Category Archives: cheap indulgences

Of Mice and Chocolate (with apologies to John Steinbeck)

Have you ever struggled with your weight?  If you have, here’s another question:  How’s your sense of smell?

Get ready for some startling news.  A study by researchers at UC Berkeley recently found that one’s sense of smell can influence an important decision by the brain:  whether to burn fat or to store it.

In other words, just smelling food could cause you to gain weight.

But hold on.  The researchers didn’t study humans.  They studied mice.

The researchers, Andrew Dillin and Celine Riera, studied three groups of mice.  They categorized the mice as “normal” mice, “super-smellers,” and those without any sense of smell.  Dillin and Riera found a direct correlation between the ability to smell and how much weight the mice gained from a high-fat diet.

Each mouse ate the same amount of food, but the super-smellers gained the most weight.

The normal mice gained some weight, too.  But the mice who couldn’t smell anything gained very little.

The study, published in the journal Cell Metabolism in July 2017 was reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.  It concluded that outside influences, like smell, can affect the brain’s functions that relate to appetite and metabolism.

According to the researchers, extrapolating their results to humans is possible.  People who are obese could have their sense of smell wiped out or temporarily reduced to help them control cravings and burn calories and fat faster.  But Dillin and Riera warned about risks.

People who lose their sense of smell “can get depressed” because they lose the pleasure of eating, Riera said.  Even the mice who lost their sense of smell had a stress response that could lead to a heart attack.  So eliminating a human’s sense of smell would be a radical step, said Dillin.  But for those who are considering surgery to deal with obesity, it might be an option.

Here comes another mighty mouse study to save the day.  Maybe it offers an even better way to deal with being overweight.

This study, published in the journal Cell Reports in September 2017, also focused on creating more effective treatments for obesity and diabetes.  A team of researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found a way to convert bad white fact into good brown fat—in mice.

Researcher Irfan J. Lodhi noted that by targeting a protein in white fat, we can convert bad fat into a type of fat (beige fat) that fights obesity.  Beige fat (yes, beige fat) was discovered in adult humans in 2015.  It functions more like brown fat, which burns calories, and can therefore protect against obesity.

When Lodhi’s team blocked a protein called PexRAP, the mice were able to convert white fat into beige fat.  If this protein could be blocked safely in white fat cells in humans, people might have an easier time losing weight.

Just when we learned about these new efforts to fight obesity, the high-fat world came out with some news of its own.  A Swiss chocolate manufacturer, Barry Callebaut, unveiled a new kind of chocolate it calls “ruby chocolate.”  The company said its new product offers “a totally new taste experience…a tension between berry-fruitiness and luscious smoothness.”

The “ruby bean,” grown in countries like Ecuador, Brazil, and Ivory Coast, apparently comes from the same species of cacao plant found in other chocolates.  But the Swiss company claims that ruby chocolate has a special mix of compounds that lend it a distinctive pink hue and fruity taste.

A company officer told The New York Times that “hedonistic indulgence” is a consumer need and that ruby chocolate addresses that need, more than any other kind of chocolate, because it’s so flavorful and exciting.

So let’s sum up:  Medical researchers are exploring whether the scent of chocolate or any other high-fat food might cause weight-gain (at least for those of us who are “super-smellers”), and whether high-fat food like chocolate could possibly lead to white fat cells “going beige.”

In light of these efforts by medical researchers, shouldn’t we ask ourselves this question:  Do we really need another kind of chocolate?

The Lip-Kick Effect

Despite what some pundits may say, much of our economy is still mired in a recession.  Efforts to budge the numbers upward have had some success, with thousands more private jobs created in recent months.

But many Americans still feel stuck in neutral or worse.  How do we cope?

Researchers at several universities recently concluded that the more insecure the economy, the more women spend on beauty products, especially lipstick.  They’ve dubbed this phenomenon the “lipstick effect.”

I prefer to call it the “lip-kick effect.”  When one of my daughters was quite small, she pronounced “lipstick” as “lip-kick,” and her mispronunciation became family legend.  It now strikes me as an even better moniker for the “lipstick effect.”

Five separate studies confirmed this hypothesis.  They found that during recessions over the past 20 years, women have reallocated their spending from other items to beauty products.

Why do women confronted with economic hardship seek out new beauty products?  The researchers came up with a host of reasons.  Most significant is a rational desire to attract men, especially men with money.

Another reason?  It’s simple:  Lipstick can boost a woman’s morale.

I cheerfully admit that I’m a (credit) card-carrying member of this particular group.  Like most women, I get a kick out of lipstick.  And while uncertainty reigns, we women get our kicks where we can.

A brand-new lipstick can be a mood-changer.  How many times have we witnessed women in the movies or on TV applying lipstick in front of a mirror, then smiling at their reflection?  That scene rings true.  Lipstick can make women feel better.  And lipstick is a pretty cheap thrill.

Leonard Lauder, chairman of the Estée Lauder Companies, reportedly announced that lipstick sales went way up after 9/11.  I’m not surprised.  Estée Lauder lipsticks, at 18 or 20 bucks each, are a bargain compared to a $300 pair of shoes or a $900 designer handbag.

But some lip-kicks are even cheaper.  When women need a quick pick-me-up, we can saunter down to our neighborhood drugstore and head for the cosmetics section.  The dizzying array of available lipsticks can put a smile on almost any woman’s face.  There’s the usual overabundance:  lipstick, lip gloss, lip stain, lip liners, all in countless colors and textures that are constantly changing.

For $8 or $10, we can choose from scores of glittering options.  Many purport to last longer than ever before.  And now there are the plumpers, lipsticks that claim to have the improbable ability to puff up one’s lips.  In the past, puffy lips were sometimes viewed as less than glamorous, but fashions change, and today it’s chic to have plump lips, leading some pouty stars of movies and TV to obtain them via collagen injections. (Ouch!)  A plumper-lipstick sounds like a much better idea.

Women feel even more triumphant when they enter the drugstore armed with its weekly ad, featuring a sale price on a new lipstick.  Two-for-the-price-of-one sales have disappeared, but most of us will settle for buy-one-get-one-50%-off, especially if a manufacturer coupon deducts another dollar or two off the price.  Sometimes these smart-shopper techniques enable us to walk out of the drugstore with two lipsticks for $4 or $5 each.

Aside from sugary candy bars or high-fat French fries, where can you buy another indulgence for so little?

Sure, like most Americans, I’m concerned about our fragile economy, the war in Afghanistan, turmoil in the Mideast, and all of the other pressing issues of our time.  But drugstore cosmetics clearly provide a happy (albeit temporary) distraction.

There’s a popular saying:  “Slap on a little lipstick…you’ll be fine.”  Women like me heartily agree.  I’m smiling just thinking about the one I’ll buy tomorrow.