Posts Tagged ‘Overeating’

It’s Not Always the Food that Makes Us Eat

March 26th, 2014 at 5:54 pm by timigustafson

What is more likely to cause overeating – a quick bite on the run or a sit-down meal in a relaxed atmosphere? Surprisingly, it’s the rushed eating event that most often seduces us to overindulge. Why? For a number of reasons, most of which we are completely unaware of, according to scientists who study our eating behavior.

If you serve people the same kind of food but provide a different atmosphere, such as lighting and music, they will not only have a different dining experience but will also respond differently in terms of how fast and how much they eat, said Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing and consumer behavior at Cornell University in New York.

Together with his co-researcher, Dr. Koert van Ittersum of the Georgia Institute of Technology, he experimented with alterations in fast food restaurants, like toning down lights and playing soft jazz music in the background, to see if it influenced how customers ate their meals. As it turned out, not only did patrons find their meals better tasting and spend more time eating, they also consumed on average about 200 fewer calories!

“The more relaxed environment increased satisfaction and decreased consumption,” Dr. Wansink observed. “Making simple changes away from brighter lights and sound-reflecting surfaces can go a long way toward reducing overeating and increase customers’ satisfaction at the same time,” he said.

Similar effects were found in other studies on food presentation. Adding decorative flourishes, as it is customary in high-end restaurants, can make a significant difference on how people relate to the food they are served, according to one study conducted at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York.

Here, patrons were served the very same meal two nights in a row, however with dramatically altered plating styles. On the first night, an entrée consisting of chicken breast, brown rice and green beans was presented in what is considered a traditional style. The following night, the chefs arranged the ingredients more creatively. Overwhelmingly, the second presentation was judged as more pleasing and, although both meals were virtually identical, the food was found to be superior.

These are simple tricks people can use at home just as effectively to make their meals more attractive, said Dr. Debra Zellner, a professor of psychology at Montclair State University in New Jersey and lead author of the study report.

One of the reasons why nutrition experts recommend sit-down family meals over TV dinners is atmosphere. When people of all ages take time to focus on their food, enjoy each other’s company, and do it in a place that is reserved for eating occasions only, it reflects on their behavior – and the benefits can be substantial, not the least for nutritional health and weight control.

Distracted food consumption, or as Dr. Wansink calls it, “mindless eating,” is considered to be one of the causes for overeating and unwanted weight gain. Paying greater attention not only to what we eat but also how much and how quickly can be an effective countermeasures to overeating. For some, this may take a few lifestyle changes. But it is not complicated, and the results are well worth the effort.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Include Mindfulness in Your Meals

December 28th, 2013 at 4:24 pm by timigustafson

If you have any interest at all in healthy eating, you probably have come across Brian Wansink’s book, “Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think.” In a nutshell, the author, a professor of marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University, wants us to pay more attention to our eating habits, something that may be easier said than done. But if mindless eating is such a central component of the ongoing obesity epidemic, as the professor suggests, what would its opposite – mindful eating – entail?

There has been increasing interest in the subject in recent years, and a growing movement that connects eating with meditation and other calming exercises has emerged. Even Google now offers mindful eating lunches on its headquarter campus in Mountain View, California.

“Mindful eating is not a diet. There are no menus or recipes. It is being more aware of your eating habits, the sensations you experience when you eat, and the thoughts and emotions that you have about food. It is more about how you eat than what you eat,” says Dr. Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of five books on the practice of mindful eating.

Our hectic lives usually don’t leave us much time for paying attention to the foods we consume. And when it comes to food preparation, efficiency and convenience trump almost all other aspects. So we never really become aware of the taste, smell and mouth feel of our edibles, let alone cultivate positive emotions like comfort and gratitude we could derive from eating.

Instead, Dr. Albers says, we regularly overeat, graze all day, skip meals, or do a thousand other things while munching on something or other that has little meaning for us. That kind of mindless relationship to food then can easily lead to overeating and unwanted weight gain or worse.

“The fundamental reason for our imbalance with food and eating is that we’ve forgotten how to be present as we eat,” says Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and Zen teacher in Clatskanie, Oregon, who has written a guidebook on mindful eating. “Mindful eating helps us learn to hear what our body is telling us about hunger and satisfaction,” he says.

