Dr. Kim Foster

Ever feel like you’re not exactly “The Boss” when it comes to your hunger? That’s because, um, you’re not. Not always, anyway. Let me introduce you to a little something called: ghrelin

AKA: your hunger hormone. 

You can read more about ghrelin, and (more importantly) how to control the wee beastie, over on my blog at Yummy Mummy Club. My recent post: What is Ghrelin? (Know Thine Enemy).

 

It sounds like the holy grail: Boost your metabolism, lose weight without even trying!

Is such a thing even possible? All manner of supplements trumpet this claim. But to my mind, that seems pretty dubious. Chemicals to boost metabolism are out there for sure (meth, anyone?)…but they’re not always healthy

So, instead of that, are there natural ways to accomplish this goal?

Indeed there are. Here are some of them:

Increase muscle mass.

As in weight training. Muscle burns more calories than fat. Which means it’s just math from here on in: if that bod contains proportionately more muscle, you’ll burn at a higher metabolic rate. Pump that iron, people.

Drink green tea.

Research is beginning to show promise in this department. It’s the epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) in green tea that may improve bellyfat distribution, boost metabolism, and curb appetite.

Get NEAT.

This stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis, and basically it’s a way to get more activity (thus more metabolic burn) in your day without having to resort (gasp!) to hitting the gym. Excellent primer on NEAT right here.

Spice things up.

Studies are increasingly demonstrating that spices can help with weight loss efforts. Capsaicin (that’s the fiery stuff in hot peppers) appears to improve fat oxidation and metabolic rate and curb appetite. A new study showed a blend of turmeric, cinnamon, rosemary, oregano, garlic powder, and paprika reduced post-meal insulin and triglyceride levels.

Looking for more sneaky ways to jack up your weight loss efforts? Read this. And this. And, um, this.

So first, a little news: I’ve recently been invited to join the amazing team of bloggers over on Yummy Mummy Club, the awesome website and brainchild of Erica Ehm. I will still be keeping up my own blog, Savvy Health, right here, but now you can also find me over on YMC.

And my latest post over there is one you’ll want to check: Sneaky Ways To Lose Weight.

In the article I detail 9 tricks you can use to drop a few pounds…without even trying.

Might come in handy after the holidays.

Just saying.

 

 

Do you eat for comfort? If we’re honest, we can all say yes to this question, from time to time at least.

The RARE indulgence (say, for example, a nose-dive into a pint of Haagen-Dazs dulce de leche in front of an open freezer door after ending a 4.5-year-long toxic relationship with a total narcissist and cat-hater…ahem…) is not going to kill anyone. But I think we all know this is not a great habit if it happens too often. Turning to food for every little speedbump in life? Not a good idea.

I read an interesting thing recently, about the differences between men and women and their comfort eating habits (in the book Mindless Eating, which I reviewed recently).

When surveyed about their top comfort food choices, men tend to name things like pasta, soup, and meatloaf. Women, on the other hand, tend to name ice cream, cookies, and chocolate.

Why the difference?

One theory: men feel “taken care of” or “doted upon” with these foods. Meals like mom always made…right? But for a woman, soup or meatloaf or lasagne represents, typically, work. Because they’re the ones cooking these comforting meals! Which turns out to be not so comforting if you’re the one slaving in front of a stove.

The comfort foods that women gravitate towards are snackish: quick bites, scarfed down with nary a cutting board or Crock Pot in sight. And certainly without dishes to wash afterwards. And that, my friends, is comfort in my book.

Fascinating, no?

So, the question is: how do we get that comfort factor without having to go up a jeans size?

Start by re-training yourself to pay attention to those emotional eating cues. When your fingers start twitching toward the cookie tin, ask yourself: Am I really hungry? Really? No, I mean, like truly hungry?

If not, maybe you need to seek comfort elsewhere. Spa, anyone? Call a friend? Listen to your favorite music?

Beyond dealing with immediate urges, you might need to take a look at your greater need to deal with stress. And this requires a more cohesive strategy. Breathing exercises are a great place to start, and from there it depends on your personal preferences: regular exercise, meditation, yoga…

Also, set up your environment so it’s not your enemy. If you know you are a weak, weak woman in the presence of All-Dressed Ruffles…don’t keep them in the house. Sure, you can always drive to the store to pick up a bag, or five, but making it that much harder for yourself will help. Plus the drive will give you a moment for a sober second thought. And to talk yourself down from the precipice.

Get organized with your snacking. Meaning, keep your house/desk/purse stocked with quick and easy bites that are healthy. Like baby carrot sticks. Walnuts in a snack-size ziploc. Fruit.

