Dying for Sweets?

Dying for Sweets
The Science Behind Cravings and What to do About Them

The holidays – starting with Halloween – can trip up even the most conscientious dieter. This happened to a client who had lost and kept off 20 pounds successfully. The Halloween trap caught her by surprise. She bought several bags of Snickers, her favorite candy bar, and began a binge that didn’t end until the candy was gone – long before Trick or Treat even began! That brought her up a couple of pounds. The holidays came and before you know it, she had gained almost ten pounds before winter was out.

If you don’t want this to happen to you…

It’s not just in your head – and you are not alone! There are special challenges posed with some foods, particularly sweets, which have been confirmed by scientific research. So if you don’t want to feel overstuffed, bloated, and stuck with extra depressing pounds you’ll have to fight to take off, listen up, I have some good advice for you…

With Halloween and the holidays looming, it’s important to determine your strategy for dealing with the temptation of sweets: what you eat, what you bring in your home, and what you serve others. My philosophy is that all foods can be enjoyed in moderation. Understanding the science behind sweet craving and overeating can help us eat in a more moderate and healthy way.

The Science

People have an inborn attraction to sweets. If you don’t believe it, simply watch an infant’s response to something sweet versus, say, a vegetable. There’s an automatic acceptance, even joy, after eating something sweet. On the other hand, vegetables are an acquired taste, which may take 10 – 20 tries before acceptance. This is partly explained by evolution. We’ve been eating naturally sweet foods such as breast milk and fruit for millions of years. They contain life-sustaining nutrients, and a love for those foods helped keep us alive. Also, during evolution, an attraction to scarce calorie-dense foods, such as sweets and fats, improved our chances for survival.

But there are other explanations.  The research surrounding our attraction to sweets has stepped up in recent decades. Scientists are grappling with understanding the calorie imbalances causing the obesity epidemic, which is partly fueled by eating too many sweets.

Our brain chemistry holds an important clue. Research shows that sweets, like many antidepressants, increase the brain chemical, serotonin, which helps regulate mood and appetite.

“Without carbohydrates, your brain stops regulating serotonin,” says Judith Wurtman, the director of the women’s health research program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Clinical Research Center in Boston. “Eating carbohydrates profoundly improves mood; which is why a handful of candy corn will make you feel better.”

When we’re stressed, anxious or depressed, serotonin levels can drop, and one way people modify their moods is by eating carbohydrates. But, Halloween and holiday sweet cravings may be uniquely influenced by seasonal changes, too. Studies show that as days get shorter and we are exposed to less sunshine, serotonin levels drop and this leads to increased carbohydrate cravings in susceptible people.

“It’s seasonal; if they sold Halloween and Holiday candy in July, people wouldn’t be as interested,” says Wurtman.

Women are particularly vulnerable to sweet cravings because their brains have less serotonin than men, according to Wurtman.

There have been other explanations for women’s reported increased sweet craving and indulging.

Some researchers attribute the difference to the female hormone, estrogen. It’s been reported that sweet cravings change according to where a woman is in her menstrual cycle, circumstantial evidence that estrogen may play a role. But the findings are inconsistent, as some report increased cravings during menstruation, while others report higher cravings as a premenstrual symptom, a time when serotonin levels may be low.

But the bottom line is clear: “Females overeat sweets compared to males,” says Lisa Eckel, assistant professor of psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Eckel completed a study on rats, published in the American Journal of Physiology, which found that female rats ate more rat chow when it was sweetened, compared with males.

“In animals, having high levels of estrogen is associated with eating more sweets,” says Eckel. This theory has yet to be proven in humans.

Cravings and overeating are difficult to study because they can be so subjective and multifactorial. Other researchers stipulate sweet cravings are mainly determined by culture or by psychological and behavioral factors, rather than physiology.

In some cultures, people don’t crave sweets because they haven’t been exposed to them as regularly as Americans. A study of chocolate, for instance, found that American women crave chocolate significantly more than Spanish women. And while a large percentage of American women reported increased chocolate cravings surrounding their menstrual period, Spanish women did not.

Other studies confirm that exposure during childhood is the major determinant of what we crave and are susceptible to overeating.