As we pay more attention to our food, we begin to better understand our need for being nurtured, not just for the benefit of the body but the mind as well. We notice how eating affects our moods and how our emotions such as joy, anxiety, or boredom influence our eating habits.

Especially the holidays are a time when we should pay more attention to our eating behavior. When we get stressed out over all the shopping and preparations ahead of us, and festive meals and treats are offered everywhere, we would be well-advised to stop once in a while and take time to relax and reflect a bit. That’s when mindful eating can play an important role, says Dr. Lilian Cheung, a lecturer on nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health who co-wrote a book on the subject with Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, titled “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.” “We need to be coming back to ourselves and say: Does my body need this? Why am I eating this? Is this just because I’m so sad or stressed out?”

Thankfully, engaging in mindful eating does not require lots of practice or training. You can begin at any time and without further ado. Just settle down and become quiet for a moment. Focus on something edible in front of you. It can be a three-course meal or a single raisin. Make yourself aware of aromas, tastes and textures, and also your responses, both physical and emotional. Eat in silence. Eat slowly. Chew with your eyes closed. Try not to let your mind drift elsewhere. If it does, bring yourself gently back to the present experience without judging.

It also helps to create an environment that is comfortable and keeps you safe from interruptions. Make sure your phone is off and you cannot be disturbed. You may like sharing the experience with others, or you may prefer to be alone.

In any case, you will be making progress simply by finding yourself slowing down and becoming better aware of your actions. Your body will take care of everything else.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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More Than Temptation, Stress Causes Overeating During the Holidays

November 10th, 2013 at 3:21 pm by timigustafson

That many people’s waistlines expand during the holiday season is a well-established fact. But, as a new study found, the reason why most of us overindulge at this particular time may not be so much the countless opportunities for extra munching but rather the need for extra comfort due to heightened stress.

The study, which was conducted at the University of Konstanz, Germany, showed that participants who had a tendency to reach for food when stressed did not continue to do so after they were more relaxed, even though they were given equal access to the comfort foods they craved when they felt tense.

Other participants had reverse reactions. They ate less or stopped eating altogether in acutely stressful situations and compensated (or often overcompensated) for the deprivation afterwards when the tension ebbed. In either case, eating was connected to their stress experience rather than the availability of food.

Stress eating, or emotional eating as it is sometimes called, is not yet fully understood by scientist. In fact, the expression “stress eating” itself should be a contradiction in terms. Acute stress as a short-term response supposedly blocks the desire for food due to hormone releases in the brain that suppress appetite. But when high stress levels persist, as with chronic stress, cortisol, an appetite-stimulating hormone, secretes in the adrenal glands and remains elevated until the stress period ends, which may be indefinite.

Some foods seem to be more effective for stress relief than others. Comfort foods, which are typically highly processed and filled with fat and sugar, are among the favorite choices of the chronically stressed. These are also the kinds of food that one can easily snack on, often mindlessly.

Overeating, of course, is not the only widespread response to stress. Because of its energy-draining and exhausting effects, both physically and mentally, stress prevents many people from exercising and often from getting enough sleep. Alcohol and/or drug use, not unheard of among stress sufferers, add to the likelihood of unhealthy weight gain and other body dysfunctions.

So, what makes us so much more vulnerable and so inclined to succumb to our cravings during the holiday season? The fact is that this is no holiday at all for most people who find themselves burdened with many additional tasks and obligations while their everyday lives still must go on as usual. Thus, stress sources multiply. That, at least, may be one reason.

Still, whatever we do to cope with those challenges, it is important to understand that we are not helpless when it comes to controlling our impulses. The first step towards making positive changes is to become more aware of our tendencies and then take the necessary steps to counterbalance them.

For example, do you have a sweet tooth? If so, you can limit your access to your favorite treats. Do you easily forego exercising and make excuses for staying sedentary? You can draw up a fitness plan and join in with likeminded people who can hold you to it. Are you chronically sleep-deprived? You can make a point of increasing your sleep time. The list can go on and on.

