were so. That just thinking that what you eat is an indulgent treat could diminish your hunger later and ramp up your calorie-burning.

The possibility arose from a 2011 study that was just recently described in an NPR report headlined “Mind Over Milkshake: How Your Thoughts Fool Your Stomach.” It describes what happened when clinical psychologist Alia Crum mixed up a giant batch of vanilla milkshake, then labeled cups of it differently for two groups of subjects: Some were told it was a virtuous low-calorie drink while others were told it was a decadent indulgence.

Crum reported that when people thought they’d just indulged, their bodies — specifically their levels of ghrelin, a hunger-related hormone — responded as if they’d taken in more calories than people who believed they’d had a low-cal shake. Possible moral of story: Your beliefs about the food you eat — based on, say, reading labels — could affect how your body responds.

It’s a provocative thought and a fun yarn — and a super-fun video, at the bottom of this post — but perhaps a bit too fun. The reality checkers at Nutrition Action – which is put out by the nonprofit Center For Science in the Public Interest — have just responded to the story with a big “Really?” And a headline: “Can Your Mindset Boost Metabolism? It’s not as straight-forward as one recent study suggests.”

An excerpt:

First of all, the study never measured ghrelin’s effect on metabolism (or even how much food the participants ate at their next meal). Nor have others.

“If you give animals ghrelin injections either subcutaneously or directly into the brain, they increase their food intake, increase their body weight, and burn less fat,” says Jenny Tong, an associate professor of endocrinology and a ghrelin expert at the University of Cincinnati who was not involved in the milkshake study. But giving ghrelin to cancer patients who are losing weight doesn’t help much, she says. Continue reading

Tele-Coach: How An Eating Therapist Learned To Love Skype

By Jean Fain
Guest contributor

“How’d you do with your eating since last we met?” I recently asked members of my group on food issues.

“I’m really struggling,” said Heidi, a 27-year-old entrepreneur from Boston. “When I get overly full, that self-critical voice takes over. All I can think is ‘Screw it! I’ll start fresh tomorrow.’ I don’t know how not to let my eating spiral into overeating.”

Author Jean Fain while Skyping (courtesy).

Author Jean Fain while Skyping (courtesy).

Lydia, a 45 year-old minister from Akron, jumped in: “Instead of believing that self-critical voice, I’ve been telling myself: ‘That’s not what I believe.'”

“Did you hear that?” I asked Heidi. “Next time you start thinking ‘Screw it,’ you might try ‘That’s not what I believe’ or another of Lydia’s inspired responses.”

Heidi and Lydia (not their real names) are talking face to face, but not in person. Thanks to recent telecommunications advances, the 650 miles between the two are no barrier to participating in my eight-week group on using self-compassion for eating issues. Nor is a six-hour time difference. Last week, one participant Skyped in from her Lisbon hotel room.

Yes, I’ve jumped on the telemedicine bandwagon. I’m just discovering what hospitals, home health agencies and other major health organizations have been touting as the most cost-effective alternative to traditional face-to-face medicine since castor oil.

Clients with food and body image issues generally feel a lot less self-conscious attending a group remotely than up close and personal.

I knew about the telemedicine or “telehealth” trend, using technology to remotely deliver health-care services and information. But I’d never seriously considered joining the high-tech trendsetters. For decades, I’ve been happily providing individual and group therapy the old-fashioned way, and there are major legal questions about virtual psychotherapy, particularly across state lines.

According to Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Telemental Health Institute, “It’s the wild west. Clinicians are making up their own rules and disregarding those they agreed to follow when they got their licenses, and the consumers are at risk. They really don’t know who’s the right person to go to.”

Then, three things converged:

• Sixty-five members of The Center for Mindful Eating from around the world enthusiastically participated in my teleconference on The Self-Compassion Diet.
• My clients started complaining about sitting in traffic during the interminable reconstruction of Route 2 in Concord, Mass.
• One client couldn’t say enough about her Skype sessions with Los Angeles nutritionist and mindful eating author, Evelyn Tribole.

So I asked myself: “Why not Skype with clients?” Well, because telemedicine has real downsides. Besides the fuzzy legal regulations, I had at least three other concerns: Continue reading