Okay, I know baby carrots are an exceedingly poor substitute for chocolate. But it just may fill up that little corner or satisfy the need to munch on something long enough for you to distract yourself. Or get yourself outside for a walk, or to the yoga studio, or to your best friend’s house, or whatever it takes to abort the impending breakdown that triggered the chocolate craving in the first place.

Baby carrots. So crazy it just might work.

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Women used to complain about their hips and thighs. Now, it seems, it’s all about belly fat. I suppose this could be my imagination since I have, in recent years, joined the post-baby ranks…and now share this particular preoccupation.

Or maybe it’s the attention paid to apple vs pear-shaped physiques. Which is an important distinction, actually. An apple silhouette (with fat accumulated around the belly) is more dangerous than a pear shape. Years of research have shown an association between belly fat and an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Of course there’s a recent study that threatens to debunk years of accepted wisdom re fat distribution in the abdomen vs hips/thighs. But this is just one study, and the jury is still out.

Regardless–whether you want to lose that spare tire for aesthetics or for health–it’s a good goal.

So, what to do?

1. Watch out for trans fat. Saturated fat, in general, is not your friend if you want a nice lean tummy, but trans fats are particularly evil. A study at Wake Forest University showed that trans fat increased the amount of fat stored around the belly…and even worse: it redistributes fat from other parts of your body to the abdomen. Now that is just not nice.

2. Drink green tea. A recent study showed that consumption of green tea enhances exercise-induced abdominal fat loss. Okay, seriously. Is there anything green tea doesn’t help with?

3. Go easy on the alcohol. Alcohol seems to be a particularly bad thing for belly fat. One theory: when you drink, your liver is too busy burning off the alcohol to metabolize fat properly. But worse, is this: alcohol can affect the hormones that regulate your satiety center. In other words, it can make you feel hungrier. And you know what that leads to, don’t you?

4. Manage your stress. Chronic, unrelenting stress does a lot of bad things to our bodies and minds. Not the least of which is produce a steady stream of cortisol. And, unfortunately, cortisol stimulates our bodies to accumulate fat around our abdomens. Great. As if being stressed isn’t bad enough. Now you’re stressed…and chubby. Check here for tips on stress management. And here. And, um, here.

5. Gobble blueberries. Blueberries have been shown in lab studies to diminish abdominal fat. Don’t get too excited, yet, though–the study was only done on rats. Still, it may prove applicable to the rest of us. Besides, blueberries have other benefits too.

6. Fiber, fiber, fiber. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that a diet rich in whole grains helped rid obese patients of extra belly fat. So that’s a good thing. But there’s another benefit to fiber, when it comes to achieving a nice flat belly. And I’m not going to be cute about this one. If you’re constipated, it’s hard to have a truly flat abdomen. No, this isn’t belly fat, per se, but you’ll still have that bloated roundness that’s not exactly pretty (or comfortable!). To get a trimmer tummy you need a combo of: less body fat, no constipation/bloating, and toned muscles…which brings me to…

7. Exercise. You knew I was going to get to this one, right? Yes, exercise will definitely help you get a flat tummy. Best approach: get a combo of cardio (to burn fat) and core strengthening to tone those muscles. My current fave? Yoga plank pose.

8. What about diet soda? It seems logical to cut calories by drinking diet soda. But the evidence is conflicting. Some recent studies have shown that diet soda can actually increase weight gain. Read this if you’re curious why this might be.

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How much free, stale popcorn would you eat in a movie theater? Does it depend if it’s served in a medium-sized bag or a jumbo tub? And what about candy: how much would you eat if it was sitting on your desk? Would it matter if the glass dish was opaque or clear? If it had a lid? 

Well, the person who knows the answers to all those questions, and more, is Brian Wansink, Ph.D. And he compiled all those answers in a fantastic book called Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.

This is a man who has made a career studying the feeding and foraging habits of the species knows as…well, us. And, quite frankly, it’s pretty shocking. And perhaps a little depressing. Turns out we are sheep, people, spineless sheep when it comes to being suckered into eating more. Give us bigger containers, we’ll gobble more. Move those containers closer to us, we’ll scarf down more. Sit us in front of a television? Yep, more.

But the point isn’t to be entertained with tales of secretly refillable soup bowls (yes–you will mindlessly eat more soup if your bowl magically refills) and sneaky wine bottle labels (yes–you will linger in a restaurant and eat more food if you think it’s a more prestigious vintage). The point is to learn how to harness these psychological phenomena for good rather than evil.