It would be naïve to think that all this can be accomplished with a quick resolution. Far from it. Instead, I recommend to start with one thing, something concrete you can take on right now without further delay. How about, this holiday season, I give myself the gift of an hour daily to take care of my health and my peace of mind? It doesn’t matter what exactly you choose to do. Read a book, go for a walk, meditate, whatever. Stay with it, and that gift might just keep on giving.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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The Holiday Season, A Time for Emotional Eating

October 30th, 2013 at 7:07 am by timigustafson

As the holidays are nearing, even those among us who mostly manage to stay in shape have to wonder how they can prevent serious damage to their waistline this time of the year. It’s no secret: from Thanksgiving (or earlier) through New Year’s Day, we all indulge in lots of parties, festive meals, and treats all abound. The aftermath, of course, is filled with regrets and renewed vows never to succumb to such temptations again – a.k.a. resolution season. But as many know from experience, those efforts will likely be just as futile next time around as they were in the past. So is there no escape from this vicious cycle?

Holiday bingeing is hard to avoid, not only because of the many opportunities (and excuses) to indulge more than usual, but also because the holidays are a rather emotional time. It may be meant to be a joyous season, however, it also brings negative emotions such as anxiety, depression and loneliness closer to the surface and makes them even harder to bear. Add the extra stress that holiday preparations inevitably produce, and you have the perfect set of conditions where emotional eating can thrive.

Not all indulgence is automatically dysfunctional, of course. In some ways, we as humans are genetically programmed to overdo it now and then. Our forbearers of hundreds of years ago had little choice but to eat as much and as fast as they could on the rare occasions when food was plentiful, to be followed by periods of near starvation. But those times are long gone and, for most of us, every day is a feast by comparison. Combined with our predominantly sedentary lifestyle, the negative consequences of our now considered “normal” food consumption should not surprise anyone.

But there is a much darker side to overeating when it becomes compulsive. Only recently, binge-eating disorder (BED) has been recognized as a medical condition. It is now defined as “a serious mental illness in which emotions and thinking patterns cause a person to adopt harmful eating habits, such as overeating or starvation. Often, these habits are a way of coping with depression, stress, or anxiety.” BED differs from other eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia, as it does not typically include purging (mostly by vomiting or using laxatives) to avoid weight gain. But like those other behaviors, BED is often rooted in serious emotional conflicts.

Not everyone who engages in emotional eating will lose control and end up self-destructing. But if the underlying causes remain unaddressed and untreated, dysfunctional behavior may become harder and harder to overcome.

Emotional eating is eating for reasons other than physical hunger, explains Jane Jakubczak, a Registered Dietitian at the University of Maryland. Studies have shown that 75 percent of overeating, that is eating without being hungry, is caused by emotions. So dealing with emotions appropriately is most important, she says.

So it would make sense to think that because the holidays not only stir up both positive and negative emotions and give us also good excuses to feed them (literally and figuratively), we are more at risk than at any other time to fall into the well-known traps.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Learning what triggers your emotional responses is key to avoid them from happening. There are many ways this can be achieved. For example, if being around food and treats is too tempting, try to avoid being in their presence as best as you can. There are many ways to get into the holiday spirit without surrounding yourself with edibles. Resist buying urges. Ask to have food platters or candy jars placed in parts of your office space where you can’t see or smell them. Busy yourself with thoughts other than about food. Instead of partaking in every lunch or dinner party you are invited to, suggest some alternative events like going on a ski trip or some other outdoor activity. For those eating events you cannot escape from, make a plan how to navigate them, including how much you will allow yourself to eat no matter how often you are urged to dig in.

Most importantly, feed your emotions with what they really need: fun, laughter, companionship, compassion… You can never overindulge in these.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Why We Love Comfort Food So Much

October 23rd, 2013 at 12:45 pm by timigustafson

Scientist have long searched for answers why food that is fatty, salty or sweet is so popular, in fact to the extent that many of us have a hard time stopping themselves from overindulging in edibles we know are not particularly healthy but give us so much pleasure.

Possible explanations go in all sorts of directions. Some say people reach for comfort food for psychological reasons, both positive and negative, such as feeling happy and in the mood to celebrate or trying to cope with anxiety, boredom, or sadness. Others have suggested that our preferences stem from our evolutionary background, that we are biologically programmed to crave certain foods that used to be hard to come by but are now available in abundance. Others again say it’s our consumer culture that causes us to graze almost constantly. And then there are those who blame the food industry for making us hooked on their products through relentless advertising and even by adding ingredients that work like opiates, turning us practically into addicts.

