Category Archives: chocolate

Two Words

Do you remember this scene in the 1967 film “The Graduate”?

New college graduate Benjamin encounters a friend of his father’s at a party.  The friend pulls him aside and says, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.  Plastics.”

That advice may have helped college grads in ‘67, but the world we face today is very different.

In light of the raging global pandemic, and the stress it’s placed on all of us, I now have two words for you.  Elastic waists.

Many of us have recently begun wearing clothes with elastic waists.

On June 26, The Wall Street Journal noted:  “The Covid 15 Have Made Our Clothes Too Tight.”  Reporter Suzanne Kapner clearly outlined the problem.  “People spent the spring sheltering at home in sweatpants, perfecting banana-bread recipes and indulging in pandemic-induced stress-eating.”  And while most of us have escaped Covid-19, we haven’t escaped the “Covid 15”—the weight-gain pushing Americans into “roomier wardrobes.”

Hence the widespread adoption of elastic waists.

Many shoppers have jumped on the scale, been horrified, and concluded that they needed to buy new clothes to fit their new shapes.  One woman, unable to zip up her pants, got on her scale.  “Holy moly,” she told Kapner, “I gained 11 pounds in three weeks.”

Kapner cited more evidence:  First, Google-searches for “elastic waist” have spiked. Further, body-measuring apps have reported a jump in people choosing looser fits to accommodate their new profiles.  As the CEO of one such app observed, people are “sizing up” because they’ve gained weight.  Less active and more confined, they’re “eating more, either out of stress or boredom.”

In light of this phenomenon, some retailers are increasing orders of clothes in bigger sizes.  They’re also painfully aware of something else:  the rise in returns because of size-changes.  Returns have probably doubled in the past three months, according to a software company that processes returns for over 200 brands. And when customers order a clothing item (in their former size), and it needs to be exchanged for a larger size, those retailers who offer free shipping and free returns find that all of these additional returns are eating into their profits.

This move into larger sizes and elastic waists doesn’t surprise me.  I long ago adopted wearing pants with elastic waists.  Not all of my pants, to be sure.  But many of them.

It probably started when I was pregnant with my first child.  As my abdominal area began to expand, I searched my closet and came across some skirts and pants with elastic waistbands.  I discovered that I could wear these throughout my pregnancy, adding extra elastic as needed.  I bought some maternity clothes as well, but the pants with those stretchy elastic waistbands allowed me to avoid buying a lot of new items.

Over the years, I’ve continued to wear elastic-waist pants, enjoying the comfort they afford.  (Yes, I also wear pants and jeans with stitched-down waistbands that fit me.)

I can understand why there’s a new emphasis on buying elastic waists in lieu of bigger sizes.  A bigger size might be OK for right now, but you probably hope to return to your former size sometime.  Elastic waists are exactly what they claim to be:  elastic.  That means they can expand, but they can also contract.

Both women and men can benefit from wearing elastic waists, at least until they’ve shed the additional pounds they’ve recently acquired.

Many women have traditionally turned to elastic waists because they don’t have the typical “hourglass” shape women are expected to sport.  They have what’s been called an “apple” shape, with a somewhat larger waist measurement than most women have.  In the past, they might have purchased clothes with a tight waistband and then had a tailor make the waistband bigger.

But right now, tailoring clothes is almost impossible. Who’s leaving the safety of home simply to find a tailor to alter a waistband?  The pandemic has put such tailoring out of reach for most of us.  And if an elastic waist makes it unnecessary, it’s saving you the trouble and expense of seeking out a tailor.

Men with expanding waists have also benefited from elastic waists.  The popularity of sweatpants and other casual wear with elastic waists for men are proof of that.

I recognize the role stress is playing in our lives right now, and it’s pretty obvious that we can attribute some weight-gain to the increased level of stress.  So, to avoid buying more and more elastic waists and/or bigger sizes, we need to reduce stress as much as we can.

The advice we’ve all heard for a long time still holds, and it probably applies now more than ever.  At the risk of sounding preachy, I’m adding a few new tips to the tried-and-true list.  (Feel free to skip it if you think you’ve heard it all before.)