I copied my mother’s love for sweets and love of baking; it was a fun activity we did together. In college, to combat loneliness, and heck just for fun, I over-indulged my love for sweets (as the pounds went up and up).  I would regularly bake my favorite chocolate chip bars and caramel popcorn, both of which I made in childhood. Study after study shows the importance of parental modeling on a child’s preferences.

Availability and proximity are two of the most important factors science has found influences what we crave and overeat and they probably trump all of the other reasons combined. When tasty foods, such as sweets, are around, we simply eat more of them.

Chances are, a combination of factors is responsible for cravings and overeating sweets at Halloween and the holidays.

“Holiday sweets are novel, they only comes around once a year. It comes in small pieces so you fool yourself into thinking you’re not eating as much,” says Wurtman. “You put it in bowls around the house and eat it mindlessly!”

Wurtman says if you have a strong desire for sweets, it may be a sign that you’re depressed, anxious or stressed. But she insists you don’t have to indulge in sweets to raise your serotonin levels or to feel good. Exercising, stress management, spending time with loved ones are activities which will also help reduce depression, anxiety and stress. (My client discovered a psychological basis for her binges, which she is successfully averting these days).

Using candy to feel better is not a great solution for your waist line. It is so high calorie, it doesn’t take much to overeat and forget your weight loss plans. For the same calories in a candy bar, you could eat four apples, or maybe you couldn’t – and that’s the point!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not urging you to be a Halloween Scrooge. I believe it’s possible to have fun with Halloween, and even eat Halloween candy, but still avoid some of the excesses that many of us have fallen victim to in the past.

Here are a few suggestions.

  • To reduce the possibility of seasonal cravings, make sure you’re getting 30 minutes to one hour of sunlight each day by taking a walk in the mornings or at lunch. You may be able to “catch up” on the weekend, if you didn’t get enough rays during the week,
  • Eat plenty of healthy carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, to keep serotonin at optimum levels and reduce cravings of less healthy carbohydrates, such as refined sugar,
  • Include a naturally sweet fruit in your meals – and within your healthy calorie allotment. Since we naturally crave a variety of flavors, including sweets, this will reduce sweet cravings beyond your calorie needs,
  • If you feel driven to eat sweets, it may be a signal that you’re depressed, anxious or stressed. Reduce tension and anxiety by meditating, exercising or talking with loved ones. It’s important to understand the core of the problem and for that, you may need to seek help from a professional,
  • If you want to lose weight, keep your candy – or other “extra” calories – to no more than 10% of your daily calories (that’s 200 calories for the average 2,000 calorie intake, or 150 for 1,500 calories). You may even get away with one big splurge on Halloween. But if you splurge for two or more days, it will probably effect your waist line negatively,
  • If you can’t resist eating too much candy, wait to buy it on the day of the party or event (or, don’t buy it). This way, the candy won’t be sitting around as a constant temptation
  • Buy only what you need for the event and buy your least favorite candy. Give away the remaining candy at the end of the evening so that there’s nothing left,
  • Reduce the variety of what you buy as VARIETY is the biggest cause of overeating,
  • Try fun and healthier alternatives to sweets to have around your home and serve to family and guests, such as popcorn, roasted pumpkin seeds, sliced apples and fruit with nice dips,
  • Most importantly, if you do find you overeat, lighten up, don’t dwell on the negative and get over it! Analyze objectively what you can do differently next time,

With awareness and good planning, you can have your sweets and eat them, too!

Just Say No

Original Content: Washington Post

My client Julie used to fight every holiday with her family. She would unwittingly start the argument at the dinner table by mentioning that she was on some sort of diet and couldn’t eat this or that. Then other guests would chime in with their own dietary viewpoints. This would cause the host to worry whether her guests were really complaining about the lavish spread she had slaved over. And the negativity didn’t help Julie; she would feel so frustrated that she would just give up on her dieting goals.

I’m afraid this is a familiar scene. As the party season begins, many of us are fearful of the delicious yet fattening holiday foods offered at countless gatherings. Although we want to enjoy ourselves and be appreciative guests, there’s the little (or not so little) issue of the weight we don’t want to gain.