Overeating is hard to avoid in the environment we live in today, says Dr. Brian Wansink, professor for marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University and author of “Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam Books, 2006). We get our eating cues from multiple sources all the time, he says, from images, sounds and smells that surround us constantly. We are confronted with ever-growing portion sizes, and eventually think it’s normal to consume so much more than our parents’ and grandparents’ generations used to.

The idea that the body knows what’s good for it and when it has enough, as it has been suggested by proponents of the so-called intuitive eating movement, is naïve, says Dr. Marcia Pelchat, a food researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Most of us can’t really rely on our instincts. Rather it is our culture and our lifestyle that determines what, when, and how much we eat.

There is widespread agreement with that assessment. Our eating behavior is largely controlled by social, cultural and other environmental factors, writes Dr. David A. Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and author of “The End of Overeating” (Rodale, 2009). In modern society, we no longer engage in eating for the sole purpose of stilling hunger and replenishing our energy stores but as a hedonic means to satisfy our liking and wanting of food, he argues.

There may be multiple additional factors at play as well, he says, including biochemical processes in the brain, which are not yet fully understood. However, the need for comfort and satisfaction we receive from food is generated outside of us, causing our responses in form of overindulging – with all the detrimental consequences we are faced with today.

The good news is that we are not completely helpless with regards to our temptations. The trick is to avoid triggers that propel you into a craving mode, says Dr. Pelchat. If certain foods make you cave every time despite of your best intentions, don’t go near them – meaning, don’t buy them, don’t store them, try not to even think about them (easier said than done). If you relapse anyway, don’t beat yourself up. Consider it an exception and let it go.

You can also counteract your cravings by distracting yourself with other activities that are not food-related. “Substitute something else until the craving goes away,” Dr. Wansink advises. These are fleeting moments that pass soon if you don’t dwell on them.

An important part of your efforts to resist temptations is not to make food the enemy. If you develop a negative dependency, the power food cravings can have over you will not diminish – on the contrary. It is better to be aware of your weaknesses and befriend them in ways that calm you down and allow you to eventually move on.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Most Restaurant Food Has Too Many Calories, Studies Find

May 15th, 2013 at 1:59 pm by timigustafson

That too much fondness of fast food can cause weight problems is old news. But the idea that nearly all types of restaurants dish up meals that can expand your waistline has not been as widely discussed – until now.

Two separate studies, one from the University of Toronto, Canada, the other from Tufts University, Boston, Massachusetts, found that most restaurant food is not all that superior to hamburgers and fries when it comes to calorie and fat content.

The researchers who conducted the Toronto study discovered that the average meal in 19 different restaurant chains contained 1,128 calories, or about 56 percent of the recommended daily intake of 2,000 calories for adults. Some popular fast food items have considerably less than that. And excessive amounts of calories are not only found in dinner entrées but in lunch and breakfast servings as well.

Besides calories, the authors of the study report also expressed concern over high salt, fat and cholesterol content, sometimes exceeding between 60 and 150 percent of the recommended limits.

For the Tufts study, the researchers focused on calories in meals purchased at independent and small chain restaurants, which are exempt from having to post nutritional information on their menus, as it is required of larger chains. The results showed even higher counts than what their bigger competitors offered – a whopping 1,327 calories on average.

More than 90 percent of the small chain eateries included in the study served portion sizes that covered at least one third of a day’s worth of calories. 10 percent went beyond that, and a few even exceeded the recommended calorie count of an entire day – on just one plate. (Perhaps Adam Richman of Man v. Food should pay them a visit.)

“Considering that more than half the restaurants in the U.S. are independent or small chain and won’t be covered by labeling requirements in the future, this is something consumers need to pay attention to,” said Dr. Lorien Urban, one of the researchers who was involved in the Tufts study.

But even calorie postings on menus and billboards where they are required by law have been proven to be unreliable in prior investigations by Tufts and others. In fact, fast food places with their largely automated apportioning methods can find it easier to determine accurate measurements than restaurants that rely on estimates by kitchen personnel. There is only so much accuracy you can expect when dishes are individually crafted by hand, said one executive of Olive Garden, a nationally operating restaurant chain.

Still, restaurant patrons don’t have to feel completely helpless if they want to exercise some measure of control over their calorie intake. Dr. Lisa Young, professor for nutrition at New York University (NYU) and author of the blog “The Portion Teller”, recommends following an easily applicable restaurant survival guide she has compiled for her readers.