  • Be more physically active. Please remember:  You don’t need to go to a gym or even do vigorous workouts at home.  Simply taking a fairly fast-paced stroll in your neighborhood is good enough.
  • Avoid fixating on TV news, especially the bad stuff.
  • Watch distracting TV programing instead (this includes reliably funny films like “Some Like It Hot” and “What’s Up, Doc?” if you can find them).
  • Play music that makes you happy.
  • Connect with friends and family by phone, email, or text (or by writing actual letters).
  • Give meditation a try, just in case it may help you.
  • Try to follow a diet focused on fresh fruit, veggies, high-fiber carbs, and lean protein.
  • Curl up with a good book. (Forgive me for plugging my three novels,* but each one is a fast read and can take you to a different time and place, a definitely helpful distraction.)

Although I admit that I’m still wearing the elastic waists I already own, I’ve so far been able to avoid the “Covid 15” that might require buying new ones.  What’s helped me?

First, briskly walking in my neighborhood for 30 minutes every day.  Second, resisting the lure of chocolate as much I can.  Instead, I’ve been relying on heaps of fruits, veggies, popcorn, pretzels, and sugarless gum.  (My chief indulgences are peanut butter and fig bars.)  It’s as simple as that.

Maybe you can avoid it, too.  Good luck!

 

*A Quicker Blood, Jealous Mistress, and Red Diana are all available as paperbacks and e-books on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

Eating Dessert Can Help You Eat Better? Seriously?

I just celebrated my birthday with a scrumptious meal at a charming San Francisco restaurant. Sharing a fabulous candle-topped dessert with my companion was a slam-dunk way to end a perfect meal in a splendid restaurant.

Should I regret consuming that delicious dessert?

The answer, happily, is no.  I should have no regrets about eating my birthday surprise, and a recent study backs me up.

According to this study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied and reported in a recent issue of TIME magazine, having an occasional dessert may actually be a useful tool to help you eat better.

Here’s what happened:  More than 130 university students and staff were offered a choice of two desserts and asked to make their choice at the start of the lunch line in a campus cafeteria.  The study found that those who made the “decadent” selection—lemon cheesecake—chose healthier meals and consumed fewer calories overall than those who picked fresh fruit.  Simply selecting it first was enough to influence the rest of their order.

Almost 70 percent of those who picked the cheesecake went on to choose a healthier main dish and side dish, while only about a third of those selecting fruit made the healthier choice.  The cheesecake-choosers also ate about 250 fewer total calories during their meal compared with the fruit-choosers.

Study co-author Martin Reimann, an assistant professor of marketing and cognitive science at the University of Arizona, concluded that choosing something healthy first can give us a “license” to choose something less healthy later.  But if you turn that notion around and choose something more “decadent” early on, “then this license [to choose high-calorie food] has already expired.”  In other words, making a calorie-laden choice at the beginning of the meal seems to steer people toward healthier choices later.

No one is suggesting that we all indulge in dessert on an everyday basis.  For many of us, the pursuit of good health leads us to avoid sugary desserts and choose fresh fruit instead.  But Reimann believes that choosing dessert strategically can pay off.  He advises us to be “mindful and conscious about the different choices you make.”

Will I order lemon cheesecake, a chocolate brownie, or a spectacular ice-cream concoction for dessert at my next meal?  Probably not.  But I am going to keep the Arizona research in mind.

You should, too.  Beginning your meal with the knowledge that it could end with a calorie-laden dessert just might prompt you to select a super-healthy salad for your entrée, adding crunchy green veggies on the side.

 

No More Sweethearts?

The demise of the ever-popular Sweethearts, Valentine’s Day heart-shaped candy that featured messages like “BE MINE” and “TRUE LOVE,” has surprised almost everyone.

The company that has been selling them to the public since 1902, Necco, went out of business last year.  As a result, the perennial conversation hearts are no longer rolling off conveyor belts.

According to The Wall Street Journal, some fans of the candy hearts have resorted to the black market to buy up the last few batches they could get their hands on.  Even some teenagers are reportedly bummed to see them go.

Please don’t count me among these fans.  I always found Necco hearts sickeningly sweet and almost chalky whenever I bit into one.  Instead, I’ve unashamedly preferred candy hearts made of chocolate.  Any kind of chocolate.

But the news about Necco hearts has reminded me of a treasured family story.  Growing up in a modest home in East Cleveland, my husband Herb exhibited his smarts very early in life. The smarts that later propelled him from East Cleveland to a scholarship at Harvard College, a Ph.D. at Berkeley, and the life of a math professor at several leading universities.