Our fears are well founded. Studies show we are susceptible to weight gain at this time of year. Just about every party revolves around food. And when there is a variety of tasty foods in the vicinity, many of us simply can’t resist them. In fact, the more food that is available, the more we tend to eat. You could say the holidays, with all these temptations — plus the pressure of wanting to please our friends and family — provide the perfect environment for overeating and weight gain.

So, the challenge is how to be a gracious guest yet navigate the minefield of delicacies.

Our first obligation as guests is visiting friends and loved ones with a generous spirit. If offered food that we don’t want or can’t have, a simple “no thank you” is perfectly acceptable. Forcing your likes, dislikes and preferences for certain foods on the host or other guests can be downright unappetizing.

“It’s important not to treat private hospitality as a restaurant and announce what you want or don’t want,” said Judith Martin, the syndicated columnist who writes as Miss Manners, via telephone.

Today it seems almost impossible to escape people on this diet or that, freely espousing their views and theories. Worse, some guests expect their hosts to cater to their particular dietary requirements: no carbohydrates, no fat, no white flour, no sugar, no dairy, ad nauseam. Although it is fine to be following a diet, and may even be essential for your health, expecting the host to be a short-order cook is unfair. And discussing dietary views at the table is a no-no.

“This attitude that other people haven’t seen the light and you have to make them see the light makes the experience of eating unpleasant,” Martin told me. “Cooking has improved enormously over the decades, but the experience of eating has gone downhill because people are so self-righteous and willing to boss other people around.”

Martin also warned against bringing your own food or drink to a party, even if you have a serious dietary need or allergy, unless that is requested by the host. It is commonly mistaken as a lack of confidence in your hosts’ culinary tastes.

“Your family and intimate friends should know your condition, but if you are eating with hosts who do not, fortify yourself with food before going so that you are not starving, and then simply avoid dangerous foods,” said Martin. “This does not require an explanation.”

With family or close friends on extended visits, though, it’s perfectly acceptable to offer to contribute by going grocery shopping or providing food for everyone (not just yourself), while at the same time fulfilling your dietary needs. When I stay the night at friends’ or families’ homes, I’ll often bring a large basket of fruit, for instance, for everyone to enjoy. On an extended visit, I might offer to go grocery shopping or to make dinner for everyone.

This is a way to be generous but also to help myself have foods I feel comfortable with. However, it is important that this be done graciously, in the spirit of thanks and not as an obvious rejection of your hosts’ food or hospitality.

How did Julie solve her holiday eating problem? She and I decided she would drop the drama of the dieting daughter and assume the role of the gracious guest instead. She would not initiate or participate in any conversations about dieting or food during her visits.

Her strategy worked, and there were no more arguments during the holidays about her weight, dieting or food. Everyone, including Julie, enjoyed the holidays so much more. She has since lost 40 pounds.

TIPS (original content: Wednesday, December 1, 2004; Page F04)

To enjoy the holidays without tipping the scales, and to maintain the role of a gracious guest:

• Give away fattening leftovers. One splurge won’t interfere with your goals, but multiple indulgences will.

• If you’re afraid there won’t be foods you would like, or you would like to control your intake at a party, eat a snack or a meal before going.

• Don’t starve yourself the day of the party, or you may overeat once you get there.

• After you’ve arrived at the party, sip some sparkling water and wait at least 15 to 30 minutes before making a food choice. This gives you time to relax and to scope out the offerings.

• Prioritize your favorite holiday foods. Splurge on two or three special delicacies you can get only once a year.

• Wear close-fitting clothes to help remind you when you’ve had enough.

— Katherine Tallmadge

Katherine Tallmadge is a Washington nutritionist and author of “Diet Simple” (Lifeline Press, 2004). Send e-mails to her at food@washpost.com.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

Holiday and Party Strategies

First, if you don’t care about gaining those usual 5 holiday pounds, do not read any further! I believe this is a legitimate option … Enjoy your holiday with abandon and come see me in January! If, on the other hand, you’d like some ideas for at least maintaining your health and weight this season, read on…

“The social butterflies among us are very fortunate in some ways. You’re often out and about, meeting new friends and entertaining old friends at home. Life is full. Life is grand!” says Katherine in Diet Simple.