Being aware that portion sizes in most restaurants have exponentially grown over the past few decades is an important start, she says. It may look like you’re getting more value for your money, but the fact is that you will likely overindulge when you’re faced with an overflowing plate. Instead, she advises to order only half portions whenever available, or just an appetizer. Or you can split one entrée with a dinner partner.

Choose a salad or soup if they offer healthier alternatives to, let’s say, meat dishes. But be careful with dressings and creams – that’s where extra, unnecessary calories come in.

Don’t forget that your drinks have calories, too, sometimes lots of them. Sodas are notorious for high sugar content, and so are fruit juices and milk shakes. Alcoholic beverages count as well. The more you have of these, the more likely you’ll lose your inhibitions and end up overeating, she warns.

Desserts, of course, are always hard to say ‘no’ to, but you are not without choices. A few pieces of fresh fruit can be refreshing and they come without much regret.

What matters most – especially if you eat out often – is to keep track of your consumption, just like you would on any weight management program, if necessary with the help of a food diary. With the necessary precautions, you should still be able to enjoy a nice meal that someone else prepared for you.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Why You Need a Dining Out Strategy” and “A Restaurant Guide for Healthy Eating.”

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Searching for the Cause(s) of Obesity

March 13th, 2013 at 12:08 pm by timigustafson

Two thirds of Americans are overweight. One third is obese. Obesity and a host of illnesses related to weight problems kill more people than any other disease. Experts are scrambling to find answers for what causes the epidemic and seem to come up with new explanations every day, only to be contradicted by the next study. Unsurprisingly, consumers are confused and stop paying attention.

How is it that we are eating ourselves to death, not just here but increasingly around the world? Does the so-called “Western diet,” consisting of cheap, highly processed, highly caloric foods, make us fat? Or is it sugary sodas? Are portion sizes too big? Does the food industry turn us into addicts? Do we just not exercise enough?

So far, none of the countless studies on these subjects have had much impact in practical terms. Lobbying efforts and political gridlock are oftentimes blamed for the maddeningly slow progress. But that may not be the only reason. Some experts warn that despite of all the research, finding definite answers may prove elusive for some time to come.

“If we can find the causes of obesity, we can try to eliminate or counter them,” wrote Christopher Chabris, a professor of psychology at Union College, together with his colleague Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. “Unfortunately, finding causes is easier said than done, and causes we think we see can turn out to be illusions.”

Hoping for a smoking gun that lets us clearly identify causation may not be in the cards, ever. As an example, the authors cite a study that analyzed potential connections between food advertising on billboards and prevalence of obesity in certain parts of Los Angeles and New Orleans. The study results showed that areas with more outdoor food advertisements had a higher proportion of obese people than those with fewer ads. So, there seems to be a direct link.

Not so fast, say the professors. Studies like these have a significant problem: They can show association between separate phenomena but not causation. In this particular scenario, interpretations of the findings could go in totally different directions. Even if you accept the existence of a correlation between food advertisements and obesity, you still have to consider a wide field of possible explanations. One could be that food vendors tend to invest more of their advertising budget in places where they believe food consumption is especially high. Obesity then may be an indicator that this is a good market for them. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

So does this mean there is no proof that food advertising influences people’s eating habits, and not necessarily in a good way? Studies like these can at best provide some indication that there may be a link, but they don’t provide evidence for causation, the professors conclude. Only the gold standard of scientific research, which is the randomized controlled trial, could prove such connections, they say. And these standards are often not achievable in the real world.

The question is what does that mean in terms of taking anti-obesity measures. Do we have to remain indolent in the face of this alarming health crisis just because we can’t pinpoint its causes with the highest standards of certainty? Food manufacturers and restaurant operators support that view. But if no compelling evidence can be had that advertising works, why would they keep spending billions of dollars every year on doing just that?

With all due respect for scientific standards, I can’t help but think that calling for more and more studies on the causes of obesity only delays critical action that ought to be taken now. We may not know whether food ads influence everyone’s eating habits, but we still can ban them from children’s programs on TV. We may never be sure whether drinking sugary sodas or consuming sweet snacks cause diabetes, but we still can stop offering them on school campuses. It may be unclear whether posting calorie counts in restaurants will make patrons order smaller portions, but we should at least give them the option, so their choices can be better informed. How many more studies and trials do we really have to conduct before we take at least a few steps in the right direction?