Herb would tell me that when he was a little boy, he liked being pulled around in his red-painted wooden wagon by a neighborhood kid who was happy to do it in return for Necco wafers. Doling out the pastel-colored wafers like shiny pennies, Herb happily rode around the neighborhood in his wagon as it was pulled by the other kid.

If your first reaction is dismay that a young boy may have exploited his neighbor by giving him candy wafers in return for a cool ride in his wooden wagon, please step back for a moment.  The situation was really a win-win for both boys, probably an agreement reached at arms’ length.  Herb got his joyful wagon ride while his neighbor got a joyful bunch of candy wafers in return.

When Necco’s financial troubles led it to close its factory last summer, another candy company bought Sweehearts, Necco wafers, and some other brands.  The new company, Spangler, couldn’t ramp up production of the hearts in time for this Valentine’s Day, but it may produce them next year.

I can wait.  But if you want to tell me that I “LOOK GOOD” and that you “LOVE ME,” please don’t wait for production of Sweethearts to begin again.  Just go ahead and tell me.  Those messages are still as welcome as ever.

 

 

 

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?

Chew on this

During the holiday season–spanning Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the December holidays–most of us worry about our consumption of sugary candy and desserts.

We should worry. Sugar not only adds calories but it also can lead to other health problems. For one thing, sugar clearly leads to problems with our teeth. It’s well established that the bacteria in our mouths combines with sugar to create an acid that causes tooth decay.

There’s a useful remedy for the tooth problem. No, not the one that immediately comes to mind.

Sure, you can brush your teeth right after consuming sugar-loaded food and drink. But how many of us do it?

Until something else comes along (and it inevitably will, thanks to researchers like the ones I noted in my blog post “Beavers? Seriously?” last March), here’s one thing you can try: chewing sugar-free gum.

In October, The Wall Street Journal highlighted how chewing gum can help reduce tooth decay. It quoted a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association–a family dentist in Fremont, California, Dr. Ruchi Sahota–on the virtues of sugar-free gum. According to Dr. Sahota, chewing gum after eating stimulates saliva, and that can prevent cavities.

Why? Naturally occurring saliva helps to neutralize the mouth by reducing the acids produced by bacteria in food, and those acids are what ultimately cause cavities. Chewing sugar-free gum can reduce the amount of the bacteria-happy acid. In 2007, the ADA began including chewing gum in its Seal of Approval program. But only sugarless gums can qualify (other gums contain the kinds of sugars used as food by bacteria).

Sugar-free gums typically use artificial sweeteners, most of which are created in a lab, and there’s been some discussion of whether they are safe. But concerns about their being carcinogenic have been dismissed by the FDA for lack of clear evidence.

Some dentists promote chewing gum sweetened with xylitol, a sugar alcohol that usually derives from wood fiber. Studies have shown that it adds mineral to tooth enamel, and one study showed that it can inhibit the growth of bacteria that stick to teeth.

But recent analysis concluded that there was insufficient evidence that xylitol can help prevent cavities. So Dr. Sahota told the Journal that the research “isn’t conclusive enough” to promote gums with xylitol over other sugar-free gums.

Although some dentists recommend chewing sugarless gum for at least 20 minutes to get the full anti-bacterial effect, Dr. Sahota disagrees. She advises moderation, cautioning people “not to overchew,” which can be hard on the jaw and tooth enamel.

Regarding candy, Dr. S. recommends avoiding sticky or hard candies because they’re the worst cavity-causing villains. Chocolate is much better for your teeth because it washes away more easily than other candies. Yay, chocolate!

As an inveterate gum-chewer, I’m happy to learn that all those sticks of sugar-free gum I chew can help me avoid tooth decay.

But “candy is candy.” So although chewing gum may help forestall the worst effects of coating our teeth with sugar, we need to remember that a toothbrush will do an even better job of scouring all that sugar off our teeth.

Enjoy those sugary holiday treats. But don’t forget to keep some sugar-free gum handy to pop in your mouth when you’re done. Even rinsing your mouth with water ought to help. And at bedtime, if not before, head for your trusty Sonicare or Oral-B.

Once your teeth are properly scoured, you can drift off to sleep, those visions of sugar plums dancing in your head.