“But then there’s the little (or not so little) issue of weight. And what about your hard-won health gains: your lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose? The increased energy level you’re enjoying so much? The beautiful clothes you’re finally able to fit into (remember telling me how fun  it was to shop in your own closet?)? All that hard work! Festivities can put a dent in even the staunchest and most determined health-gain and weight-loss resolve. Just about every party, after all, revolves around food… Fattening, delicious food, studies show, we’re naturally attracted to. Just thinking about all the calories can make me feel heavier!” says Katherine in Diet Simple.

Parties and holidays are a time for celebating life and for bringing families and friends together. No one’s perfect, and it seems almost antisocial to obsess over your weight when everyone around you is having such a great time. Still parties present a lot of opportunities for overindulging. Even if you’ve managed to master the daily routines of physical activity, eating in moderation and so on, parties and holidays don’t come around that often. Which means we don’t have as much practice reconciling social obligations and our natural attraction to fattening and delicious foods with our desire to maintain the same waist size.

Parties are not – I repeat NOT – only about food. They should not even be mainly about food. Not convinced? Well, take a minute to make an inventory of the things that matter to you – that really touch your heart around special occasions and holidays. Here are some of the thing that I and my clients have decided are important:

*Beautiful holiday decorations and music,
*Showing kindness to others and making sacrifices for those less fortunate,
*Getting together with friends and family you rarely have time for,
*Observing religious significance of holidays,
*Attending holiday plays and concerts,
*Free time for special exhibits, ice skating and skiing,
*Volunteering at the local homeless shelter.
*Looking your best and feeling confident and energetic.

Even without knowing you personally, I can say with some confidence that your list of priorities is probably pretty similar. Do we think about food when we go to parties or celebrate the holidays? Of course, but there is so much more! More tips on prioritizing…

Tips for Celebrating from Diet Simple…

* Prioritize what is most important to you about the holiday (see list above!),

* Remember, the “holidays” are only 3 days, NOT every day between Thanksgiving and New Year,

* Plan your holiday eating carefully. Savor and enjoy to the fullest every bite … every calorie,

* Prioritize your high calorie items. Choose three of your favorite holiday foods and allow yourself to  enjoy them. Don’t waste calories by sampling everything,

* Prioritize your parties. Choose one or two of your favorite parties during the week and allow yourself to indulge at them.  Eat before going to the other parties. If you indulge at, say, all five parties you’re invited  to in one week, you may gain more weight than you would feel comfortable with,

* ALWAYS eat normally and on time the day of the party … Don’t starve yourself during the day so that you  irrationally overeat everything in sight once you get there,

* Eat a snack just before arriving at your party,

* Once you’ve arrived at the party, grab some sparkling water and wait at least 30 minutes before making a  food choice. This gives you time to relax, get comfortable in your surroundings and to scope out the food  offerings rationally,

* Location! Location! Location! Position yourself away from the food table. Focus on conversation, not eating,

* ALWAYS follow the “Mindful Eating Techniques” … Before eating anything, take the food to a table, sit  down, take three or four deep breaths, relax, focus full attention on the food while you are eating. If you  want to talk with someone, put the food down and talk. When you want to eat, put your full attention on the eating. Notice the point at which you feel comfortable not full. As soon as you are comfortable, stop  eating. Enjoy and savor every bite. Don’t waste any calorie by not paying attention to what you are eating,

* When you are in control of the party, try new healthy recipes to serve your family or guests. You’ll be  surprised how much this is appreciated,

* Anticipate situations and plan your strategy ahead of time,

* Before the event, visualize yourself using your planned strategies and leaving the party successful,

* Reward yourself for handling the situations as you planned,

* Leftovers are what put weight on. Splurge on the holiday, then get back to normal eating asap.

* Keep up your regular physical activity, even increase it if you can (and why not since your on vacation?), to offset the extra calories.

* Just say no!

Do’s and Don’ts for Holiday Buffets

excerpted from one of Katherine’s SHAPE Magazine articles

Been invited to a holiday buffet? Don’t panic! I’ve surveyed the trendiest holiday buffets to come up with a list of dos and don’ts so you don’t leave the party stuffed with 2,000 calories beneath your belt and 2 pounds heavier the next morning. Which reminds me: This is not the time to be shy, so wear confining clothing. There’s nothing like a death grip around your waist to remind you it’s time to leave the Swedish meatballs behind and start mingling.