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “How Serious Is the Food Industry About Helping in the Fight Against Obesity?” and “Obesity Must Be Addressed on Multiple Levels.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Serving Sizes in Restaurants Still Way Too Big, Study Finds

January 20th, 2013 at 8:42 am by timigustafson

For the last six years, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group, has given what it calls the annual “Xtreme Eating Awards” to restaurants for serving excessively large portions and using ingredients deemed to be unhealthy. Some of the most popular eateries in America are among this year’s “winners,” including family favorites like the Cheesecake Factory, the International House of Pancakes and Maggiano’s Little Italy.

The list, which is published on the CSPI website, rates restaurant dishes for calorie count as well as fat, sugar and sodium content. Some of the findings are outright startling. Single meals like the Cheesecake Factory’s “Bistro Shrimp Pasta,” a spaghetti dish with crispy battered shrimp in a cream sauce, easily exceed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recommended calorie count for an entire day. Even fruit drinks like Smoothie King’s “Peanut Power Smoothie with Grapes” that sound healthy are in fact extremely caloric and laden with high amounts of sugar.

96 percent of American chain restaurants serve meal sizes in excess of the USDA recommendations for daily intake of fat and sodium, according to a survey conducted by the RAND Corporation.

These findings stand in stark contrast to the changing eating habits of many Americans who have become more health-conscious in recent years and who would choose to eat better and also less if given the chance. For example, at least one third of interviewed restaurant patrons said they would be agreeable to having their portion sizes reduced if such options were offered, according to studies on the subject.

“People are willing to downsize, but you have to ask them to do it [for them],” said Dr. Janet Schwarz, a psychologist and assistant professor of marketing at Tulane University in an interview with “The Salt,” a production of National Public Radio (NPR).

Tests have shown that displaying calorie content, as it is now required for larger restaurant chains, has already made a difference in consumer choices. Researchers also found if people receive such information before they make their purchases, they are more inclined to order less or leave more on the plate than if they already have a big pile of food in front of them. The well-known experiments by Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor for marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University and author of “Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think,” have demonstrated how our consumption tends to increase proportionally with the amounts of food available to us.

We need to change both sides of the equation, restaurants and their customers, in terms of expectations and what is considered of value, says Dr. Lisa Young, a nutrition professor at New York University (NYU). We all agree that portions have grown much too big over time. “Now that we are in agreement, we need to figure out ways to scale back,” she says.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Emotional Eating, a Common Phenomenon During the Holidays

December 19th, 2012 at 3:36 pm by timigustafson

In all likelihood, many Americans will gain some weight over the holidays. It may only come to a few pounds, but statistics show that even small nudges on the scale can stubbornly persist and add up over time. The annual spike may not surprise anyone, but if partying and celebrating almost inevitably lead to overindulging, there are also other elements at play that make it harder to resist temptation this time of the year. One of them is stress.

Whether you look forward to the holiday season or dread it, either way it’s an emotionally charged time. Choosing gifts, preparing festive meals, attending family events and office parties can give cause for joy or misgivings. Feelings of loneliness and isolation can become more intense for those who feel left out.

“Many people use eating as a way to cope with difficult emotions, not only bad ones, but also happiness, excitement and celebration,” says Alexis Conason, Psy.D., a psychologist at the New York Obesity Research Center, in an interview with the Huffington Post.

To handle their emotions better, some people find their greatest comfort in food. Food can have, among other things, a numbing effect. Emotional eaters, she says, often eat to cushion themselves against the challenges they’re facing. Especially when food is as plentiful as it typically is during the holidays, these responses are easily triggered and overeating occurs as a result.

Emotional eating is commonly identified as a behavior pattern where food is used for other purposes than just stilling hunger – such as to deal with stressful situations or as a means for reward. Unlike physical hunger, which increases gradually, the emotional need for food can emerge suddenly, demanding instant attention. It cannot easily be stilled by filling one’s stomach because the emptiness it is based on may persist beyond the physical satisfaction. Additionally, emotional eating can leave a person even more distressed by triggering feelings of guilt and shame in the wake of the eating event.

Not all emotional eating leads to compulsive disorders like binge eating or bulimia nervosa. But the risk of developing dysfunctional behaviors over time is greater when emotional eating is misunderstood or unnecessarily demonized, according Dr. Pavel Somov, a psychologist and author of “Eating the Moment.” When it results in mindless overeating, it can be both psychologically and physically unhealthy, he says.