As Wansink says: “our stomachs are bad at math”. We are terrible at keeping track of how much we’ve eaten. Was it 30 french fries or 20? The thing is, over time, it makes a difference.

What’s scary: nobody seems immune to the things that trick us into overeating. Some of Wansink’s sneakiest studies were done on people who should have known better. Like graduate students who just attended a lecture on this stuff. Turns out they will shovel more Chex Mix into their faces if served from larger bowls than from smaller bowls, just like the rest of us would.

But the good news is that you can actually use this information to improve your eating habits. Wansink talks about the Mindless Margin:

If we eat way too little, we know it. If we eat way too much, we know it. But there is a calorie range–a mindless margin–where we feel fine and are unaware of small differences.

Over the course of a year, the mindless margin can cause us to lose 10 lbs or gain 10 lbs. Totally unaware. For example, when people pre-plate their food, they eat about 14% less than when they take smaller amounts and then go back for seconds or thirds. So, make a habit of pre-plating!

This book is brilliant. There are so many fascinating tidbits and ideas–more than I can describe here. Personally, I’m always a fan of a good jedi-mind trick that helps you lose or maintain weight without feeling the pain of deprivation. As Wansink says: “the best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on”.

Hear, hear.

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When I became pregnant for the second time, I decided to eliminate artificial sweeteners from my diet. No more Splenda in my coffee. No more Diet Coke. And I felt great about that decision. Even though the evidence has not yet demonstrated a definite risk, I just felt better about keeping my diet as natural as possible. Then, about halfway through my pregnancy I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes.

Yeah, I know, I was shocked too. (I’m not overweight and I totally don’t fit the profile, except for, ahem, advanced maternal age).

Anyway, I then found myself having to re-evaluate the decision about sugar vs. sweeteners. I’d been happy to cut out the artificial chemicals of aspartame and Splenda. But now I knew for sure that plain ol’ sugar was harmful to my developing baby. I had to choose between the devil I knew and the devil I didn’t. So…I decided to eliminate the thing I knew was harmful (sugar) in favor of the thing that was only possibly harmful (sweeteners).

And this is how it is with decisions. We have to make decisions based on the best available evidence. Which is by no means all the evidence that will ever come to light as research, of course, is ongoing. In generations to come, pregnant women with gestational diabetes may have the definitive answer on the sugar/sweetener conundrum. But that doesn’t help anyone in the here and now.

Anyway, I discussed it with my diabetes dietitian, and she suggested I stick with the sweeteners that are the least controversial. Specifically, Splenda (sucralose). This is exactly what I did.

Now that I’m not pregnant, and my gestational diabetes has gone away, I’m free to consider my sugar-related options more openly.

Sugar is a contentious dietary issue that I’ve covered in the past. We crave sweetness, naturally, and I’m not one of those sugar-is-evil-must-eliminate-at-all-costs types. That being said, excess sugar is clearly not good for our health. As a solution to the sugar dilemma many people think: no problem. I’ll just have a sweetener instead, and that takes care of that.

But, sadly, it’s not so simple.

Recent studies have shown that people who drink even one diet soda a day have a higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a precursor to heart disease and diabetes. More irritatingly perhaps, recent studies are showing that diet soda doesn’t even seem to help people lose weight.

Huh? How does that make sense? Here’s the current thinking on this paradox:

One problem is that people view diet soft drinks as a license to overindulge in other ways. I’m saving calories on my Coke, so I can order the burger and fries without guilt, right? Right?

Wrong.

There are other theories, too. The caramel flavoring in diet cola might reduce your body’s ability to process blood glucose at a molecular level. Another possibility to explain the research: it might be that people who are already overweight, and therefore at risk for diabetes and heart disease, are more likely to already be drinking that diet soda (in an attempt to lose weight).

What about sweeteners in general, not just in diet soda? Well, there’s some evidence that artificial sweeteners actually cause weight gain. This might be because all that sweetness actually fuels your sweet tooth. Making your brownie cravings that much worse. It looks like artificial sweeteners only help with weight loss if people can curb the urge to overcompensate by indulging in high-calorie foods. Which, alas, is not easy.

All told, I’m not really a fan of sweeteners anymore. Essentially, it doesn’t feel like “real food” to me. (As I keep saying to my 1-year old when he repeatedly attempts to put items like the TV remote in his mouth: “not food, sweetheart”) And if there isn’t really a health advantage anyway, what’s the point? 

Me, I think I’ll stick to limited amounts of real sugar.

You?