Read closely. You may be shocked to find that even if you stick with all the “dos” on my list, your calories will probably top anything you’d be eating at home with your standard 600 calorie dinner. So, be picky. Don’t waste calories when you can enjoy yourself flirting… or caroling!

1. DO! Add sparkling water and a twist of lime to your two ounces of white wine. It’s only 40 calories!

DON’T! Get started with several glasses of wine at 100 calories each!

2. DO! Start with healthy crudites: dip carrot and celery strips – or any other veggies – in salsa!

(each dipped finger-sized veggie stick is about 7 to 10 calories and no fat)

DON’T! Start with chips and dip. Did you know that each dipped chip could set you back 25 calories and 2 grams of fat?? (was that about 10 that you just gulped down in 2 minutes flat?)

3. DO! Savor Smoked Salmon on a whole grain cracker (about 35 calories and 2 grams of fat for 1/2 ounce of salmon and one cracker)

DON’T! Dig into the crispy and creamy appetizers. Bet you didn’t know that tiny egg roll packs in 200 calories and 10 grams of fat! The cheese and crackers? You jest! Each tiny slab (1/2 ounce) of cheese with a Town House cracker is 65 calories and 6 grams of fat

4. DO! Take the edge off your appetite with the filling yet spicy Minestrone or Vegetable Soup at 150 calories and 2 grams of fat per 8-ounce bowl.

DON’T! Fill your bowl with the Seafood Bisque. It’ll pack on 300 calories and 10 grams of fat per 8-ounce bowl.
5. DO! Partake in the chicken or shrimp skewers; the calories and saturated fat are minimal.

DON’T! Nibble on buffalo wings. Your calories will be flying into the stratosphere with those wings – at 100 calories and 7 grams of fat each – and that’s before frying and dipping (add 50 each)!
6. DO! Start with a fresh salad. Heap your plate with fresh, young greens, sliced tomatoes and onions (25 calories at the most) Top with 1 Tbsp of vinaigrette (50 – 75 calories, 5 – 9 grams fat)

DON’T! Start with garlic bread (200 calories for two small slices)

7. DO! Head for the Turkey Carving Station. Enjoy 3 ounces of sliced turkey (imagine a deck of cards). The protein hit will take the edge off your appetite for just 105 calories and 3 grams fat.

DON’T! Head for the Prime Rib Carving Station. It’ll set you back 300 calories and 24 grams of fat.

8. DO! Walk on the Wild Side with a Side of Wild Rice! Only 80 calories and 1 gram of fat per 1/2 cup serving

DON’T! Stuff yourself with Stuffing! About 120 calories and 5 grams of fat per 1/2 cup serving

9. DO! Pile on the Grilled Vegetables like red peppers, mushrooms, and zucchini. They’re only 25 calories per 1/2 cup serving

DON’T! Get creamed with the Creamed Spinach. The cream and butter adds 150 calories to the measly 25 for the spinach

10. DO! Spoon up sorbet. It’s cool, it’s refreshing – It’s only 100 calories and zero fat per 1/2 cup.

DON’T! Spoon up the Haagen Daz! It’s 250 calories and 20 grams of fat per 1/2 cup

11. DO! Indulge in a sliver of pumpkin pie. It’s creamy deliciousness is relatively abstemious at 300 calories and 14 grams of fat for 1/8 of a 9” pie

DON’T! Indulge in a sliver of pecan pie. It’ll set you back 500 calories and 27 grams of fat!

12. DO! try a meringue cookie or ginger snap. They’re only about 30 calories a piece

DON’T! grab a chocolate chip cookie with nuts. Even a tiny one is 120 calories.

13. DO! Enjoy hot herbal tea as a night cap to help you sleep (zero calories, zero fat!)

DON’T! Indulge in a brandy. It’s 160 calories for just a 1-1/2 ounce jigger – and that’s before the cream!

Isn’t your priority looking and feeling your best?

Some Lighter alternatives for holiday cookies…

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