To prevent such consequences, it is important to identify the sources that trigger certain emotional responses. The next step is to find alternative solutions when negative emotions strike. If the natural tendency is to reach for comfort food, it may be helpful not to keep certain items around the house or the office. The harder it is to get to a juicy burger, a sugary donut or a bag of candy, the better the chances will be to overcome sudden cravings. Sometimes, this will take a bit of strategic thinking, but it’s doable, even during the holidays, and over time it will get easier to avoid the traps that worked all too well in the past.

Of course, these can only serve as intermediate measures. The ultimate goal is to find the source of the inner void and fill it with something that isn’t food but is truly satisfying.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “Emotional Eating – A Widespread but Poorly Understood Health Problem.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Weight Gain During the Holidays Is Hard to Undo

November 14th, 2012 at 2:51 pm by timigustafson

Millions of Americans will again become heavier over the holidays. For many it’s an experience as reoccurring as the Season itself. It seems almost inevitable that we overeat too often and exercise too little this time of the year. While the resulting weight gain is not always dramatic, getting rid off the extra pounds afterwards can be a real challenge.

“Americans probably gain only a pound during the winter holiday season, but this extra weight accumulates through the years and may be a major contributor to obesity later,” finds one study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In other words, even a little uptick in body weight each holiday season can add up over time until it becomes a potential health problem. For people who are already overweight or obese, the situation can be worse. Research by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found that the average weight increase in this group was as much as five times higher. “These results suggest that holiday weight gain may be an important contributor to the rising prevalence of obesity,” the NCBI study concluded.

Most Americans who gain weight between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve generally don’t lose that weight ever again, says also Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiologist and talk show host on ABC. Some meals people eat during the holidays can add up to 2,000 calories or more, according to Dr. Oz, so they could actually put on an extra pound every day if they keep indulging like this. Once they become used to the higher calorie intake, it may seem like normal and they continue on that level.

So what can be done to prevent us from falling into the same trap year after year? While the holiday season is no time to start dieting because of all the temptations around us, there are a few tricks you can apply, says Registered Dietitian Marisa Moore. She suggests to keep tempting treats as much out of sight as possible. “Just seeing food can trigger the desire to eat,” she warns.

Especially beware of calorie-laden drinks like eggnog, which can have 450 calories or more per glass. When you attend a party where lots of food will be served, “ruin your appetite” before you get there, Moore advises. Rather than arriving ravenous, grab a handful of protein and carbohydrate-rich snacks like nuts or cheese with some fruit. It will leave you less inclined to overload on heavier foods later.

Also, don’t forget to maintain your exercise schedule between your partying. In fact, you may want to increase your workout efforts a bit for counterbalance.

Last but not least, don’t forget to get enough sleep. Your full social calendar can wreak havoc on your body, says Moore. Lack of sleep and resulting exhaustion can contribute to weight gain as well because you are less likely to exercise restraint and keep your eating habits under control.

The more you are aware of your inclinations (some call it weaknesses), the easier it will be to work around them. Always have a plan ready for how much you are willing and able to consume without having to deal with dire consequences later.

Remember that the holidays are primarily there to reconnect with family and friends and to celebrate good times. Enjoying delicious food is certainly part of that, but it shouldn’t be the main focus. Instead of standing around the buffet, you can hit the dance floor, or simply enjoy a good conversation with old and new friends that doesn’t require more than you being your lovely self.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “‘Tis the Season for Weight Gain – And What (Not) to Do When Celebrating the Holidays

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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About timigustafson

About Timi Gustafson, R.D. As a clinical dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and, as of late, blogger, she has been able to reach millions of people, addressing their concerns about issues of health, lifestyle and nutrition. As Co-founder and Director of Nutrition Services for Cyberdiet.com (now Mediconsult.com), she created the first nutrition-related interactive website on the Internet in 1995. Many of the features you find on her blog, www.timigustafson.com, are based on the pioneering work of those days. Today, her goals remain the same: Helping people to achieve optimal health of body and mind. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics from San José State University in California and completed a Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. She is a registered dietitian and Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Dietitians in Business and Communications, Healthy Aging, Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition, and the Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Groups. For more information about Timi Gustafson R.D. please visit: www.timigustafson.com

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